"Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong" by Prudence Shen and Faith Erin Hicks is an excellent graphic novel and first collaboration. The story begins with a friendship and culminates with a light-hearted but suspenseful gladiator-style robot competition.
Shen first wrote "Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong" as a prose novel, which Hicks then adapted into a graphic novel. Hicks has just the right sense of what works in the comics medium, and the collaboration feels seamless.
Shen's suburban school setting and characters first seem cut from the usual cloth. The country of high school, and even the subgenre of high school organized competitions, has been amply explored for decades in YA fiction and also thousands of cartoons and films. However, as I read "Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong," the story kept surpassing my expectations. I'd nod to myself, thinking, "Yeah, I've seen this before," but then an unexpected small twist in the plot or a particularly nice bit of dialogue immediately would pull me back into the story.
The plot and characters feel as comfortable as old clothes but also feel surprisingly fresh. Reading "Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong" is like hanging out with a long-time friend who can still surprise you, who still has hidden depths under a familiar face. Hicks' pages have great panel-to-panel flow, and her facial expressions evoke sympathy and laughter equally well. Shen and Hicks use a standard plot progression, but the escalating suspense of back-to-back battles still works, and their storytelling execution has enough small surprises to defy predictability.
For a story that focuses heavily on the science geek goal of winning a robotics competition, it's interesting that Shen's protagonist is "The Good Jock", Charlie, although "Crazed Geek" Nate is a close second. Out of all the characters, Charlie's family is the only one that Shen and Hicks take a closer look at, and his realistic troubles provide a counter-balance to the manic and humorous tone of the rest of "Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong." None of the characters, even Charlie, have a truly dynamic character arc, but everyone grows just a little, subtly. Even the evil cheerleaders don't remain two-dimensional. Holly and Nora start off as hilariously stock interpretations of haughty Mean Girls, but they become more. The only characters who remain totally static are the twins, who get their own big moment at the end of the book.
Blonde cheerleader and Queen Bee Holly is the seeming villain of "Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong" from page one, where she dumps Charlie coldly via text message. It's impressive how Shen and Hicks make Holly's intelligence and soft spot for Joanna apparent without feeling the need to make a big "Cheerleaders are people too" point out of it. Shen's dialogue is snappy, with different jokes and speech rhythms for different characters, and Hicks reinforces Shen's excellent characterization with distinctive body language.
Most of the time, Shen and Hicks' use of stereotypes is clever, such as when Nate screams, "I need to kill him before I have some kind of asthma attack." However, the narrative is a tad heavy-handed when one of the opposing Rumble teams turns out to embody a lot of the worst stereotypes about geeks, in particular misogyny and reverse-discrimination. While these observations are true, the "mean geeks" were so comically goon-ish and over–the-top in appearance and behavior that it pulled me out of the story.
"Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong" is a thoroughly enjoyable and satisfying read. It's a great blend of optimism, geek humor and high school drama, and when I put the book down, my first thought was to hope that Shen and Hicks would collaborate again, with similarly successful results.