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Pinball: A Graphic History of the Silver Ball – It Will Make You Fall In Love With Pinball [Review]

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Written and art by Jon Chad. Colour assist by Luke Healy. Published by First Second Books.

Cartoonist Jon Chad is passionate about pinball. Between 2010 and 2015, he and fellow cartoonist Alec Longstreth collaborated on the illustrated pinball zine Drop Target. More recently, Chad stepped into the pinball world professionally by creating art for an actual machine. So it comes as no surprise that his latest project is a graphic novel that charts the history of the well-loved game.

Pinball: A Graphic History of the Silver Ball is a non-fiction account that explores pinball throughout the decades. As a result, it charts the game’s evolution over time and the challenges it has faced along the way.

Pinball: A Graphic History of the Silver Ball cover by Jon Chad.
Pinball: A Graphic History of the Silver Ball cover by Jon Chad.

Chad begins by making a quick case of what makes pinball great. Through this, he adds a sense of romance to the game, setting up the expectation that this graphic novel will not just be a statement of facts but a labour of love.

The cartoonist acts as the narrator throughout, communicating his ideas first through caption boxes and then supporting them visually. As a result, this graphic novel is not bound by the traditional narrative structure. Instead, Chad uses a range of techniques at different points depending on what he is trying to convey.

Pinball: A Graphic History of the Silver Ball page by Jon Chad.
Pinball: A Graphic History of the Silver Ball page by Jon Chad.

Where appropriate, scenes from history are reenacted, such as game designer Steven Richie’s brush with the law or how pinball was banned in New York City. These work as there are accounts from these events, some of which Chad has directly quoted from, and are far more engaging than simply communicating it in a single panel or through captions.

Much of the time, Chad highlights a series of events in quick succession or something more abstract. In these instances, he uses an illustrated approach to conveying what is discussed. This could be supported by something literal, like someone playing a pinball machine in a particular way. It’s straightforward but makes it more engaging than merely reading it through the captions. However, Chad is not afraid to take a stylistic approach also. Machines are occasionally amorphized, which makes particular points fun and approachable. Additionally, his depiction of pinball in action is full of energy, with colourful shapes bursting off the machine to show the kinetic nature of the game.

Pinball: A Graphic History of the Silver Ball art by Jon Chad.
Pinball: A Graphic History of the Silver Ball art by Jon Chad.

The final piece of the puzzle are diagrams and infographics. These are used to display complex concepts in digestible ways. One example is the summary of pinball’s reward system. Chad draws a series of labelled gift boxes on an upwards scale to show the progression of different rewards. It’s a great way to show what players can work towards without the theory coming off as dry. Other times, Chad will use illustrated timelines. These summarise several events under a similar theme, such as pinball’s decline in the 90s. It’s a great way to communicate lots of information that may cover multiple pages through other methods.    

These techniques are used to dive into various topics over six chapters. The first begins in the golden age of pinball, which happened during the great depression. Chad explores the popularity boom of the time and the moral panic that caused the game to be banned in many cities. This section doesn’t merely state the facts but goes deeper by looking into the pinball’s appeal to players of the age.

Pinball: A Graphic History of the Silver Ball page by Jon Chad.

Further chapters chart pinball’s evolution. Chapter Two looks back at the lineage and how it was inspired by a series of European games before making its way to the US. Chapter Three looks at new innovations such as the flippers and tilt mechanisms. Through this exploration, the graphic novel goes deeper into how pinball was able to solidify itself as a game of skill instead of one chance – both physically and in the general perception.

The following chapter sees Chad go deeper on the abstract side of the subject. He looks at how theming and the various components – such as the lights, sound, art, and objectives – create a connection between machine and player. While this sounds academic, it’s made to be accessible to the reader. The language used remains approachable and is supported by plenty of examples, imagery, and diagrams.

Pinball: A Graphic History of the Silver Ball art by Jon Chad.
Pinball: A Graphic History of the Silver Ball art by Jon Chad.

Chapter Five dives into the 1980s and 90s to see the new innovations and challenges faced by pinball at the time. It goes into how the rise of Space invaders and other arcade games shook up pinball and how they reacted. Pinball aficionados will see a lot of beloved machines from this era mentioned, such as The Addam’s Family and Twilight Zone. From there, Chad explores the decade of pinball’s decline and what was done to try and turn it around.

The final chapter goes into pinball’s resurgence. While it goes into recent innovations, the more compelling part is the focus on the community aspect that has been cultivated through the internet. It’s an optimistic outlook on where the cartoonist’s much-loved hobby is heading.

An example of the tips in Pinball: A Graphic History of the Silver Ball.

While the meat and potatoes of this graphic novel is charting pinball’s history, it also includes extensive backmatter that could help you become a better player. There are basic flipper skills, tips for beginners, detailed anatomy of a machine, a substantial glossary, and a handy list of external resources. These are perfect for those who reached the end and are hungry to take their skills to the next level. 

Pinball: A Graphic History of the Silver Ball is a labour of love. Passion bursts off the page, giving a detailed history and exploring the hidden relationship between players and the game. Both aspects are visually communicated well, keeping it engaging and adding an additional layer to the narration. If one of Chad’s objectives was to get more people to play, he’s been successful. I have a craving to play pinball.

Pinball: A Graphic History of the Silver Ball is available from all good comic book shops, online stores, Amazon, and eBay.

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