Tuesday, August 10, 2021

Bad Machinery, Vol. 9: The Case of the Missing Piece by John Allison

I like all of John Allison's comics: let me make that clear. Giant Days is wonderful, I really hope Wicked Things wasn't a one-off, and my main complaint with By Night is that he's too British to do an American-set story really convincingly.

But I love Allison in particular as a cartoonist. Like a lot of comics creators, he's just better when he's drawing his own material: he knows the jokes and characters, and probably adjusts things while drawing to make it all just that bit better. It's not that there's anything wrong with other artists; they just don't live in John Allison's head.

And so his webcomics have been the purest and best of his works: the most Allisonian, the funniest, with the most intricate plots and great character details. (And I say this while still avonding his currently-running Steeple because I haven't read the published-as-floppies beginning yet.) Bobbins and Scarygoround saw him get better and better over more than a decade, but Bad Machinery hit when he was already fully himself: I'd call it the first Allison work that was mature and entirely successful from the beginning.

Of course it's over now; Allison writes about people who live in time, and his stories usually have those people at a specific time in their lives. (Typically young enough to do crazy things, just getting old enough to know they shouldn't: late teens to mid-twenties most of the time, with some variation on either end.)

The Case of the Missing Piece is the ninth of ten Bad Machinery stories - I recall there were some uncollected bits, especially at the end, but Allison is currently upgrading his main site, so the extensive archives (including story details) are down at the moment. See my post on the eighth volume for some context, and then dig back further to volumes one to seven, and even to Scarygoround, for an unnecessarily large amount of context.

The series started out being about a group of kids at a local British school in the fictional city of Tackleford. (I think it was a "public" school, meaning not run by the government, but it seems to be more "competitive and moderately good" than "ultra-posh," for other Americans trying to set their expectations. More like the decent parochial school in your town, if you have one, than like Choate, where one of my college buddies went.) There were three girls and three boys, all tweens, and they solved mysteries: sometimes together, but more often competitively. Those mysteries often had a vaguely supernatural component; Allison's stories are generally realistic but he's not finnicky about consensus reality if it gets in the way of a fun story.

By this point, it's several years later, and they've mostly stopped solving mysteries actively. It's something they talk about, and vaguely think about doing again, like that sport you gave up last year because it interfered with your other activities. This book is not about a mystery, exactly.

Shauna is at the center: her mother is getting married to her long-term boyfriend (this is mostly a good thing, but a cause of change and stress), her older brother Darren has just gotten out of prison, she may finally get a chance to meet her father, and she's taken it upon herself to befriend Blossom Cooper, a frighteningly large and dangerous girl of their year. But Linton is mopey about never having had a girlfriend, Claire is going through her own love convolutions, with a boyfriend breaking up with her because his family is returning to Ireland (though not as quickly as the reader would expect), and the rest of the cast (especially Charlotte, who can always be counted on to barge in) circle around the main action. Oh, and the veteran teacher who handled discipline for the school is out after a health crisis, and there's a new face with new, modern ways. (Quote: "I don't do 'bollocking,' Linton. I thought maybe we could listen to some music...just rap about what's going on with you. Do you like the Beetles?")

All of those things stew around and with each other over the course of about an academic term, and it all comes to a head at Shauna's mother's wedding, as things do. Well, that's only about the halfway point of the book - the first major crisis. There will be more.

A lot of Allison's best works are about people realizing they're not who they used to be and that they need to rethink what they want and what they should be doing. This, like the end of Giant Days, is one of those stories. It's smart and witty and full of colorful characters, it's amusing and thoughtful and drawn with an energetic line.

Again, pure Allison is the best Allison. This is pure; this is one of his best. And he's one of the best. QED.

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