Wide World of Webcomics: John Allison's 13 Year History

Wide World of Webcomics: John Allison

Welcome back to Newsarama’s Wide World of Webcomics, our continuing look at the best comics on the web. Today, we head over to merry old England for a chat with the creator of the one of the longest-lived and most popular comics online.

John Allison has had one of the longest careers of any webcartoonist, starting in 1998 with the first of his comics set in the fictional English town of Tackleford, Bobbins. In 2002, he moved his characters over to the long-running Scary Go Round, which concluded in late 2009. Now, he’s focused on the new generation in Tackleford with Bad Machinery, the oft-hilarious tale of a group of teens who love to solve mysteries…even when they let their own petty conflicts get in the way, which is often.

We spoke with Allison about the transition from Scary Go Round to Bad Machinery, his history with doing comics online, and his desire to do Bad Machinery in print. Allison was refreshingly frank about his ups and downs in doing the new strip, and what he’s learned over the years. Read on to find out more. 


Newsarama: John, you've had about a year and a half with Bad Machinery now. How does this experience compare to working on Bobbins and Scary Go Round?

John Allison: Writing and drawing have become easier and more enjoyable for me in recent years; you learn to trust yourself a lot more after a few thousand pages. But writing long stories was never my strength so I have had to learn a lot of lessons on the job with Bad Machinery, and I feel like I only got to grips with parts of that challenge in the third story. So once again I had to do all my growing up in public.

Nrama: You started doing webcomics at a time when, frankly, webcomics weren't being done very often. What made you want to embrace this new medium, and what are the biggest changes you've seen in the medium since you started doing the strip?

Allison: When I started, there might have been 25 "webcomics" as you know them now and I don't remember hearing that term until a couple of years later. I did comics on the Internet because it was free and if I had made printed copies, I wouldn't have known what to do with them. But I knew how to make a website when most people didn't, and back then, that was enough! 


Nrama: You've twice ended a series to move on to a new one – what were the biggest challenges in the transition, particularly in knowing when to say "The End" and not losing your existing readers?

Allison: The truth of the matter is that you have no idea how people will respond to change. My comics have changed so much over the years, in the writing, in art style, sometimes incrementally, sometimes quite suddenly. So I've cultivated an audience who will go along with me because they trust me.

But doing a comic about children was one of my more violent transitions! I tried to soften it, but you have to accept that when you make a big change, you've taken a wrecking ball to the house and there will be some rebuilding.

As for knowing when to end, when it's your living, the stakes are higher. I probably hung on for a couple of years too long on Scary Go Round. I knew I had lost some of my enthusiasm for the characters and the setup, but I wasn't sure what to do next.

Nrama: I was curious about some of the biggest influences on Bad Machinery -- were John Bellairs' books an influence? 

Allison: I've never heard of John Bellairs before. To be honest, and this is terrible to admit, I hardly read any teen mystery books at all. Maybe a Three Investigators book? And I never read ghost stories, I could frighten myself to death as a kid. So I'm just making up what I think a mystery book might be like.

I bought a Nancy Drew and a Hardy Boys book before I started Bad Machinery, they were so dry! Just flat as a pancake. There was nothing in there I could use.

The main influences on Bad Machinery were Richmal Crompton's Just William books - so well written, bulletproof in their language and humour, and my own childhood. I just tried to dredge up every useful memory, then made the rest up.

Nrama: Bad Machinery has more of a focus on younger characters – what's the biggest challenge in writing younger/-teen characters? Do you have to do any research to get the "voice" of the characters, and if so, what type?

Allison: Again, I just try to remember the way I was at that age, and the way my friends were. If you try to fill the thing with slang, it sounds awful and it will date so quickly. I try to make the emotions authentic and not to have characters say things that you wouldn't spit out at 11 or 12.

You're so careful at that age not to give your weaknesses away. That's more important than trying to capture some nebulous lexicon. 


Nrama: You've posted about stopping Bad Machinery as a webcomic and trying to find a publisher -- do you feel the storyline works better in a hard-copy format, and if so, why? How has the search been going?

Allison: I want to reach the widest possible audience, and I made a story about young people so that young people would read it. The web isn't the place for that. I don't enjoy reading stories online. The web is good for a quick blast of comics, your Nedroids, your Kate Beatons, but I find digesting a narrative on a glowing screen quite agonising. The screen just hurts your eyes, especially if you've been staring at it all day.

