This may be the first published collection of Bad Machinery, but John Allison comes to it as a webcomic veteran. This is his third strip set in the fictional British town of Tackleford. Allison wrote Bobbins from 1998 – 2002 and Scary Go Round from 2002 – 2009, when he started Bad Machinery. The strip relaunch saw changes in cast and focus, but Allison’s distinctive dialogue and offbeat sensibility has remained constant throughout.
The six main characters of Bad Machinery are in their first year of secondary school (which puts them around 11-years-old). They deal with all your typical 11-year-old problems (peer pressure, bullies, changing friend groups, weird old teachers), but also spend their time out of school dealing with issues of a supernatural nature. In this first collection, The Case of the Team Spirit, the boys (Jack, Linton, and Sonny) work to lift the curse on the local football club. Meanwhile, the girls (Charlotte, Mildred, and Shauna) try to help “Mrs. Biscuits,” a demented old Russian woman who’s being pressured to sell her house to make way for a new football stadium.
I was following Scary Go Round online when it ended and I failed to make the jump to Bad Machinery. In part, this was because I wasn’t ready to let go of a strip I’d really enjoyed and accept another in its place, but I had more concrete complaints as well. Spaced out to three strips a week, I had a hard time wrapping my head around the relatively large new cast and getting invested in the overarching plot. Reading the entire case as a printed collection helped with these problems, but highlighted the extent to which Allison paces the strip to to read one page at a time. To consistently hit a beat or punchline at the end of each page gets tiring after a while. But that’s a problem common to most collected comic strips, and Bad Machinery still has plenty working in its favor.
Allison’s art immediately conveys some important things about the world of his comics. Everything is carefully messy, with extra lines or inks that don’t quite match their outlines. Backgrounds are full of odd little details and strange color combinations. Characters strike poses that are emotive and believable, but don’t quite match up to how actual people move and stand. In short, it’s a world where things are a bit off, but in a visually interesting way. The dialogue is similarly idiosyncratic, a perpetually deadpan chatter with unnatural rhythms and syntax and inexplicable changes of topic. If I met any of these characters in the real world, I would probably think they were insane, but shoved together in their own world they seem to manage pretty well.
The unrelenting loopy nonsense of it all may not be to everyone’s taste. Other readers have told me they found the intentional oddness off-putting enough that they couldn’t become invested in the story or characters. But this book could certainly find an audience among readers drawn to the absurdity of an author like Roald Dahl and the disjointed, riffing, dialogue of a show like Home Movies or Bob’s Burgers.
While Bad Machinery focuses on middle schoolers and doesn’t contain any notably mature content, the deadpan humor may make it of more interest to older teens or adults. Supplemental materials include a glossary of British terms that is more amusing than helpful and several pages of fictitious news stories about the Tackleford City Football Club.