“I’ve played pinball before. If you’ve played one, you’ve played them all” says an unnamed teenaged character. The narrator responds, “Wrong,” atop a full page illustration of a table in motion, and then they continue to explain the unique randomness in a pinball game. How it exists as a physical (rather than digital) object and the interactions that come with that. It’s a gorgeously illustrated introduction to a topic that many folks don’t give much thought to, and a pretty good indicator of what this book is about. There is a history and a science to pinball, and the reader is going to learn today.
Jon Chad traces the origins of pinball back to a game played in ancient Greece, where holes were dug into the side of a hill and balls were rolled up the hill, similar to modern skeeball. That led to other outdoor games, such as croquet. In 17th century France King Louis XIV took those lawn games and made an indoor version called bagatelle, which is similar to a simple pinball game. Over time further modifications were made, such as a glass top cover, and coin operation. Newer and newer technology such as electricity (lights and sounds!) were incorporated, making pinball a bit of a technological showcase in early taverns and arcades. Then, pinball was banned in New York City and other large cities in the 1940’s, under claims it promoted juvenile delinquency and gambling. In 1976 to lift the ban Roger Sharpe played a game live in a courtroom to demonstrate it was not a game of chance, but rather it involved skill. That court decision would lead to a resurgence of the game in 80’s arcades, up through modern machines that incorporate video game style graphics and screens.
Mixed in with all of that history, Chad also gives tips and tricks to playing the game, and why they work. There is an illustrated glossary at the back of the book with a lot of play terms such as “ramp” or “plunger” as well as named techniques like “drop catch”. I’m passingly familiar with pinball and didn’t find myself referring to the glossary while reading, but it could be useful for those who are less familiar with the game. Techniques are explained somewhat in the course of the story as well. The glossary and tips section would be most useful to a reader who decided to seek out a pinball table following the book. Chad does note that there are apps and other resources to find pinball games, but that they are significantly rarer than they used to be, which may make finding one for yourself difficult.
The artwork is fluid and expressive throughout. For example, Roger Sharpe’s courtroom game is illustrated in large sweeping panels demonstrating motion, excitement, and 1970’s fashion. Illustrations of pinball tables convey a sense of motion and randomness appropriate for the subject. The way motion is conveyed in multiple sections is the most impressive part of the art style, but the way that people and places are displayed is also admirable. It is easy to tell people and locations apart and while historical figures in this book are largely white, there is an attempt at diversity in crowd scenes or present day illustrations.
There is nothing inappropriate in this book, but it does have a high reading level. Given the niche subject matter I would say that this book will appeal mostly to adults, and it’s a worthy inclusion in a non-fiction graphic novel collection of a public library. It is a subject with limited appeal, so it’s not a “must purchase,” but if you find that non-fiction on other niche subjects such as Wizzywig have appeal to your patrons, this is a good choice.
Pinball: A Graphic History of the Silver Ball
By Jon Chad
Macmillan First Second, 2022
NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+)