Review: ‘Mechaboys’

Mechaboys Writer/artist: James Kochalka Top Shelf Productions; $19.99 The unbelievably prolific cartoonist James Kochalka has a new original graphic novel, this one leaning more in the direction of his adult work, like SuperF*ckers and American Elf, than his kids comics, like SpongeBob Comics, Johnny Boo, and Dragon Puncher. The premise is a solid, grabby and […]

Mechaboys

Mechaboys
Writer/artist: James Kochalka
Top Shelf Productions; $19.99

The unbelievably prolific cartoonist James Kochalka has a new original graphic novel, this one leaning more in the direction of his adult work, like SuperF*ckers and American Elf, than his kids comics, like SpongeBob Comics, Johnny Boo, and Dragon Puncher. The premise is a solid, grabby and compelling one…but the timing couldn’t possibly be worse.

Two bullied, outcast teenagers build a robot battle suit in their garage for the express purpose of exacting revenge on their classmates. The parallels to school shootings could have been subtle, but Kochalka draws attention to them, with one of the boys describing his plan to attack the prom and kill everyone as being “like COLUMBINE meets ROBOCOP.”

One imagines that particular line sounding a bit different when Kochalka wrote it, long before the February 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, which managed to do something previous school shootings did not: Start a months-long national conversation on guns.

The line is spoken by Zachery (who would prefer you call him Zeus), the id-driven, aggressive a-hole of the pair, and a decidedly terrible influence on the sweet, quiet Jamie (who would prefer you call him James). Zachery, with long black hair that covers one eye and a barely-there teenage mustache, is reminiscent of Kochalka’s Jack Krak character in Superf*ckers, an inveterate jerk character whose loutishness is part of his charm. His plan is revealed to Jamie after a page-long explanation of his theory about how the universe is evil (“I call it my Evil Universe Theory.”)

So not unlike when Kochalka has Zachery telling his gym teacher he can’t participate because he’s trans and he’s on his period, it might be offensive, but it’s obviously supposed to be; Zachery’s a jerk. Even still, the line, like the inevitable parallels the premise draws, is clunky, graceless, and out-of-touch sounding at the moment. (Although I’m not sure there is a good moment to evoke a particular school shooting by name.) It doesn’t ruin the book or anything, but it’s one more thing to caution against in a graphic novel that’s not suitable for readers younger than teens, despite how open and appealing Kochalka’s signature, simple style is (Although unlike most of his work for little kids, Mechaboys is in black and white).

So Zachery and Jamie build a robot battle suit in Jamie’s garage, utilizing what they find laying around there: It’s powered by a lawnmower motor, and there’s a license plate embedded in the chest. With the suit, Zachery is now much bigger and much stronger than Truck and Duck, the two big, dumb guys at school that bully him, and when they are invited to a party at Booger’s Hollow, they see a chance to show off their suit.

Zachery’s plan is to have Jamie go down there, get bullied, and then Zachery will emerge to defend him. It doesn’t go according to plan, however, as it turns out without Zachery around, the cool kids—particularly a particular cool girl—not only accept but also kinda like Jamie. And then a bear attacks, resulting in a bear vs. mecha-teen battle.

Long story short, Zachery ends up paralyzed in a hospital bed, developing his Evil Universe Theory. It is there that he tricks Jamie into promising to carry out his new plan: For Jamie to finally don the battle suit, which Zachery hasn’t let him wear up until that point, and then go to prom and “KILL every last one of those heathen mothereffers.”

Don’t worry; he doesn’t. The bear from Booger’s Hollow returns—sort of—as does the villain of the piece (or, at least, the villain who isn’t Zachery). That forces battle suit-wearing Jamie to come up with a new plan on the spot: Rather than kill everyone, he will save them. It all ends happily, although weirdly.

Kochalka’s teenagers talk in a stylized slang that is half real swear words and half little kid-like substitutions swearing, the latter seeming even funnier because the actual s-word appears alongside their insistence on using “sugar” most of the time. Their actions sometimes feel as random as their swearing, but beneath the over-the-top melodramatic coming-of-age elements and sillier events, Mechaboys has a nice message about being yourself and the illusory nature of evil.

That is, sure, Jamie and Zachery are picked on by some of the guys at school, but, in a more direct fashion, Jamie is a victim of Zachery’s friendship, and Zachery is a victim of an elaborate, negative worldview he built for himself and ended up trapped within. The idea of the battle suit is to smash that negative world that Zachery believes in, but when the boys are forced to take little breaks from one other, it becomes clear that the real problems aren’t between them and and the world, but between them and what’s going on in their own heads.

A paean to awkward, high-drama teenage years, Mechaboys gains relevance from its deliberate echoing of school violence, while distancing its plot from the real-world horror of school shootings with its superhero comic book/cartoon elements.

It’s just really too bad about that Columbine reference, which works in the opposite direction…

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