John Allison has been creating webcomics since 1998, when he debuted “Bobbins,” a series which ran on Keenspot for four years. Allison’s reputation as an artist was solidified in 2002 when he began his second comic strip “Scary Go Round,” which ended earlier this year. The full color strip was notable for its long form stories and a unique sense of humor which rarely manifested itself through punchlines and gags, but rather through dialogue and characterization. His comics are also notable for the lack of a status quo and their constant evolution.
In September, Allison concluded “Scary Go Round” and debuted a new comic strip, “Bad Machinery,” which takes over its predecessor's web site at scarygoround.com. The new comic revolves around a number of schoolchildren and strange events revolving around the local football club (read: "soccer team" in American parlance). The strip is clearly in line with Allison's previous work--his linework and sense of humor are unique among webcartoonists--but he has played with the design of the strip and is trying a different approach as far as the writing, which he talked about with CBR News.
CBR News: John, the first question which I think a lot of people have wondered, is why did you decide to end “Scary Go Round” after more than seven years?
John Allison: I realised that having a comic that started with "S" was seriously disadvantaging me in alphabetically ordered lists. No, I just realised that the work I was doing was becoming somewhat uninspired. I had a lot of characters that I didn't care about, and I was making whole runs of strips about characters that people didn't really like, perhaps to try and make some bloody minded point. Seven and a half years is a long time and I had lost perspective and direction. I was also losing readers for the last year and it was evident that changes had to be made.
Ignoring the numbers of readers and page views and those aspects, what do you think are the downsides of a creator doing a single strip for such a long time?
It depends what the strip is like. A lot of long-running properties are sterile for long periods and only come alive occasionally. As long as the strip is a good avenue to explore ideas, it isn't a problem. But when you grind it out to a formula because that is what the readers demand, and you have to keep going because that's how you make your money, I imagine it feels a lot more like a prison. My readers were always primed to expect change, but I can think of plenty of webcomic artists who would meet a chorus of screams should they try something more mature or experimental than their current work.
When you decided to end “Scary Go Round,” did you have the idea for “Bad Machinery” in your head already?
I had a few ideas about things I could do. My intention was to narrow the focus from "Scary Go Round." "Bad Machinery" was one idea, I also had a Shelley comic. I worked them both up over a couple of months and I figured that "Bad Machinery" might have a broader appeal in the long term.
How did this experience differ from in 2002 when you ended “Bobbins” and started “Scary Go Round?”
It's actually exactly the same--"Scary Go Round" was meant to have a narrow focus (it was to appear on the Modern Tales subscription site twice a week) and "Bobbins" had been intended to continue alongside. When the Modern Tales thing didn't work out, I had fallen out of love with the rough and ready nature of "Bobbins" and made a hybrid of the two. I stored up a lot of problems for myself that way!
You’ve mentioned on your blog that one of the things you wanted to do with this new project was get away from writing about twentysomethings. “Bad Machinery” is focused more on adults and kids. What do you find compelling and interesting about people at those stages of their lives?
I'm 33 now and the things that I found either funny or important at 23 seem less so. Often they seem crass, cruel, or trivial. It's a time of your life when you reject a lot of what has gone before in order to stake your claim as an adult. I think most people spend most of the following years quietly re-assimilating a lot of what of what they threw out. Like vacuuming the house, for example, and getting up at a reasonable hour.
I wanted to write about children because I could write in a silly way without being mannered or affected. The adult characters in "Scary Go Round" behaved like they were drunk all the time, and that became tiresome to write.
As for the adult characters in "Bad Machinery," I don't know the extent to which I will explore them. They're really there to facilitate the children's access to certain plot areas that would be hard to get to plausibly otherwise. Sorry, this is very dry! They break things up for me, add a nice change of tone when I need it.
Does “Bad Machinery,” in terms of characters who are less mannered, more emotionally real, represent one of the directions you want your work to move in?
I want to be a little more in touch with actual emotions rather than burying it under six layers of wackiness. It's easier when writing about children, because I'm writing about things that happened to or near me more than half my lifetime ago. It's not exactly raw. And these days I'm trying not to over-write. No one should ever deliver a monologue in speech bubbles unless they are plum crazy.
