Irma Vep
Olivier Assayas, 1996
#5, 1997 Skandies

Well, hell, I dunno. This is a movie about an aging French director who's doing a remake of a silent-era serial about vampires. Happening to catch a Hong Kong action movie, he decides that Maggie Cheung is perfect for the lead role and summons her to Paris. (Since she doesn't speak French, this means that most of the movie consists of people speaking English to her een zees out-raizh-eous accent.) Various things happen. Maggie is poured into a skintight black catsuit and shoots a few scenes. The costume girl develops a crush on her. The director has a nervous breakdown. A lot of it seems to be about the state of French cinema in the mid-'90s, which would be more interesting to me if I were French, interested in cinema, or living in the mid-'90s. (Actually if you were to listen to my MP3 player you might be forgiven for thinking that I was living in the mid-'90s.) Mike D'Angelo wrote in his retrospective of 1997 that "I think that my review of Irma Vep was the worst piece I wrote all year [...] whatever limited critical faculties I possess are completely disengaged, and I'm reduced to pointing at the screen with a wild-eyed, gleeful expression." Meanwhile, this paragraph is quite possibly the worst piece I've written in 2009, and I'm reduced to pointing at the screen with that slightly nonplussed but passably entertained expression that signifies that I'm probably going to give the movie a 3.

Bad Machinery
John Allison, 2009–

Last September cartooning man John Allison brought his webcomic Scary Go Round to a close after seven years, starting up a new project called Bad Machinery. This was not unprecedented: Scary Go Round was itself a reboot of Allison's earlier comic Bobbins. In both transitions Allison shuffled certain characters to the background and pushed others forward, while subtly changing genres. Bobbins was a sitcom set at a magazine office, which gradually got wackier the way sitcoms do (Urkelbot, meet Unit Daisy); Scary Go Round dropped the office setting and explicitly added elements of supernatural horror to the mix, but on both sides of the divide you had Shelley and Amy and Fallon and Ryan and Tim and their zany antics. Similarly, as Scary Go Round unfolded, the focus drifted from the Bobbins alumni, now in their late 20s, to younger additions to the cast — first teenagers, then little kids. So it was a pretty smooth transition to Bad Machinery, which despite its title is actually about those kids, now eleven years old, and the rivalry between the girls and the boys over which of them make the best amateur detectives.

The problem is that apparently the switch to a new title has driven off half of Scary Go Round's audience. Allison, known for his graphene-thin skin — he has torn down the comment areas on his site on no fewer than three separate occasions upon discovering a negative remark — had a bit of a meltdown about this on his blog, posting laments and a series of "Crisis Centre" cartoons. The problem? Based on the feedback he'd received, Allison concluded:

From what I can work out, there's an age group (college age and just above) that find a comic about children very alienating, some people almost sounded wounded about it.

And again:

A lot of the people who have kind of taken offence to the new characters are younger, in their early twenties at the most. Some of the comments read like they feel betrayed!

Many of the replies seemed to bear this out. A sampling:

  • I'm just not interested in teenager or school themes [...]

  • I really don't care about anyone under the age of 15.

  • [...] both children and the school experience are decidedly external to me. They might as well be alien anthropomorphic furniture.

  • I could identify more with the characters of SGR, where I have more trouble identifying with younger, more ignorant characters.
Now, to an extent I can certainly see where these people are coming from. At the top of this very article I said that those sections of Irma Vep that dealt with the world of mid-'90s French cinema held little interest for me because that's not my world. Similarly, after hearing rave after rave for The Wire Lizzie and I watched the first episode, but neither of us had much inclination to continue after that — what interest does a series about Baltimore crack dealers hold for a couple of teetotaling, housebound, suburban west coast academics? But on the flip side, neither do I have much in common with sexually abused Kansas farmgirls in the 1880s, or cheesemakers in medieval Greenland, or many of the other characters in works that I absolutely love. I'm therefore quite taken by the differences in phrasing of the four comments above. The first two talk about "interest" and "care" — i.e., they're from people who don't like kids. Fair enough. But the third talks about kids as "external to me," as though it were impossible to care about people who aren't like those in your circle, and the fourth talks about "identifying," as though it were impossible to care about people who aren't like you.

