Comments on The Case of the Forked Road in Bad Machinery
The Case of the Forked Road is a recently-concluded storyline of the Bad Machinery webcomic by British cartoonist John Allison (the successor to his earlier comics Bobbins and Scary Go Round). The comic is about a group of schoolgirl/boy sleuths (in this latest storyline, the girls dominate, but earlier storylines had more gender balance), and the Forked Road storyline dealt with time travel and changed history. The strips have great pacing, clever humor, and interesting language, making them a great read.
I can't remember being so interested in awaiting the next installment of a comic-strip storyline since the time when I was about six years old (somewhere around 1969 or 1970) and a really engrossing continued story ran through months of Sunday strips of The Captain and the Kids (one of the versions of The Katzenjammer Kids) which involved the kids getting into a diving bell with a professor to seek the Mohorovicic discontinuity (see, comics can be educational) that marks the boundary between the Earth's crust and mantle, but end up stumbling on the undersea lair of an evil villain seeking to launch rockets to the moon as part of some scheme to conquer the universe, or something... exact details get a bit fuzzy after 40 years. Anyway, I couldn't wait for each week's strip, and the same happened with this Bad Machinery storyline (for which we got four updates per week, every Monday through Thursday, often with a bonus non-storyline strip on Friday, all coming out promptly at midnight U.S. Eastern Time, a bit of an odd schedule given that the author is in the British time zone, but right at midnight my own local time).
These are some of my comments on particular things within The Case of the Forked Road. Some of them can get a bit nitpicky... but I only nitpick things I like. (Why would I take the time to nitpick something I didn't care about?)
Individual strip comments
SPOILER WARNING: Lots of stuff here is likely to be a spoiler if you haven't read the story. Since it's written as the story was winding up, some comments reveal things further in the storyline than the strip they're commenting on.
The first strip of the storyline (after the splash page). The opening caption gives the date/time as "October 10, 3.45 PM". As we'll see later, October 30th will be a Friday, so by the logic of the Gregorian Calendar, October 10 works out to be a Saturday. I'm not greatly familiar with the workings of British secondary schools (other than Hogwarts); do they customarily have classes on Saturday? It's been shown that Griswald's sometimes gives detention on Saturday, but this strip has a normal class just breaking up.
Incidentally, Claire (formerly "Little Claire") makes her only appearance in this storyline, and seems to have lost her lisp.
Some "brand name avoidance", as the vending machines in the background are selling the classic soft drink Cüke (umlaut and all).
This strip looks as if some panels were somehow left out. Shauna is talking generically about getting a job, and Lottie rebuts with specific criticism of the job of babysitting, even having some specific baby in mind who's the "regional pooing champion". No indication is present of which baby is involved, though the girls seem to know what they're talking about.
Good work by Shauna in getting the other two girls back to being friends after a short fight... all three of them get their turns in this storyline at bringing the others back on track after friction develops. It's a great show of teamwork.
Mildred's phone case is red here... but in later strips it's blue (or maybe cyan). Maybe she swapped cases later?
We find out that Amy is pregnant. Not sure what she's giving to or taking from Ryan here.
Note that the play auditions are stated to be Friday. This could prove problematic given some later installments.
The bottom of the strip has the first glimpse of Grumpaw and Calvin, to prove significant to the storyline, though you can't tell it yet.
...and the mystery begins!
Just what is that "family secret", anyway?
As we know from earlier comics, there are actually ghosts in the universe that Tackleford is in.
Ironically, the "goody-goody" Shauna actually got told off... by Mr. (Ryan) Beckwith of all people... within minutes of starting school. And she soon got in trouble again with a different teacher. But she's stayed out of trouble since! In D&D terms, she'd be a "Lawful Good", while Lottie is probably "Chaotic Good", and Mildred "Chaotic Neutral".
In a school where teachers let kids leave during school hours with a reporter the teacher can't remember the name of, they need permission slips to go to swim-team meets... go figure.
