Hands down, one of the best comics you’ll find on the web these days is a strip called Scary-Go-Round. Beautifully illustrated, with a genuinely quirky – but not cutesy or annoying – sense of humo(u)r, SGR is the brainchild of the multi-talented John Allison. After approaching John for an interview, then disappearing on him for several weeks, I finally managed to get my house in order and John was gracious enough to overlook my flakiness long enough to provide us with the following piece.
4CR: John, you’ve been a webcomics staple for over 6-7 years at this point. How did you end up involved in such a seedy industry in the first place? Also, how have you managed to avoid the feuding that seems to go on between so many webcomic creators?
John Allison: I got started because I’d been music editor of the University of Sheffield’s internet magazine and I had a grounding in HTML. I was submitting comics to the syndicates, and put my coloured strips online. Then I posted a link to them on rec.arts.comics.strips and the ball started rolling. very very slowly.
I avoid the feuds by not caring about them at all. Life’s too short to stomp around like a big baby.
4CR: Originally, Dumbrella seemed to simply be a name for a group of webcomic creators exchanging links, but now it seems to have grown into much more with shared characters, convention booths, etc. How would you describe Dumbrella now? Is it a studio, a group of friends hanging out…?
Allison: It’s just a group of friends hanging out. The success we’ve enjoyed at conventions was a wonderful surprise, a side effect of a joint effort to pool our resources rather than any masterplan.
4CR: Has the Dumbrella crew ever talked about doing a project together? An anthology or something? You already have a shared character – Space Mummy – that you all use, and you’ve had characters cross-over from one Dumbrella strip to another to the point where it’s actually become plot-points for entire story arcs. It seems like a shared project would be the next step.
Allison: It’s not something I’m particularly interested in. SInce I started Scary Go Round I haven’t done any crossovers at all. But the real reason is that I’m not a Kochalka-style font of comics, I can’t produce a huge amount of work. I can draw a lot but I don’t have millions of ideas so I can’t generate masses of material, so I have to hoard it for my own projects.
4CR: How has the webcomic “scene” changed from when you – and many other cartoonists – first started?
Allison: It’s unrecognizable, always growing and changing in character. To be really honest i don’t read a lot of webcomics, I have no idea what goes on beyond the end of my little street in what constitutes a vast city. I don’t think about webcomics, I just think in terms of “comics”. The delivery method is meaningless to me.
4CR: So, would you ever give up publishing on the web if you thought you could be more successful going straight to print, or syndicating in a paper?
Allison: Of course I would. As principled as I might want to be, at some point I am going to think of the financial demands of my demanding, as yet unborn children.
4CR: If I remember correctly, you’re pretty much doing “Scary Go Round” as a full-time job at this point. Is this accurate? If so, why did you choose to make that leap, and what was it like making the decision?
Allison: Scary Go Round constitutes the majority of my income, but I do freelance writing, graphic design and web design work too. i didn’t really make the decision, it was made for me 18 months ago when I was laid off. I’d just got my first book out and I decided to push things a bit harder. And it worked! it was terrifying, I don’t think you really need to ask what it was like. A huge life change.
4CR: Your original webstrip, “Bobbins,” was hand-drawn and scanned into the computer. Now, most of your regular strips — with the exception of “Scare-O-Deleria” — are created right in Adobe Illustrator. Why the major shift in your approach to drawing? Do you have any spinfluences, or do you pretty much just make it all up as you go?
Allison: I’m pretty sure that I’ve been doing comics in Illustrator longer than not. I started the switch-over in mid 2000, so that’s more than 4 years out of 6. The reasoning behind it was simple, I’m not the most consistent artist. If I’m tired, or sick, I don’t draw very well. Plus, I need the right environment to work in or everything collapses. It took several years to achieve a similar level of competency in Illustrator, and quality still varies based on how much time I give to a comic, but i can deliver on a day to day basis without getting frustrated.
4CR: “Bobbins” was kind of like “Friends” (or “Coupling,” I suppose) set in an office environment. But “SGR,” while maintaining many of the same characters, has a lighthearted, supernatural aspect to it. Since you carried over so many characters between the strips, why the major shift in tone and genre?