How autobiographical is the strip in terms of your schooling and that age?
It's very autobiographical in some ways! I do draw the school I attended, and the town I attended it in. It just makes it easier to draw people walking around, I know what is round each corner! But my school wasn't co-educational, the girls' high school was separate, just up the road.
When you started "Bad Machinery" did you know where the story and the characters are going in the long term, or how do you work?
I plotted out the first 100-page arc loosely, I like to leave space to take detours. I haven't thought beyond that, I don't know if I will do another "Bad Machinery" story immediately afterwards, I might do something else from the "Scary Go Round" universe. These are hard comics to draw, there's a lot of detail and a lot of characters.
Working on a strip, do you think of this as an open-ended project that could theoretically last years or how do you approach something like this?
I figure that it could run until they graduate from the school, I think the maximum I could do is 21 stories - 100 pages for each term of their grammar school education. But that's 2100 pages--more than I did of "Scary Go Round" or "Bobbins." That would take me ten years. I'm not sure that the rewards of a career in webcomics would take me that far.
Creating 2100 pages is intimidating. Is that more a question of what you could do formally or do you have a handful of ideas about the characters and plots that would work well in this universe?
It's more formal. It would take me ten years to do all those stories! I don't even know what the second story will be yet! I don't like to think too far ahead, I just tie myself in knots. I know that there are lots of things I can write about and I have a big list of potential mysteries.
Having worked as a webcartoonist for more than a decade now I’m really interested in your thoughts about how the scene has changed, how the possibilities for cartoonists have changed, and where you think things are going?
The webcomic audience has grown a lot, but the audience for longform or mature work has not grown proportionately. People's attention spans have completely collapsed. A good strip can be a big hit very quickly if it can be posted to digg or whatever, it can find an audience and be off like a rocket. There's no equivalent channel for something more challenging. Not that I think there's any reason that there would be one! In addition, every man jack makes tshirts and books now, but the available customer base has not grown proportionately, so it's harder to make a living like we could back in the cash crazy days of 2005, drunk on money, burning it for winter fuel.
It doesn’t surprise me, really, since there’s a market for joke comics but for long form work like this there’s few successes or outlets in any media. Do you see any bright spots?
On the internet, the drier your work, the harder it is to get across to people the broad sweep of what you're trying to do. If "Achewood" had begun in its current format, an irregularly published and frequently gnomic piece of work, I doubt it would have become the hit it is with the same ease. But it's a far richer comic in its current form.
"Achewood" is the best comic of this decade, and it's a complex, longform work written by a humorist who could have stood shoulder to shoulder with Perelman and Thurber, so there you are, a bright spot.
Can you tease us a bit about this Shelley Winters project of yours you have rattling around in your brain and will get to sometime in the future?
It's a big sexy project, it would be expensive to film but as a comic I think I can bring it in on the same budget as I use to make "Bad Machinery." In it, Shelley would mess around with history to find the truth behind the major events. I'm slightly worried about actually making it though--"Bad Machinery" is pretty balanced and sane and emotionally "real", I feel like that's the direction I should go in. "Destroy History" is about a small, scatterbrained, indestructible woman challenging medieval kings to "The Battle Of Who's Best." It's the literary equivalent of artificial sweetener. But since I can only manage four "Bad Machinery" comics a week, I don't see myself mustering up another project any time soon.
Most of the collections of both of your strips are out of print. Do you have plans to reprint even if not all of them, at least some of them? Maybe a best of collection of “Bobbins” and “Scary Go Round” -- Then we can have an internet cage match over what you left out.
Alex, I have so little affection for "Bobbins" that a "best of" would be a pamphlet featuring basic tips for what to do if you are trapped by an erupting volcano. But I can't afford to reprint and warehouse thousands of books, and print-on-demand is still prohibitively pricey for colour books. The early "Scary Go Rounds" are a little rough around the edges and would require considerable work on my part for someone else to reprint them, I don't see that happening. It's just a fact that books go out of print and disappear. Maybe e-books will save them, but I don't really believe in e-books. My ego doesn't require my work to be available in perpetuity.
"Bad Machinery" is updated regularly at scarygoround.com