Mildred is using the blue/cyan phone case now. And Calvin gives her a Kit-Kat, which is a real brand, unlike the school soda machines seen earlier.
The meeting between Mildred and Calvin at the school lab is set for Friday, just like the play auditions noted earlier. But pay attention to days in later strips.
Now it's Mildred's turn to be the one forging ahead with the case against indifference or hostility from the other two. But Shauna's thing about not needing to investigate every 11-year-old pretending his arm is a gun is one that ought to be heeded by school administrators all over, who are taking ridiculous "Zero Tolerance" actions on those grounds.
Note here that the play auditions are claimed to be Thursday, when they earlier were given as Friday, and Lottie is talking like it conflicts with the meeting with Calvin (also stated earlier to be Friday).
The boys aren't much help... later in the story we'll find out more about why. This whole storyline is all about the girls... it'll remain to be seen in later cases whether the boys are permanently out of the picture.
Making Glengarry Glen Ross suitable for a school play was some feat. And the leads for that play are actually all male (even "Shelley"), but Lottie's great for her part anyway.
Mildred sees the other two girls coming out of the just-ended auditions as she's heading up to the lab, so the two things didn't actually conflict no matter what day of the week it is... but she is probably still annoyed at the other girls for snubbing her earlier, so she doesn't even try to get them to go with her now.
She hasn't really proven that she's not a communist (she even said her dad used to be one), but Calvin clearly doesn't remember any of that anyway... as we later find out, Calvin keeps getting yanked out of different iterations of a time loop and doesn't remember anything from earlier loops. So one wonders why the earlier Calvin made a specific appointment with Mildred on a particular day that he wouldn't be around for; would he even know that a later Calvin would be around there and then?
In the earlier strip referenced in the notes at the bottom, Amy has solid hair of a similar color to Shauna, but now she's back to the two-toned light blonde with purple bangs she has mostly preferred over the years. Soon in the alternate reality we'll see a different color choice.
The girls may be looking at the wrong spot in the wall... the space between windows where they are doesn't look big enough for the cabinets seen inside. The wider inter-window gap further down looks more likely. Not that it'll make any difference in what they find. The lab seems to be up some stairs in the building but is still at ground level here, so the building is probably built on a hill with the entrance on the other side being at a lower level.
The Evil Time Boys can be seen inside, in an appearance whose significance won't be apparent until later. Are they in one of their (likely frequent) detentions?
A key moment in the story. It's captioned as "Friday, October 30th, 3.45 PM". A lot of stuff happens at 3.45 PM; that's the time in the first strip's caption too. The nearest year when October 30th is a Friday is 2015. Looking at the "bigger picture" timeline-wise, Bobbins and Scary Go Round seemed to take place more-or-less in real time, with any references to year or season matching pretty closely with the real-world date of the strips. Then the September 2009 beginning of Bad Machinery took place "3 years later", putting the start of grammar school for the kids at 2012. That would then make this story in their fourth year of school, which would be consistent with Mildred being 14 as stated earlier in the story. (They start secondary school at 11; I know that from Hogwarts.)
July 18, 1960: that's a Monday. (Tip for iPhone owners; you can ask Siri what day a particular date was.)
Always ask the question: What Would Shauna Do? (Ought to be a T-shirt or poster.)
Shauna's going to remember Occam's Razor, and actually get the name of it right, unlike Lottie with the Bechdel Test.
Knott seems to be calling Grumpaw "Vinnie". Grumpaw is bringing Calvin into the lab, and we'll soon see where/when he turns up.
The famous "Two Calvins" scene. As it turns out (explained later), Grumpaw is repeatedly snatching Calvin from a time loop and putting him back in a later iteration. In this case, the putting-back came slightly before the snatching, so he was momentarily beside himself. There's a slight logical issue in that the repeated snatching and replacing would be likely to produce at least some iterations of the loop that had either no Calvin or more than one of him. The first time a Calvin was brought to the present day and not put back until a later cycle, that would leave the original timeline "Calvinless" after the snatching. Subsequently, if each cycle had both a snatching and a replacing, the Calvins stay balanced, but whenever the cycle stops, one final Calvin is either stuck in the present, or put back in a cycle that already has an unsnatched Calvin, turning him into a set of twins there. These things would have awkward implications on the timeline of history, so one must presume that the same cosmic forces that kept the timelines consistent at other times by such things as keeping an "echo" of the evil time boys in subsequent loops, also intervened by causing versions of Calvin to materialize or dematerialize as needed.
