Saturday, 14 July 2012

Digital Canvas - Two To Review: Bad Machinery VS Gunnerkrigg Court

Recently I’ve had cause to feel ‘British‘. A few weeks ago we celebrated the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, and used the event to reaffirm our national identity. On the horizon is the particularly huge event of the London Olympics, where we’ll show off our national identity to the world. And at the time of writing, the internationally recognised Wimbledon tennis tournament is in full swing. With that in mind, this week’s Two To Review are both created by Brits! Unfortunately I’ve mentioned both of these webcomics in previous articles, but I’ll strive to cover new(ish) ground.

Bad Machinery is a story-arc driven webcomic created by John Allison, and is a quasi-sequel to the previous “finished” comic Scary-Go-Round, following the younger siblings, relatives and friends of the now adulthood prior protagonists who make guest appearances from time to time. The story is set in the fictional British town of Tackleford, usually centred around the local school and the interactions between a group of three boys and three girls who attend there. But the social interactions and clumsy progression through adolescence are only half the story, as the inquisitive kids often stumble across mysteries to be solved, often with supernatural or unusual denouements.

The art style is appropriately reminiscent of something you’d doodle in the margin of a school textbook, only extrapolated and improved in every way. In fact, many aspects of the strip remind me of my old school days, the friends and enemies, the bullies and teachers. And the classrooms are spot on! It's like a slice of authentic British childhood has been condensed and chronicled, but with added aliens and magic pencils to spice up the boring parts of real life. I can literally smell the pencil shavings. The dialogue is often hilarious, I especially enjoy the snippets in the teacher’s lounge where the grown-ups are usually seen dealing with problems parallel to the kids in both theme and attitude!

Now usually I use this space to go over any negatives a webcomic might have, to provide a balanced and rounded view. But I’m having real difficulty picking up on anything wrong with this one! Of course, the focus on adolescent friendships and relationships won’t be for everyone’s taste, but I think that’s more than made up for by mysterious curses and funny bridge trolls. The worst thing that can be levelled at this strip is that it sometimes relies too heavily on deus ex machina - random luck - to resolve certain conflicts.

Gunnerkrigg Court is a long-form webcomic split up into easy-to-digest chapters created by Tom Siddell. The webcomic follows the main protagonist Antimony (Annie) Carver during her time in Gunnerkrigg Court, an odd school that’s more than it first appears. Whereas in Bad Machinery the school is a relatively normal background with unusual elements, here the school is extraordinary with some ordinary elements. To begin with, Annie is the seemingly normal new kid exploring the school and making friends. Over time we find out just how extraordinary Annie actually is, and what her greater role in the Court might be.

The biggest plus of this strip is the atmosphere; everything is full of mystery and intrigue, and the gloomy Court is wonderfully realised. The artwork is habitually beautiful, and I do find myself staring at certain pages for much longer than necessary, drinking in the detail. There’s a lot of deeper ideas going on as well, with one of the main themes being duality: clinical cold science versus instinctive chaotic magic, the Court and the contradictory surrounding Forest, and most importantly the strong bond of friendship between Annie and fellow pupil Kat Donlan. I love the way relationships like this friendship - and others between secondary characters - help ground the experience and actually allow you to get pulled in to this world.

Unfortunately I do have a few minor complaints with this one. At times, things can lean too much towards the abstract for my tastes. Visits into dreams, the spirit world and the like are usually packed with symbolism often left unexplained, and can lead to plot headaches. It is fun to try and deduce what’s going on when (for example) the local psychopathic, semi-psychic girl, Zimmy invites you into the world in her head, and thankfully the strip doesn’t fall into the same pitfall as the TV show Lost by not giving enough eventual answers, but I can’t help wishing I were a smarter person sometimes whilst reading it. Also to note in the minus column is the odd artistic decision to shape Annie’s head like a rugby ball for the first few chapters, but thankfully the artwork has improved and evolved over time.

The verdict for these two strips was hard to reach, as they are both personal favourites of mine, and both are excellent webcomics. However, in the end I decided that Gunnerkrigg Court just edges it, because I feel I have more of an emotional investment in that story.

Todd Marsh has trouble describing strong thoughts and feelings, and resorts to overly long words instead.

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