Allison: Well I’ve never seen “Coupling”, and Friends is a show about people dating, living together and having wacky adventures. The move toward the kind of “supernatural” stories in Scary Go Round was really quite organic. Some of the later Bobbins storylines were very bizarre – I redid the story of the Crime Pope for the Scary Go Round ‘Girlspy’ book and Keenspot should be releasing a 100 page book re-telling another Bobbins story before Christmas. That said, SGR introduced a kind of brutality that shook things up and shocked people at first. It sounds very glib but I just fancied doing something a bit different. Bobbins was played out to me but some of the characters had room to grow in new directions.
4CR: Shelley is, I assume, the favorite character as far as most readers are concerned. You’ve already killed her, what, twice now? Did you ever get any interesting letters from readers in response to this continual toying with their emotions?
Allison: When Shelley gets killed, it’s so that she can have an adventure, rather than so she can moulder in the ground. To be honest, the second time I did it was a bit forced. I don’t really like that story. Shelley is well liked but people seem to understand her robustness now, so there aren’t a lot of high-pitched cries when she gets the bullet.
4CR: How much, if any, of your storytelling and plotting is fan-driven? Have you ever altered plans due to fan feedback?
Allison: If someone guesses the end of the story, I’ll change it. But I’ve now stopped thinking more than a day or two ahead, so no one can possibly guess – since even I don’t know what’ll happen.
4CR: The voice of your characters is extremely distinctive – you can tell it’s John Allison’s writing as soon as you start reading, even on the guest strips you’ve done for other webcomics. When it comes to writing dialogue, do you find yourself working and reworking until you get it just so, or does it tend to just kind of flow from your mind to the keyboard?
Allison: I think my writing style is the sound of words being mangled as they are forced out under extreme external pressure. 20% of the time I’m flying, 80% of the time I find writing to be murder. Making up the words isn’t hard, finding things to write about is hard when you do it on your own every day. So I guess that’s why my writing seems a bit tortured.
4CR: Over the last few years you’ve played around with the formatting of the strip, and the end result has been some really nicely packaged printed collections. Recently, you’ve changed the format again. Will this affect the eventual printed collection, or is it still designed to be able to be collected in the nice, digest-sized square?
Allison: I do think about these things beforehand. I was meant to be switching to a more conventional rectangular shape after i finished the material for the last book, because four panels was never ever enough, but I was working on the book for Keenspot at the same time as I started this new regime, and I couldn’t keep it up. I only switched down to the square originally so I could do four (then five) comics a week. The first 30 Scary Go Rounds, when it was twice-weekly, were rectangular. This is very boring. You work around these things. So long as the story is good, I don’t think people care what shape it is, if its triangular and printed on bay leaves.
4CR: I’d love to see you design a triangular SGR book – that’d be sweet. Speaking of different formats, you’ve played about with Flash a bit for special SGR features. Have you considered running animated episodes on a regular or semi-regular basis, or is that just pushing things a little too far?
Allison: I think “a little” is understating the point.
4CR: Now, you break past “SGR” stories down into titled arcs when you archive them. How much planning goes into this as you work? Do you outline entire storylines in advance, or do you just kind of let things happen until you feel the current
arc has run its course and needs wrapping up?
Allison: I used to work on a strict number. it started as 30 comics, then became 40, then it crept up to 45, which was 9 weeks, far too long. It’s the very nature of plotted comics that you have to occasionally get people from A to B, and that’s boring. That’s fine in a book, when it’s one page, but when it’s got to stand up there on the website, naked and alone for 24 hours, a boring comic is a boring comic. So now I have a new rule: I’m not allowed to think beyond the next couple of comics, and I’m not allowed to do boring comics to get from A to B.
4CR: Do you have any other web projects we should keep an eye out for?
Allison: In a word, no.
4CR: Are you planning on creating any more print-only stories, a la Girl Spy or Scare-o-deleria?
Allison: I’ve completed a new 96 page colour book called Heavy Metal Hearts and Flowers, that ought to be out through Keenspot and in bookstores before Christmas. Well, that’s what they tell me. I’m very cynical. And I’m working on a new black and white SGR book called “Where The Flood Waters Soak Their Belongings”, which is about Natalie. It’s a long title, a title with weight. A title to frighten your children with. I don’t think I’ll be hand-drawing any more books for the foreseeable future, I’m part machine now and can never go back.