Looks like the girls left their outer jackets on the lawn (while tying their school blazers to their waist)... hope nobody steals them!
Calvin always seems to take an immediate attraction to Lottie.
So "Calvin" is actually his middle name. And just where have we seen the name "A. C. Goater"?
Another genuine brand name, Fisherman's Friend... though its composition is actually little-changed since the 1800s; sorry, no opium.
The "I wish you were both dead" line proved unfortunately foreshadowing.
Another little-noted appearance of the Evil Time Boys.
Calvin's mum seems to have thought better of throwing out Calvin's toys and comics in the last panel; hope he hung onto them, since they're probably valuable collectibles in the present. Maybe Amy's store would be interested in them.
Good... the jackets are still there!
Very clever of the girls to figure out the time-loop situation from the limited clues.
"Bechamel Test" time!
By now, the changes in the timeline have been made, as will soon be discovered, but haven't fully caught up with the girls; their memories are still of the original timeline, and Shauna is still carrying the "Books Not Boys" bag; the memory that, in this timeline, she has a boyfriend, hasn't reached her yet. Just who is subject to temporary memories of no-longer-existing timelines is an interesting matter; the two girls who were on the other side of the time hole when things changed have a logical reason for retaining obsolete memories, but not so much for Shauna, who stayed in the present.
That duster looks like cotton candy... some odd neapolitan variety.
The classic story referenced in the notes turns out to have relevance beyond just the store and the old bats (not Ryan's pets).
Derros, bogans, and hoopleheads! Is that a song like "Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves"? The colorful language is one of the attractions of this strip.
It's Saturday morning, consistent with it being the morning after the Friday afternoon time trip. The date must be October 31, which means that it's Halloween, but this holiday isn't noted in the strip (despite some earlier instances when John Allison's strips have had Halloween-themed stories).
Math (maths?) quiz: The three girls have a combined age of 41. Mildred is 14 (as stated earlier). How old are the other two? Well, a lot of answers are possible, but most likely one is 14 and the other is 13.
Good thing the other-timeline Amy has the same phone number. (Though not necessarily so good after the phone gets tossed into the canal next strip.) Shauna's using Mildred's phone (does she not have one of her own?) and it still has the blue/cyan case.
Ryan's still wearing the Captain America shirt he usually wore in early Bobbins and Scary Go Round appearances, but didn't Shelley burn it? Maybe this didn't happen in the new timeline, or maybe he just bought another shirt like it.
Ryan's drunk and irresponsible, Amy's sad and cynical; it's a rougher world. Lottie still finds Amy cool.
Lottie's still kind of in denial; after all that's happened so far, she still expects things to get back to normal now that she's in school and is expecting to find Mr. Beckwith running play rehearsals. That expectation doesn't last long. But she's kind of letting down the alternate-universe version of herself by quitting A Day in the Life of a Tree, which her other self apparently had less of a problem with. Is Mrs. Lamb at the school in the "normal" timeline?
Non-canon romance! And no more "Books Not Boys" bag. The alternate timeline has caught up with Shauna.
The official reveal that Calvin is Grumpaw. Now we'll start getting some answers...
Lottie is doing most of the talking, sleuthing, and action at this point of the story... it's her turn to take the lead, as all three girls get their chance at during the storyline.
Now the story comes out about what caused the time hole. It involves an atomic demonstration in front of schoolkids... but nobody got bitten by a radioactive spider!