A few more data points. One commenter told Allison that "Your strong points in SGR were your characters." So which characters from Scary go Round did the Bad Machinery detractors miss?

  • Every update, I'm waiting to hear more about Ryan :-P That's what I find myself wanting.

  • I'd love to find out what happened to the likes of Shelley, Esther and Eustace

  • I understand your need to make a change, and it's your lovley webcomic to do with as you please, but I will always want to see more of Ames and Dark Esther.
So what about these characters is so compelling? One supporter told Allison that he was "probably one of the best (male) writers of female characters, which is why Shelley and Amy are so beloved." And of what does that characterization consist? As best I can determine, it seems to be that they wear clothes. "They always seem to be wearing very accurately-observed, current fashions, and I'm intrigued that you take the time to dress them that way," one commenter chirps. Allison replies that, yes, "the shifting sands of women's fashion provide the artist with a world of new things to try drawing every six months and a way to say something indelible about the characters."

A more trenchant observation on Allison's part is that "What always interests me is how readers will invest the most paper-thin characters with things that I never saw in them. You may laugh but to me, Desmond was an infinitely more rounded character than The Boy, who was pretty much just a cipher." For those unfamiliar with SGR, "The Boy" is the nickname of the Eustace mentioned above, and yes, he's pretty much a generic geek boy who wound up dating Esther, who herself is little more than a sort of off-brand Emily the Strange. Desmond, by contrast, is an infantile, cowardly, tantrum-throwing creature with green scales, webbed hands and feet, and a taste for the high life. Allison's assertion attracted the following reply:

That's me, having been through *numerous* relationships with girls I never would have expected to find myself with, always fallen hard, always knowing that despite my optimism, it really couldn't end well, the boy gave me a great many things to invest myself in...even a sort of:"Hello younger alterself. I hope this works out better for you than it did me."...but this may be the crux. When you say "readers will invest the most paper-thin characters with things that I never saw in them", it's because readers see themselves in those, not being "the reader" do not (...and to an extent can not) see those same things... I identify with his fears and his elation. I know his girlfriend, and am invested in that relationship. I know his parents and friends. I know what it is to finish school and leave home, leaving those you love and launching yourself into an uncertain future. Conversely, Desmond Fishman is...a fish.

First, that's not what "conversely" means. Second, what better illustration could there be than the paragraph above of Scott McCloud's maxim about reader identification?

Here we're talking about shallow characterization rather than sketchy art, but the principle remains the same. This guy looked at a cipher who didn't even have a name other than "The Boy" for the first three years of his existence and thought, "My Lord! That's—that's me!" And is aware of it. And wants more.

Doubly interesting are his assumptions about the role of identification in authorship. I can't speak for John Allison, but personally, I can't really write a character I don't identify with. Now consider my current project, in which one of the characters is a hardcore urbanite and another is all about suburban bliss. Which one do I identify with? Whichever one I happen to be writing at the moment! When the former whistles merrily as he strolls home five blocks from the downtown farmers' market, a bag of organic persimmons and chanterelles slung over his shoulder, passing the public library and his daughter's charter middle school along the way, that's coming from the guy who grew up stranded in a blotch of Orange County where lacking a driver's license was tantamount to quadriplegia. When the latter sighs with contentment as she sinks her toes into the plush carpeting of her exurban McMansion and smiles at the unspoiled mountain vista that greets her through the window, that's coming from the guy who feels like he's strangling when he's on a street corner surrounded by dilapidated apartment buildings and can only see the surrounding hillsides through a sieve of overhead cables. I am large, I contain multitudes. And I'm old enough to know that this is okay.