The search for a publisher has been hampered by my lack of time, and the need to find someone who will pay me as much money as I'd make if I did it myself. I can sell a few thousand books on my own and keep all the money - I need someone who can do a lot better than I can on my own.

Nrama: You've also written about trying to do a new story with Shelley that hasn't been working. Do you see yourself returning to the character in the near future?

Allison: I talk too much on that damn Internet. I try lots of projects that don't work. Shelley was a big character and one I love drawing, but there's nothing left to say with her.

Nrama: Tell us about the next case to be faced by these mystery-loving youngsters.

Allison: It's called The Case Of The Lonely One, it's more of a science fiction story than the first three. It's a little bit creepier, there's a greater sense of threat. But this is the second year of big school, the stakes go up a little bit with each year! 


Nrama: You've made several strides forward with your visual style over the years. What do you feel more confident about as an artist, and what areas do you still want to work on?

Allison: I'm a better draughtsman than I was, my composition is better than it was, but I need to work on the layout of my pages, the balance and the flow. I'm studying Al Hirschfeld, European comic artists like Mawil, trying to expose myself to people who are the best at what they do. You know, like Wolverine.

Nrama: What opportunities do you feel have been opened by such new media as iPads/smartphones/online comic servers such as Comixology, and what do you feel can be done by both larger companies and individual creators to realize these opportunities?

 Allison: I don't know enough about the area to speak authoritatively about it. I find reading on the screen painful, because I spend most of the day staring at my Cintiq and one of those nuclear new iMacs that work so hard to burn your eyes clean out.

I have to say though, I was able to make and sell eBooks myself without the aid of any intermediary besides Pulley - the opportunities are exactly the same as in the early days of the webcomic. But people have got a lot lazier since then.

Nrama: What are some of your favorite comics/creators, both online and off?

Allison: My favourite comic creators as a kid were Walt Simonson, Alan Davis, Bret Blevins, Jon Romita Jr and John Byrne, and later on I got into Sam Kieth, Peter Snejbjerg, Marc Hempel, Chris Bachalo's run on Generation X. I'd follow the artists and writers I liked from title to title, if the creative team changed to one I didn't like, I lost interest immediately. And this was from about 11 years old!

When I was 10, I could tell that Marc Silvestri's X-men were good, that sometimes an inker could murder Jon Bogdanove's pencils. I had kind of an obsession with knowing the names of the people who made the comics I loved.

But I also loved Quentin Blake, Ronald Searle, Tove Jansson, Sergio Aragones, Alfred Bestall (who did 'Rupert The Bear'), Bill Watterson, Giles - artists that were a world away from US superhero comic books.

I don't want to write out a big list of my friends as the artists I like today, as I'll miss people out and bruise feelings, but I'm a great admirer of Mawil, Warwick Johnson-Cadwell, Becky Dreistadt, KC Green, Anthony Clark, Gene Ha, Kate Beaton, Vera Brosgol, Bryan Lee O'Malley, Kiyohoko Azuma - I enjoy anyone who makes me want to try harder - and all of them do.

Nrama: Why do you feel the comic strip format remains enduring, even as newspapers continue to implode?

Allison: It's just a nice creative unit. One page, one day. It's do-able. You can do a page a day. 


Nrama: Would you want to do a book that was in a longer hard-copy format, or something in film/TV/animation?

Allison: I'm not rich, but I can please myself right now. Do the stories I want, as it suits me. I'd love to do a lavish book, or work with talented people on projects where the buck doesn't stop with me all the time. Because after eight years, that can be exhausting. If someone offered me a big pile of cash and the opportunity to do something interesting, of course I'd do it.

Nrama: What's next for you?

Allison: I might go to the toilet? I've been sitting here for quite a while. It can be bad for you to hold it in too long.

Nrama: Anything else you'd like to talk about that we haven't discussed yet?

Allison: What's the deal with packing peanuts? Why do they smell exactly the same as cheese puffs? What aren't they telling us?

Get to know the kids of Bad Machinery at www.scarygoround.com.

Next: R. Stevens introduces us to the robotic romance of Diesel Sweeties!

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