Who goes to summer term at British secondary schools? Is it remedial students, advanced-placement ones, or some mixture? Anyway, it's the end of the term when the explosion happens, and Calvin goes there after the government people go away. Also apparently the remains of the dead teacher have been cleared away (or was he totally vaporized by the explosion?), and there are no intrepid Tackleford Cormorant reporters there earlier. Maybe everybody went to the bicentennial celebration across town. We don't know for sure how long it's been since the explosion (hours? days?) but apparently school was still in session that day, as Calvin's mum yells at him for hanging out on the street after school, and he's in his school uniform. Since the time loop day is a Monday, maybe the explosion was on the preceding Friday, so there's been a weekend for the commotion to die down, and there are still some classes left the following week before school lets out for good (and they're intrepid enough to hold them even when there's a big hole in the wall and possibly radiation in the air). The entire 24-hour time loop must be after the explosion happened (or else a possible attempted history change could be to prevent it from happening, and thus prevent the time hole from opening... that would be very paradoxical).
As we'll see in the various times Grumpaw recounts memories of the time-loop day, his memories change depending on what happened in the most recent iteration with intervention from the future. This time he remembers being snatched, but that wouldn't have been true the first time he did the snatching. Later he'll remember the girls. Though there are forces of the universe that do their best to block serious changes from being made to history, minor tweaks to people's memories do get through.
Grumpaw refers to his mission, but doesn't give details, leaving it to Lottie's detective work to eventually reveal it near the end of the storyline. And leave it to Lottie to bring the subject to cat poo (or long hamster plops).
This strip also gives what is apparently a key feature of the rules of time travel, that the universe has an inherent conservatism in trying to keep history the same, no matter what somebody tries to change. It takes a catastrophic event to change things, but once that happens, the new history becomes the "status quo" that the universe acts to preserve. It's like there's a "cosmic consciousness" which can do some pretty complicated things to keep history "right" (it would take a good deal of manipulation even to cause people like the girls, who weren't born until well after 1960, to exist in the first place), but is still far from omniscient and omnipotent, as it can still be "fooled" into letting history change anyway, and is then very simpleminded in preserving the new history just as zealously as the old one.
Shauna's mum seems posher, in an unexplained timeline divergence. And Keith, who gets bored with mysteries, seems an unlikely match for Shauna... love is blind! But at least we know the Internet still exists in this timeline.
The Tackleford Cormorant was Strictly Local since 1972, so I guess it was more global in 1960?
Is Elaine Winters Shelley and Erin's mother or grandmother? What did barman Norman do to deserve the gallows? How did Gary the Horse pick up jewels with his hoofs? (Or is that "hooves"?) And Tackleford was apparently founded in 1760 (pretty young by British standards), and Griswold's Grammar School (founded in 1701) had to get by without the town for 59 years.
Who's offering Lottie a macaroon?
The Dimbleby and the Eddie Mair... apparently the menu items there are named after British broadcasters and/or journalists. I have no idea what ingredients go into each of these, but presumably the Dimbleby is the vegan one.
The old "everyone's mum thinks everyone's at someone else's house for a sleepover" trick, favorite of kid-sitcoms... and apparently it sometimes actually works in real life, if none of the mums do something so annoying as to try to call the house the kids are supposedly at.
Ryan's got a different shirt for a change! Really dressing up for the gig!
Does he mean Stickle Bricks? The government's probably spying on everybody's magic (or Muggle) ways these days. I'm glad somebody cares, even if it's a skeleton. Raga must never be confused with reggae! And the girls clearly see, hear, and speak no evil.
So would Amy have done anything about replacing Mildred's phone if she pressed for it?
Note the Tibkins sticker on Amy's bike basket... that's Shelley's children's-book character, so she's still got that career in this timeline, and is probably still friends with Amy.
Now it's Shauna's turn to take the lead and advance the case, even if it might lose her her boyfriend. But it might gain her a Noble Prize (hopefully not an Ig Nobel Prize).
What teachers do on "Teacher Training Days" is a long-time concern of these strips.