What I think Allison discovered is that a fair chunk of his audience was still of an age when people consume media in large part for identity reinforcement. This can mean finding role models for the identity you've decided to adopt: Taxi Driver is a good movie, but the reason I watched it 22 times when I was 17 was not for its quality but rather to nail down my newfound sense of myself as an outcast in a sick, corrupt world. Similarly, it appears that zine girls and the geek boys who love them gravitated to Esther and Sarah and The Boy, and that a few years earlier a fair number of twentysomethings who had whimsical conversations in bars found "alterselves" in Shelley and Amy and Ryan. And note that a lot of identity reinforcement is aspirational: they may have seen themselves in Shelley and Amy and Ryan in that those are the sorts of friends they'd like to have had, in a world where not too many people are clever enough to sound like John Allison is scripting their dialogue. So why would these SGR fans be alienated by Bad Machinery? Because children are exactly what they don't aspire to be! They just finished slamming the door screaming, "Mom, I'm not a kid anymore, god!" Spending quality time with Shauna and Lottie undermines that message.

What's more, identity reinforcement through media is not just a matter of finding a mirror to look into. Subcultures define themselves to a great extent through media choices. And while Allison may assert that "My older friends genuinely can't see the difference between the new comic and the old" — and I, being roughly his age, agree — much of his audience is significantly younger and at the age when people will in all seriousness insist that "I'm not emo, I'm scene" while holding up two identical pictures. So what a lot of these folks object to is not the focus on children so much as the subtle change in genre. Example:

  • I fear for the loss of the barely-contained madness which was SGR.

  • SGR - the chronicles of a goblin and devil-bear infested world in which delightfully exaggerated characters fought Wendigos, went to Atlantis and got kidnapped by supervillains. Bad Machinery - the chronicles (thus far) of a group of ordinary school children who collect football cards and do their homework assignments, while occasionally delivering a droll witticism.

  • I'm hoping that this is like the beginning of a 'comic book' movie, where you show how horrible Ryan and Amy's lives were before they were inspired to become superheroes, or supervillains, or open their own superpub. (Heehee, supervillains Amy and Ryan, being thwarted by secretagent gingerninja-superspy! That'd wear my outstandingness badge.)

  • ...weren't we promised robots?

  • I also thought that at some points there would be robuts. I imagined that is what the title implied :(
Again, as with the identification post above, what surprises me is not so much that these sentiments exist as that people will articulate them so baldly. I mean, I know that there is a segment of the public that really enjoys fart jokes, but I don't expect to see someone complain, "I'm hoping this is like the beginning of a scene in which it looks like it's going to be a boring dinner... and then someone farts! Weren't we promised malodorous gas escaping someone's sphincter?" Similarly, I know there is an Internet subculture of people who have a Pavlovian response to the words "monkey," "robot," "ninja," "pirate," and "zombie" — that response being "Heehee! Outstandingness badge!" — but it's strange to see them self-identify without embarrassment. In any case, it seems that the short version here is that Allison packed Scary Go Round with zombies, monkeys, ninjas, pirates, and robots, only to discover that when he wanted to switch to, in his words, "genuine human feeling for a change rather than glib nuttiness," half his audience melted away. They weren't there to receive artistic communiqués from John Allison. They were there to reinforce their sense of themselves as members of that tribe of young net.scamps who delight in such original flights of whimsy as zombies, monkeys, ninjas, pirates, and robots.

"I don't want to make the kind of comics you want to read any more," Allison told these people. "My old style was too heavy on standard webcomic tropes and creative returns were fast diminishing [...]. I grew up with Roald Dahl and Tove Jansson and Richmal Crompton and Ronald Searle. They were all masters of world-building and immersive stories. They never spoke down to readers and I can read a lot of their work as an adult with the same pleasure. If I want to keep doing this for the rest of my working life, I have to make something lasting like that." That announcement in and of itself, both in its repudiation of the monkey robot people and its ambition to create works of lasting value, makes me want to support Bad Machinery. Unfortunately, I have to admit that so far I too am a little disappointed. Not because it broke with Scary Go Round. More because it didn't.

