Pinball! A few enthusiasts love to play it and the rest of us throw down some quarters when visiting an arcade bar for kicks only to squander our money, learn nothing of the skills required to play and question why we ever came to a damn arcade bar anyway before quickly unlearning that lesson and doing it all over again. I fall squarely into the second category. I love to play maybe three good games of pinball any given night they’re available before drinking enough beer to lose all mastery of the silver ball (which just takes one nowadays) and declare my permanent retirement. Try as I might to surrender to the fact that I am not good at any part of this game, whenever Black Knight: Sword of Rage starts using its voice box and calls me a loser to my face I have to drop in some quarters to try and kick its negging ass. On some far flung future day I want to purchase one of these machines for $7000 and force myself to learn. Then I will finally make the Black Knight humble. This is, to date, my most out of touch fantasy. But such is the power of pinball, a force so great it compelled illustrator and author Jon Chad to tell its history, design philosophy and technical elements all in one graphic novel.
The most interesting thing about pinball is that a lot has changed since electricity and computer chips started running these machines, but the core mechanics are still analog in nature, what with gravity, a slick sphere, and pure physics dictating the seemingly random and unpredictable flow of every play. The game design of machines evolved along with technical advances, which Jon Chad spends most of the middle of the book detailing the progress. Original, non-electric but fully mechanical pinball machines did not have flippers and basically just used the play mechanics of launching the ball at different intensities with the plunger, and physically moving the machine to tilt the ball into different holes marked at different point values. At this time it was actually possible to achieve a maximum score and points had to be tallied by hand. As electricity was added mechanical tools could be used to keep track of too much tilting, a more dynamic way to keep score of points, and limited but useful binaries for earning rewards. By 1947, Harry Mabs came along and added flippers to a Humpty Dumpty game. After a few more conventions were established, namely placing the flippers at the bottom and in a fashion that directed balls up-board, pinball as we know it was born.
The art style of the novel is in an interesting zone of not being particularly inspired and also being correct for the subject matter. Colors are bright and plentiful. Character designs are understated as people are only part of the equation here. The real accomplishment is the realistic drawings of pinball machines at different angles down to the finest details. Another good addition is the frequent drawing of dynamic black lines depicting the arc of a pinball’s journey on the board. The different line thicknesses, waviness, and jaggedness could be used to study the semiotics of linework in a class, and it serves the purpose of illustrating pinball fundamentals whenever the book discusses how to actually build skills and get good at pinball.
The extended explanations of pinball’s technical elements, game design and how to effectively play intrigued me a lot more than another angle that the book takes, a history of its controversial status as a game of chance ripe for lawmakers to ban. The early versions of flipper-less pinball were often considered games of chance due it mostly involving shooting a ball up-board and waiting for it to hit certain holes. The dreaded Anti Pinball crowd considered it no different than a Plinko machine or something. By the 1970s a lot of bans were still in place and an expert was brought in to test the validity of pinball as a game of skill. Calling his shots like Babe Ruth, expert Roger Sharpe convinced judges fairly quickly. The subsequent unbanning of pinball in locations such as California led to the initial explosion of pinball’s popularity, which contemporary audiences may recognize as a small plot element of the recently released film Licorice Pizza. Where the presentation of this plot thread loses me is it saccharinity. Somewhat mundane elements of both the game of pinball and its legal scrutiny are presented in a uncritical and fanboyish fashion, which was not as interesting to me as the study of technical and artistic elements of the game.
Pinball, a graphic history of the silver ball serves a unique place as one of the most multipurposed graphic novels I’ve read. It contains not only the history of pinball, but also a concurrent rundown of how to play the game with a glossary of strategies and jargon to learn. If there’s anything that justifies the graphic novel medium for this project, it is the illustrated examples of how to set up shots and how to visualize a successful game. This book is intended for newcomers and not die hard enthusiasts, so the enthusiast crowd who might be most interested in purchasing a pinball book isn’t really being catered to. So I would encourage the pinball-curious among you all to do what I did and get it from your local library. At the very least I know the Huntsville Public Library has one in stock, as soon as I get around to returning it.
Pinball, A Graphic History of the Silver Ball was written and illustrated by Jon Chad. It was published April 2022 by First Second.
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