Nice early-60s outfits. But Shauna must not have gotten that much quality time with Keith on Sunday, with all the research and shopping to do. We don't end up seeing the girls spend any of the old coins they're bringing back this time, though they may have done so "off-camera".
Apparently the 24-hour time loop goes nice and neatly from midnight to midnight, matched up precisely with the time in the present-day end of the time hole, perhaps even taking into account the shift to and from British Summer Time. More evidence of a sentient Cosmic Consciousness arranging the details of all this time stuff.
One of those news articles is headed "Rail Crash 20 Years On", so Lottie really did her research, digging as far as 1980 newspapers to get long-term perspective on the disaster.
Shauna's astounded. The Evil Time Boys make their formal debut. And the strip goes on vacation for a week or two leaving the readers to stew about it.
The caption is "Ten Days Earlier", so let's count. The girls did their time trip on a Friday (Oct. 30), found out things were changed on Saturday, then went back to school (probably Monday) and saw some more changes, spent a few more days doing stuff like talking to Grumpaw, and by the next weekend were attending Ryan's gig, researching news articles, and getting ready for their next time trip. This trip took place on teacher-conference day, probably Monday, so counting back ten days from that brings you right to the Friday that the girls first went through the time hole. That works, for now... but captions in the next couple of strips confuse things a bit.
Is the bear on the train an actual functional element, or just for decoration? I presume Britain has no constitutional separation of church and railway, so the "Dominus Dei" stays out of legal trouble.
Now, with the caption "Nine Days Earlier", you've got some time trouble. If ten days earlier was Friday, nine days earlier is Saturday, but it seems to still be Friday since the teacher is threatening Saturday detention if the boys misbehave in this one. So I guess we are expected to regard this day countdown as representing cycles of the time loop, as the boys end up with "echoes" of themselves repeating themselves in time. In the real world, it still seems to be Friday, October 30.
The caption is now "Eight Days Earlier", and they have a different teacher in charge of their detention, but it still only works story-wise if it's still Friday, given what's now happening as we revisit this classic moment from a different perspective.
Aw, no "Seven Days Earlier" caption this time, though it actually would be every number of days from ten down to zero all at once now that they're in the time loop and their echoes are later seen to persist.
They may be evil boys, but their leader has a good memory for details, to remember the exact date of the teacher's favorite childhood experience. The train's arrival is set for 7:30, but the news article seen earlier had it at 1:30.
Classic trains go "Poop Poop!" Do they smell?
Must be the young Mr. Bough. We don't see him in the present in the changed timeline, so we don't know what effect turning his best childhood experience into something traumatic had on his personality as an adult. Shauna can be very nurturing.
This Calvin hasn't been pulled through the time hole; his memories will be different from the ones who were.
Though I don't think Oliver has appeared before this storyline, he and Lottie clearly know one another well enough to have derogatory nicknames for each other. ("Troll Doll", and, as seen later, "Potty".) The purple haze is, as we'll soon find out, a sign that the evil boys are actually left over from an earlier iteration of the time loop, and it gives them "zapping powers". They're left in the loop (even though the real versions of themselves have returned to the present) because the new version of history requires them to do what they did to the train. In contrast, others who traveled back in time and didn't manage to change anything consequential don't stay in the loop, which explains why the girls don't meet other versions of themselves.
Nucular... just as G. W. Bush says it!
Shauna's now in the role of the one keeping the torch lit for the case when the others have given up. The girls all get their turns taking the lead.
Here's the reference for Professor X is a jerk.
Amy apparently doesn't eat her own restaurant's food; that looks like a salad in Tupperware (or similar container). But Shauna's dish (against Amy's advice) is a hamburger with a hamburger topper... my kind of meal. Don't know what journalist/broadcaster it's named after. Her extra fat will probably go away when history is fixed and all of this didn't actually happen.
We finally see the boys... but they're not much help. But the girls are back! The other two were just temporarily peeved, not giving up for good.
Kind of rude shooing away the boys like that... aren't they supposed to be equal members of the mystery team? Especially when one of them turns out to have useful information after all.