Take characterization. Here is how the cast page of Bad Machinery describes Charlotte Grote:

Charlotte is loud, silly and likeable. On occasion she can be annoying. She doesn't always know the difference between a good idea and a bad idea.

The problem is that, by the end of its run, pretty much every character in Scary Go Round could be described this way. As I mentioned in my minutiae, it says something that Allison systematically weeded out voice-of-reason characters such as Tim, Riley, and Erin, and replaced them with ever sillier clowns: Desmond Fish-Man, Carrot Scruggs. Bad Machinery has been running for over two months now and I'm still waiting for some sort of distinguishing feature that will allow me to tell Charlotte's dialogue apart from Shauna's without looking at the tails on the speech balloons. Allison has done a little better with the boys, insofar as I can tell Linton from the others based on the fact that he sounds reasonably sensible. But that probably means that, like the last character in Allison's work who could find her ass with both hands, he'll probably be sent to hell. And other than Linton, so far it's "standard John Allison character, blonde hair," "standard John Allison character, black hair," "standard John Allison character, messy hair," etc.

As for the art, again, I want to support Bad Machinery simply for having some. As Allison has pointed out more than once, the most popular webcomics these days seem to involve stick figures, so it's nice to see someone who's actually interested in the "art" side of "sequential art." But while Allison has mentioned on his blog that "I started drawing like I wanted to" in mid-2008, those who follow my minutiae may recall that I have been muttering about the decline in Scary Go Round's art for some time now:

2004: This is how John Allison drew back when I was telling people, "You gotta read this! It's cute chicks with amusingly tortured phrasings!"
2005: The height of the Illustrator era. Allison created individual faces for each character. Suddenly, Shelley was unique! Very nice work.
2006: Lips are gone. Things are all right through the summer, but then the downward slide begins.
2007: Dogcat Effect. The lower half of everyone's face swells up like Tackleford's going through a mumps epidemic.
2008: Where did the bridge of everyone's nose go? Profiles become grotesque.
2009: Bad Machinery begins. So far this means a new coloring philosophy (more consistent palettes) and small figures with small faces.

I do wonder how Allison can look at the '08 face there and seriously argue that it's superior to the '06 and '04 versions. That is just preposterous to me. And it's not an anomaly. Thus far the art is not a huge selling point either.

So I've found myself wondering why I've stuck with Bad Machinery as half the SGR audience has apparently checked out. If it's not for ninja pirate jokes or to live vicariously through The Boy, and not for the characters or the art, what is it? The obvious question to kick off such an inquiry is why I started following Scary Go Round in the first place. The answer is that I followed a link from Scott McCloud's blog to a cartoon in which a girl with purple bangs and tattoos related that, at the job interview she'd had that day, "I told them the hair and the ink were injuries sustained during an explosion at the purple factory. 'It started off explodey... and then it got explodier!'" Browsing the archive, I found that nearly every strip had dialogue like this. An elevator operator, in response to a floor request: "I almost killed a man once. He took my umbrella, and it was pouring with rain. I just couldn't stop hitting him. Then the police came. Top floor." Tessa on a fifteenth-year senior at her university: "He's an eternal student. He can't deal with a world where girls aren't 19." However, the level of verbal genius on display in Scary Go Round tailed off almost immediately after I started following the comic, and realizing this got me wondering how it is that clever repartée that I read in 2003 still has me checking in at nine o'clock sharp four days a week in 2009. But then it occurred to me that this isn't even the most telling example of the extent to which this sort of linguistic dexterity can turn my head. Because when I think of people who can turn a hilarious phrase, there's one who springs to mind before even John Allison. A few of her sentences appeared on my screen in 1999. They were really funny. And my makeup is such that I really had no choice but consequently to date her for six years. By those lights, three minutes a week is not a big ask.

Addendum 2010: I am pleased to report that Bad Machinery #2, "The Case of the Good Boy," is very good! I've written a new article on Bad Machinery to discuss how it's improved.

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