Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong: dawn of the bromance comic

A graphic novel about high school angst and killer robots? Hand it over, says Cara Ellison.

Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong

Prudence Shen (writer), Faith Erin Hicks (artist)

First Second, 278pp, £12.99, 13 June 2013 (UK)

It’s officially summer in Brighton as I am sitting outside in the sun trying not to have the black keys of my MacBook sear my fingertips off, which I have begun to contemplate might be a good idea if I wanted to become a cat burglar instead of a writer. Nothing says summer like a good bromance, and I find myself lamenting the fact that I haven’t been paying attention to the bromance genre very closely any more. All those Hollywood blockbusters, Star Trek: Into Darkness, The Internship, The Hangover part 20 ½ with extra knob jokes (Zach Gilifnwhatever’s beard is now a character), that sort of thing. I was in the mood for something a little less obvious: bros before hos, but sort of less offensive than that, and also with better drawn characters.

Wait, there’s a comic by Prudence Shen and Faith Erin Hicks about high school angst and killer robots?! Hand it over. Momma’s got some work to procrastinate whilst getting heinously sunburnt.

Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong is a high school bromance about battle bot-constructing nerdlinger Nate and his quiet jock friend Charlie. Nate is one of those overpowering control-freak nerds, the sort you get in Dungeons and Dragons 4th ed. enclaves, the ones that say that you can’t punch a dragon in the face because it’s not realistic. He’s probably, in high school terms, that guy that all the girls know isn’t very cool but secretly would do him up against the bandstand if he asked because his curly hair is cute and when he turns thirty he’ll be a millionaire from some deal with Microsoft. Nate wants the student council to fund the science team over pretty much anything else in the world, which is probably a really good way to ensure that he is earmarking all of his sex vouchers ‘valid ten years from now only’. In any case, Nate would never ask for a lay, so this book confirms that this kind of nerd will be girlfriendless until about book six.

Charlie, on the other hand, is a tall hunk, who is quiet in the way that everyone wishes they were quiet. In that: you don’t have to say anything because your face is so monumentally snoggable, and in fact the snogging leads to you saying even less, so then it’s a vicious cycle of face suck and... Anyway, Charlie is a hunky quiet jock who is the star of the school basketball team, and on-off dates a scary cheerleader. Who at the beginning of the book has dumped him by text message.

Both guys get in a car together, and they drive towards shenanigans and quips at full speed.

Then, the science team ends up battling the cheerleaders for the funding, and then a crackpot scheme - if one person from either faction becomes the head of the student council then the money will be certain to go to their cause. Nate puts himself up for election, whilst Charlie is unwittingly bullied into running by his cheerleader tormentors. Things go from bad to worse (like they do in stories, usually) and then they all end up on TV at a national robot wars convention trying to use a small killing machine the robotics club constructed to win both sides a bit of cash.

Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong does read like a young adult novel adapted for the comic book form, in that it sometimes it seems like it is losing the nuance of prose that might have otherwise been there, and failing to play up to the strength of the comic book form in other ways. There are some very funny punchlines, although it takes a while for the book to warm up to them.

But the artist’s style is striking Scott Pilgrimesque work, and both writer and artist have done a spectacular job picking out the one page panels for focus. Perhaps what is missing is a sense of rhythm, the small narrative payoffs that lead to the final one, and though pretty much everything about the book is charming and cute, I often wondered if there could have at least been some real emotional peaks and troughs: illicit kissing, wretched sobbing, ups downs and back in the mess for breakfast. It does come across as very restrained and measured for a teenage book: I’ve been watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer all spring and it has surprised me just how much of the emotional issues covered in it I’d consider ‘adult’ now, though they barely had me bat an eyelid as a kid. I don’t remember being emotionally restrained at all as a teenager - quite the opposite. I think I cried once when a nerd gave me a Star Trek love poem. Possibly because I feared for our nerd species as a whole.

One nuanced emotional strand does come to mind though, which is that of Charlie’s home life. Staying with his newly divorced dad and forced to go camping all the time, Charlie is avoiding all calls from his mother, who he feels has betrayed him when she moved off to San Diego. She then announces that she’s getting married to some other guy, and wants to bring him for Thanksgiving. It is a poignant side story, and well told, but it’s somewhat lost in the rest of the rock-em sock-em killer robot with chainsaws plot, so much so that it comes as a surprise at how quickly it’s resolved.

I did wish that the girl characters had been given more words to say: the cheerleaders are steely-eyed silence or perfunctory plot-service, and though alternating silence and yelling initially served to make them terrifying, after a quarter of the book you start to want to know more about them, and wish that they’d just snap out of it and start unleashing some verbal cartwheels on the sorry dudebros who wander around bellyaching in adorable helplessness. In a way the cheerleaders are the most neglected: they are aloof by way of not being given any character-forming issues, even though I’d like a whole comic written about their squabbles and manicures, Mean Girls style.

The comic’s ultimate triumph is Joanna, the little freckled nerd in the robotics club, who is a feel-it say-it sort of kid after my own heart. Quick to beat up Nate when he’s miscalculated, and apt to hug the robot death machine war bastard as if it were a puppy at any point in the story, Joanna is my favourite, and her final contribution to the robot wars that ensue at the end are a pleasure to behold, with some spectacular work in bold lines from Faith Erin Hicks.

Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong is young, interesting and adorable: it has its flaws, but it’s a summer book that is upbeat, full of little gags and charmingly drawn teens. There is even a member of the robotics club that looks suspiciously like Richard Ayoade. For Shen’s first book this is a solid read, and I’ll be looking out for more from both the creators. Now excuse me, I’m off to attach wheels and a chainsaw to my 4-slot toaster. Nothing can possibly go wrong.

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In the age of podcasts, the era of communal listening is over

Where once the nation would listen to radio events together, now, it is the booming podcast market that commands our attention

It’s a moment so celebrated that no TV drama about the Second World War is complete without it. At 11.15am on 3 September 1939, Neville Chamberlain made a live radio broadcast from Downing Street announcing that “this country is now at war with Germany”. A silence fell over the nation as people rushed to the wireless to hear him. The whole country was listening, but crucially, it was listening together.

Nearly eight decades later, it is difficult to imagine a communal audio event like that ever happening again. The arrival of the Walkman in 1979, since superseded by the iPod and then the smartphone, turned listening into a personal, solitary pastime. It was no longer necessary for families to get a radio on a hire-purchase arrangement and gather round it in the sitting room. The technology that delivers audio to us is now small and cheap enough for each of us to have one in our pocket (with headphones tangled around it, of course).

At the same time, the method of delivery changed, too. “Radio” ceased to indicate simply “programming transmitted by electromagnetic waves” in the late 1990s, when conventional radio stations began to make their output available on the internet. Online-only radio stations sprang up, streaming their shows directly to computers. Free from any regulation and with the internet as a free distribution platform, these early stations echoed the tone of pirate radio stations in the 1960s.

The idea of “audioblogging” – making short voice recordings available for download online – has been around since the early 1980s, but it wasn’t until 2004 that the word “podcasting” was coined by the technology journalist Ben Hammersley in an article for the Guardian. He was looking for a name for the “new boom in amateur radio” that the internet had enabled.

Thanks to technological advances, by the early 2000s, a podcaster could record a sound clip and upload it to his or her feed, and it would arrive automatically on the computer of anyone who had subscribed. Apple began to include podcasts as a default option on iPods; in 2008 iPhones offered a podcast app as standard. The market boomed.

Apple is notoriously reluctant to provide data on its products, but in 2013 it announced that there had been more than a billion podcast subscriptions through its iTunes store, which carried over 250,000 podcasts in 100 languages. In 2016, Edison Research released a study suggesting that 21 per cent of all Americans over the age of 12 had listened to at least one podcast in the past month – roughly 57 million people. Audiobooks, too, are booming in this new age of listening; the New York Times reported that
although publishing revenue in the US was down overall in the first quarter of 2016, digital audio sales had risen by 35.3 per cent.

The vast share of this listening will be solitary. This is because audio is a secondary medium. For all the talk about the rise of “second screening”, it isn’t really possible to do much more than idly scroll through Twitter on your phone as you watch television, but you can easily get things done while you listen to a podcast. Put on a pair of headphones, and you can go for a run or clean out the oven in the company of your favourite show. In this sense, the medium has been a game-changer for commuters and those doing repetitive or manual work: there’s no longer any need to put up with sniffling on the train or your boss’s obsession with Magic FM.

Though podcasts are an internet phenomenon, they have managed to remain free from the culture of trolling and abuse found elsewhere. It is difficult to make audio go viral, because it’s tricky to isolate a single moment from it in a form that can be easily shared. That also deters casual haters. You can’t just copy and paste something a host said into an insulting tweet.

Our new and solitary way of listening is reflected in the subjects that most podcasts cover. While there is the occasional mega-hit – the American true crime podcast Serial attracted 3.4 million downloads per episode in 2014, the year it launched – most shows exist in a niche. A few hundred listeners who share the host’s passion for pens or for music from antique phonographs can be enough to sustain a series over hundreds of episodes (there are real podcasts on both of these topics).

This is also where the commercial opportunity lies. It costs relatively little to produce even high-quality podcasts, compared to TV or conventional radio, yet they can ­attract very high advertising rates (thanks to the dedication of regular listeners and the trust they have in the host). The US is far ahead of the UK in this regard, and podcast advertising revenue there is expected to grow 25 per cent year on year, reaching half a billion dollars in 2020. Where this was once a hobby for internet enthusiasts, it is now big business, with venture capitalists investing in new networks and production companies. The US network Gimlet attracted $6m in funding in 2015. However, in the UK, the BBC crowds out smaller, independent operations (the trade-off is that it makes undeniably outstanding programmes).

There is even a movement to make listening a communal activity again. The same hipsters responsible for the resurgence of vinyl sales are organising “listening parties” at trendy venues with high-quality sound systems. Live shows have become an important source of revenue for podcasters. Eleanor McDowall, a producer at the Falling Tree radio production company, organises subtitled “screenings” for podcasts in languages other than English. I even have a friend who is part of a “podcast club”, run on the same lines as a monthly book group, with a group of people coming together to discuss one show on a regular schedule.

The next big technological breakthrough for audio will be when cars can support internet-based shows as easily as conventional radio. We might never again gather around the wireless, but our family holidays could be much improved by a podcast.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times