Perhaps a jemmy is like a jimmy?
Now Grumpaw remembers the girls from the past... it's probably been a few time-loop cycles since they last went back in time (several days have passed, most likely), but apparently their "echoes" persist in the time loop, less solidly than those of the bad boys, but they do last until the girls go back in time again, at which point the echoes vanish so they don't run into themselves. That's my theory, anyway.
A bunch of plans and time-trips. In plans A and G, they're wearing school uniforms; in B, C, and H they're in other clothes (probably a mixture of the early-60s outfits they bought for the earlier trip, and other clothes of theirs), and in D, E, and F you can't see enough of them to tell. Some of the trips, then, were right after school, and others might have been on weekends or holidays. There may have been days when they didn't have the free time to make a trip, so the trips may not have been on consecutive days. Lottie didn't always bother to alter her "huge manga hair". Some of the schemes required special props that they had to either get through the time hole or obtain on the other side. If the police call box had turned out to be a TARDIS, it might have added more options to their time-traveling schemes.
Back in school uniforms for the final try, and now Calvin's involved (in his own school uniform).
Parlez vous Bling Blong Bloo?
"Pull a few levers"? I actually doubt that Calvin really knows which levers to pull to shift a train, even if he's used model train sets.
A close shave for Occam. It seems that honesty is the best policy... at least for Shauna, who seems to be the sort of person that people trust.
And I guess the alternate track gets to the station too; it would be a bummer if the disaster were averted, but the train wound up on a disused siding out in the middle of nowhere and the bicentennial celebration had to go trainless.
Breaking up into slices is an amusing way for the bad boys to start dematerializing now that they're no longer needed in history... that Cosmic Consciousness has a sense of humor.
No cake for you!
Calvin saved Lottie, then Calvin's dad saved him. Nice finish! Dad likes him meeting girls, while mum thinks they're Jezebels.
With the time-traveling finished, the loose-end-tying phase of the story begins... first up, Mildred's phone is back!
And we finally know what Grumpaw/Calvin's mission was. But the whispered family secret remains a mystery.
Looks like Shauna and Lottie are waiting for a bus (or tram or something)... good thing public transit runs late in the evening over there. Some places I've lived, the buses stop running pretty early. I'm a bit curious about the geographical proximity of the various places; somebody did a map years ago (in the Scary Go Round era, but mostly based on a description from the even earlier Bobbins time; it's low-resolution, out-of-date, and non-canonical because it's a fan creation), but that doesn't show the current relevant places such as the girls' houses, the school, the train station, and so on. Mildred might be able to walk home from school, while the other two girls take transit (but might live close to one another; they're best friends from an early age). Grumpaw lives near Mildred. The train station seems to be walkable from the school. Some other things are down by the canal, but Amy's store seemed to need a transit ride to reach.
Earlier there was a burger with a burger topper; now the same is done with cupcakes. I think the cupcake lady is Cupcakes McKenzie. Keep Calm and Cup Cakes!
And now Lottie has completely forgotten Grumpaw, who seems to have a family in this new timeline (similar but not quite the same as the original timeline before history changed the first time). He's taken an early retirement from school, and never did any time meddling, but still remembers meeting the girls in the past (though the new versions of them never time-traveled either... it's just echoes of them left behind in history).
And we now finally know just what caused the history of Ryan and Amy to diverge... the pub where they ran into one another to start a classic storyline was wrecked by the train and apparently never rebuilt, so in the changed timeline Ryan got drunk somewhere else and Amy didn't find him, and they were both worse off for it.
The boys are back again, and hopefully have a place in the next mystery, whatever it may be. The girls seem to actually still have some recollection of traveling to the '60s, though details must be fuzzy; their note-taking could help, presuming the notes didn't fade away like Marty McFly's family picture.
The Whom? I guess in this new timeline, classic rock has better grammar.
...now, that's just weird. I have no clue how this timeline divergence (which would seem to need changes way before 1960) could get established... A dream, a hoax, an imaginary story?
A Rundown of the Timelines