The Webcomic Overlook #116: Bad Machinery
“Like sands through the hourglass, so are the days of our lives.” So goes the intros to one of America’s most beloved soap operas,Days of our Lives. It always comes to mind when it’s time to finish something and start something new. Yes, it somehow supercedes both “Sunrise, Sunset” from Fiddler on the Roof and “Closing Time” by Semisonic. The latter two are perhaps superior and less archaic examples, but the hourglass analogy has a sense of timeless poetry.
When the sands finally reach the bottom of the hourglass, it’s time to flip that mother over and start something new. Like ending one webcomic and starting a new one. Interestingly, though, while the march of time is new, the contents therein, like those grains of sand, do not change. Sure, the presentation may be different. The swirl pattern of the sand may be different this time. But every person is hardwired to the same themes, which were formed as they were over a culmination of life’s experiences. These are fundamentally unalterable. So the new march goes on with cues that are new yet strangely familiar.
That’s the case with John Allison’s Bad Machinery, the successor to Scary Go Round (which itself was the successor to an earlier work, Bobbins). Everyone knew it was time to flip that hourglass and start something knew. Allison himself admitted as much on the comments section here that Scary Go Round was getting stale.
But amidst the changes … familiarity.
Bad Machinery is still hosted on the old scarygoround.com URL. I’d stretch my hourglass allusion further by equating that URL to the glass container, but then that would be getting far too indulgent about a soap opera I’ve never seen an episode of.
While its pedigree stretches to the early part of the last decade, Bad Machinery by itself is relatively new. The comic launched September of 2009, an innocent, halcyon era when Avatar was not yet the most profitable movie of all time. Now that we’re in the first weeks of April, the first story arc seems to be wrapping up, which makes it an ideal time to see where the comic has gone and where the comic might go.
Allison would probably prefer that Bad Machinery be viewed as a standalone entity, but I, frankly, find that impossible. I read Scary Go Round, and I loved Scary Go Round (reviewed here). Forgetting all that built-up goodwill would require either a lobotomy or a heavy influx of alcoholic beverages. Both sound fun, but the hand-eye coordination required to manipulate a keyboard would suffer tremendously.
So what’s different this go around? With Bad Machinery, Allison seems to be expanding his focus. Scary Go Round focused on a small group of friends. In Bad Machinery, Allison puts his arms around all of Tackleford City. The community becomes Community, with a big “C”.
The story tends to focus on a rather ordinary bunch of three girls and three boys who go to British preparatory school (which is sort of equivalent to American/Canadian junior high). In the course of the story, though, Bad Machinery ultimately ropes plenty of important side characters. Their parents, their teachers, their neighbors, and their civic leaders tend to gain equivalent importance in the ensuing shenanigans. There’s even a couple of Scary Go Round characters in key supporting roles: Ryan and Amy are married now, apparently, with Ryan as the kids’ teacher and Amy as an antiques dealer. The schoolgirls are incredibly fond of Amy, by the way, mainly because she’s living their dream life of being married to their teacher and also because she’s sexy and rockin’ some tattoos.
Visually, Allison’s artwork takes a more wide-angle look at things. Looking back at Scary Go Round, I noticed that Allison really didn’t do any close-ups. It’s far more apparent here. The new horizontal layouts and the thinner lines tend to shrink the characters. It’s almost as if there’s a commentary somewhere about how the characters have become tiny pieces inhabiting the larger tapestry that is Tackleford City… individuals being just cog in some sort of … bad machinery. (Dun dun dunnnnn!)
(But seriously, I have no idea why this comic is called Bad Machinery. I mean … well, a piece of bad machinery does factor into the plot eventually, but I don’t know if that was Allison’s inspiration. More on that later.)
Unfortunately, I think both of these characteristics — the focus on community and the underemphasis on the individual — tends to harm the personalities somewhat. With a cast new characters, inherently there’s the tricky balance of both making each personality distinguishable, memorable, and sympathetic, while, at the same time, avoiding outlandish traits that you can’t support om the long run. Unfortunately, Allison plays things entirely too safe. Very few of the new crew immediately jumped out as sparkling personalities whose everyday adventures I want to follow. Every last one of the six kids is essentially playing the same straight man (or woman).
Even their names are unmemorable. I don’t know if it because all British names sound the same or what, but they all melt into the same ball of anonymity. I think the dark-haired one was named Lottie? The rest… a cipher.
The ones that did seem at all interesting were a few of the side characters. Vets like Ryan and Amy have already accumulated an the emotional cachet from a previous series. The crazy Russian lady and the cursed Russian football owner are also notable for being portrayed so outlandishly that they standout from the sea of blandness that is Tackleford City.
