Page 45 Review by Stephen
In which our six sleuths from school have almost got their next mystery licked by the time the book opens.
"I can't believe we have to stay here and hold the ladder."
"Safety is important, Linton. The instructions are printed on the side of it, look."
Sure enough there is a safety message sticker from the British Ladder Council printed in black on bright yellow with an incautious ascendant plummeting to his doom:
"WARNING: DON'T TIT ABOUT ON LADDERS."
From the creator of BOBBINS, GIANT DAYS etc comes more of the best of British which we've reviewed extensively - and in the case of BOBBINS in great depth as to its mechanics - so I'll restrict myself to a brief introduction, then a look at two specific elements of its art and craft I've not yet covered.
It's summertime, and Jack, Linton and Charlotte have been left behind in Tackleford while Mildred, Sonny and Shauna swan off abroad.
"Maybe this will be your summer of love," suggests Shauna.
"I am sorry to report that my skull has just filled up with sick."
Lottie is having none of it. Her eyes blaze into the distance with a ferocious passion and earnestness:
"Mystery is my boyfriend."
Lottie's greatest mystery at the moment is what her Mum sees in her new "special companion" Colin who is as dull as three-day-old dishwater but who has been invited to live with them, leading to incredibly violent toilet visits and incredibly dull conversation.
Linton's greatest mystery is how his newly promoted police Dad is going to cope with the Gravel Pit estate crime rate whose graph is soaring so stratospherically high that, as Linton says, "I wouldn't want to ride my bike up that."
Meanwhile at the Tackleford Cormorant offices, Paula's unyielding reign of inertia at the local gazette continues to confine its fields of interest - and so interest in it - to the unbridled anarchy that is dog mess. Sales have sunk so low that staff reporters have to buy their own tea bags. Except now Paula has taken an unprecedented leave of absence due to "nervous exhaustion, stress and St Vitus' Dance", leaving Mike in charge... to do Erin's bidding. Erin is... ambitious.
So when "retired" children's TV puppeteer Don 'Gravy' Wilkins is discovered in a ditch at night, catatonic with a rictus grin on his face, then two yoofs are found similarly afflicted and flung up in a tree, Erin smells headline news, Linton's Dad sees the writing on the wall, and Jack, Lottie and Linton set about solving the mystery of the Night Stalker / Night Hero with some sense of urgency before Linton's dear Dad is fired.
Unfortunately they are only thirteen with pre-determined bed times.
It is the age of cast in BAD MACHINERY which Allison nails over and over again, wringing a seemingly ceaseless stream of liquid comedy gold from their restricted circumstances, behaviour, body language and speech patterns. It will be recognised by adults, young adults, even younger adults alike (for, unlike GIANT DAYS with its recreational drug references, BAD MACHINERY is highly recommended to families and essential to school libraries), and I love that that Jack and co are still just young enough to do some of their most serious thinking on slides.
There is the passion - often inversely proportioned to whatever merits it - the petulance, the pouts and the way everything is taken so personally. Not just serious disagreements but mere differences of opinion on, for example, whether their unwelcome nocturnal visitor is indeed a hero or a villain. Conversely, there's the love. Jack looks not just worried but potentially heart-broken at his friend Linton's concern for his Dad:
"Come on, Linton! Punch me in the arm! A free punch! Don't cry!"
"I'm not crying! ALL RIGHT? I've just got HOT EYES!"
"Do you know who else has hot eyes? Erin Winters."
"You sicken me."
Again, the passion - the disproportionate outrage - in Linton's eyes when he states that is too funny for words (it's a reprise, and grows funnier each time), while Jack is clasping his hands in adulation. Erin Winters, it should be pointed out, has a chequered past with our sleuths and Linton in particular. It might involve the selling of his soul or something. But Jack's reached that age when he has begun to have certain "thoughts" and certain "feelings".
This brings us neatly to an episode in which Jack and Linton meet Lottie in a lingerie department because she's been grounded.
"I only got out of the house by saying I was rude because I was worried about bras. So, me and mum are having a bonding trip. BRAS FOR ALL. We'd better be quick, they're measurin' her up and strappin' her in right now."
There's a perfect beat which isn't even a pause but a reversal of camera angles from Lottie's physical gesticulation across her chest in both directions to Jack, embarrassedly bursting with barely self-contained steam, whom Linton and Lottie both pat-pat on the shoulders with beautifully expressed, unstated understanding:
"Jack, maybe you should go and sit down in kitchenware for a bit."
What you should understand is that - although these printed editions are embellished with extra pages and substantial tweaks - Allison publishes most of his stories initially online, page by page on a daily basis, which means each must tell a little story of its own complete with a comedic punchline which is sometimes verbal, sometimes visual and so often both. I cannot conjure in my admittedly addled mind a single other creator with such a high hit rate in that department except Charles Schultz. And although Schultz often mined a vein of an extended storyline, he wasn't creating such long-form works as these with beginnings, middles and ends.
The upshot of this is that every solo John Allison work is almost incomparably rich and dense in entertainment while this hard-learned discipline has informed his offline collaborative projects too, regardless of whether each page must obey the same "rules".
So here's the other element I was just going to "touch on" before leaving you to read or re-read other John Allison Page 45 reviews (best to read BOBBINS as originally published in our blog so that the meticulously chosen illustrations are in synch: http://www.page45.com/world/2016/11/page-45-comic-graphic-novel-reviews-november-week-one/), and that's Lottie's language.
Her pronouncements are so intense, elaborate and embroidered with emphasis as to be hyperbolic. I'm struggling to analyse Allison's skill and its effect precisely, but it's as if they are definitive statements. Example the first:
"Whoa, is Erin Winters prayin'?
"Maybe her heart is not pure evil, Jack.
"Maybe she does not have a TAIL as I have LONG SUSPECTED."
The additional dropping 'g's, the phonetic and the slang compounds the comedy with its contrast to the precociously eloquent. Here's adult Erin followed by Charlotte, carefully chosen so as not to give the game away.
"His face was flickering on and off with the Creeper's, like a pirate radio station cutting in and out."
"Worr you can tell she's a writer. Well evockertive."
I will leave you to discover Jack's pride in being "BEST AT COMPUTERS" and his more hubristic declaration, with attendant celebratory dance, to be "Best at Google. Best at Google. Best at Google" as well as subtle details like him bearing multiple cups of coffee while pushing door open with his foot (recognition button pushed!) and instead finish on his department-store horror at Linton's suggestion.
"Let's try CAMI-KNICKERS."
"Erk, let's NOT!"