Also hurting Bad Machinery: the fact that everything is low key. No one goes on adventures. Instead, they have are long, pointless discussions. Say I suggested that we go out for lunch and I suggest McDonald’s. Then you go on a a piddly discussion about McDonald’s processed food, how every meat must be made from the same injection molded meat-stuffs except with added artificial flavor, and then go off on how chicken patties and filet-o-fish are functionally the same. It may seem charming at first, but if every discussion was like that, it gets old, fast.
Guess what? That’s what passes for life in Tackleford.
Coinciding with an increase of impenetrable Britishisms, everyone in Bad Machinery goes off on pointless tangents as if pointless tangents were going out of style. It doesn’t matter if it’s a guy mumbling to himself about sports curses or some girl trying to figure out the things you find in Russia or two girls talking about something, something, something, GYMNASTICS, LEOTARDS. While this sort of thing is a vague approximation of witty dialogue, it far more closely resembles a long, rambling blog post where the blogger is clawing at the mouth for trivial things to comment on. (And believe me, as a blogger with mouth-clawing problems up the wazoo, I would know.)
You know, that’s fine: but, as I mentioned before, the characters were already indistinguishable in the first place. Having them all rattle off the same way does no service to differentiating the characters. Every single one of the kids is cast as a precocious Juno who wants to be ever so clever, but they only come off as little avatars for the author himself.
The story finally starts to get somewhere when a satellite crash lands on the field of Tackleford City FC. (I’m assuming this is the bad machinery of the title, but who knows?) This happens at a nexus of cross interests between our principal leads. The girls want the football club to halt construction on a new stadium, which will evict a hapless old lady. The boys (led by the only football fan of the bunch) want to rid the team of a curse that’s been plaguing the home team.
“Ooh! A curse!” the inner SGR fan squeals. “Finally, a casual touch of the supernatural that made Scary Go Round such a wicked delight!”
Not so fast, hombre.
While SGR had it’s share of strange visitors — like robot ambassadors, ex-girlfriends in the afterlife, zombies, and the like — odds and ends of the strange and eerie nature are very much downplayed here. Oh, yes, the heart does leap when a lumpy supernatural denizen bounds across the screen, but such frivolity must be excised for the sake of the new focus on mundane trivialities.
The six-month long story probably would have been over in two if not for periodic digressions like the boys stealing a bow tie or one of the girls losing her coat. I suppose, in theory, that these small larks are key to character development. It was nice to see Strawberry Blonde Girl feel genuine glee in getting her coat back, and it was funny to see The Boy — er, sorry, The Boy 2.0 — unwittingly become the object of every girls’ affections. I supposed I would have liked it if these forays could have tied into the main story somehow, but it sorta works, albeit in a rather clunky fashion.
I do have to give Mr. Allison credit where credit’s due: he juggles a buttload of storylines, some related to the main narrative and some not, yet, but the end of this first story arc, he does manage to ty everything together by the end. It isn’t as haphazard as Scary Go Round; there’s far more order and planning in Bad Machinery. Now, this is both good and bad. I very much liked the spontaneity of of SGR, and I don’t get much a sense the same wild energy will be found here. Yet, Bad Machinery is worth a re-read, since things have been planned ahead, and nothing you’ve seen before was a cheat. If SGR was a vaudeville show, Bad Machinery is more your murder-mystery.
Plus, there are some moments in Bad Machinery that made me smile. One of my favorites is seeing Ryan trying to hide from a student because he doesn’t want them finding out about his home life. He suggests that Amy pose as a fallen woman whom he was trying to introduce to Jesus. Ah, quite the wit, old chum. The other is watching the Russian FC owner lament his marriage to his attractive wife, lecturing the boys that they should marry a peasant woman, and concluding with a metaphor equating a women to zebras. (Hmmm… maybe I just like “women be like this” jokes?!?!)
The faults of Bad Machinery aren’t all that different from the faults that plagued the early run of Scary Go Round: the first arc was rather light on the weirdness and heavy on the interchangeable bland characters. Lest we forget, by the middle of that comic Allison had dumped most of the main cast in favor of newer, sexier models. Finding your footing is a hard thing to do. But, on the plus side, it’s a much easier webcomic for newcomers to jump aboard since you don’t really need to be saddled with all the baggage from previous stories.
I don’t know if Bad Machinery will go through the same overhaul. Allison seem to be quite fond writing stories about schoolkids. Yet the readers (and, I’m assuming, Allison himself) are also drawn to eccentric types. Amy, Dark Esther, The Boy, and above all Shelley rose up the ranks of Scary Go Round because, well, the readers liked them and their quirks. It may take a few more storylines before anyone in Bad Machinery rises up to that status… just like it may take a few more storylines before I feel compelled to check in on Bad Machinery again.
Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)
Posted on April 2, 2010, in 3 Stars, adventure webcomic, comedy webcomic, slice-of-life webcomic, The Webcomic Overlook, WCO Big Review, webcomics and tagged Bad Machinery. Bookmark the permalink. 25 Comments.