Scary Go Chat: An online interview with John Allison by Leah Fitzgerald
His comic has been compared to Seinfeld - and he's done a week of "crossover" strips to prove it. John Allison, the creator behind Bobbins and Scary Go Round, hasn't always had it as easy as Seinfeld. Allison ended Bobbins, hosted on KeenSpot, to move to Modern Tales with Scary Go Round. When that didn't work out, he moved on to his own site. Allison sounds off on why he left, what he's doing now and why there are so few Brits creating comics on the web.
Comixpedia: How did you get started in comics?
John Allison: In comics professionally or just drawing things in boxes with words in the boxes too?
CP: The latter, and then the former
JA: Well, all kids draw. I think I saw comics and tried to emulate them. In the UK we used to get reprints of the US Transformers comics, weekly. So I tried to make my own.
CP: How did you end up on the net?
JA: I made a submission pack for King Features and Universal, and to show samples of my colour work I put them up on a Geocities site. When I got my rejection letters, I publicised the comics on rec.arts.comics.strips and started to make a little audience. People were pretty hostile at first!
JA: Yeah, there was this guy, a guy who still makes a comic, who was the self appointed critic of the all new webcomics world. He just tore me apart. An essay, destroying my work.
CP: Wow. Do you still have it?
JA: It seems funny now, but this was 1998. I don't keep old email so no. It was very seriously put together though: "you are a no-hoper".
CP: Has the person seen what you've done recently?
JA: I don't know! I always keep an eye on him though. A scientific eye.
JA: In case he strikes in the night.
CP: What do you think of the person's work?
JA: He's obviously enjoying himself.
CP:: Is that a diplomatic answer?
JA: It seems like such a long time ago now! The cosmic balance was restored years ago.
CP: Cool. So about what you do now - bobbins started out drawn by hand. Why did you decide to go digital?
JA: There are about five different answers I give, I am not even sure which one is right. First, I saw PVP and Sinfest and knew I could never match such precise draughtsmanship. So I responded with some formative experiments with digital comics that were so much worse than my previous work that I shudder to look at them. Two, it was quicker. It was cheating, essentially. Three, I was having back problems from crummy posture. I draw for hours and hours at a time and it was kind of killing me.
JA: Yes, I was cheating. I was reducing the workload by doing substandard work.
CP: Ah! four?
JA: Once I started doing comics with digital art and claimed it was the new way of doing things, I could not go back. I was bloodymindedly chasing a cat up a tree.
JA: Because of a personality defect? I think in mid-2000 when I made everything look really horrible and call it cheating, I had so little time that that was all I could do without making less comics. I had quit for a couple of months at that point.
CP: I remember - what brought you back?
JA: I love making comics! But I showed so little respect for the medium at that point that maybe it wasn't a good kind of love. I was shoving bad stuff in front of the audience. Fortunately it was written okay. There is a strip that is probably more popular than me that seems to be made in almost exactly the same way. He makes a much more convincing job of it. Randall Milholland who does Something Positive.
CP: Ah... so what's reason five?
JA: I was hungover a lot of weekends, and I don't draw well hung over. I can't do anything art-wise with a hang over. Cutting and pasting got me over that hump.
JA: This is the British disease. This is why there are so few other British web comics artists. They're too drunk to get the job done.
CP: So what about now? how are things different?
JA: My social life calmed down and I started to make sense of what I was doing. The big crunch was San Diego Comic-con in 2001. I felt so outclassed. I knew I had to do a lot lot better or I would be laughed out of any place I showed my work.
CP: How are you creating your strips now?
JA: The actual process is kind of a secret. People who work in art and design can work it out quite quickly, but I get a lot of emails saying "how do you get it so clean and pretty". I don't want to give away exactly how I do every little thing, because as soon as you do there are ten comics done exactly the same way. I use Adobe Illustrator, but there is about three or four times longer spent on each comic than there was a couple of years ago. I don't want to encourage people into thinking the computer is a shortcut to making comics. It's an obstruction to individual expression before it's a help.
CP: That's cool. So was art a factor in ending Bobbins?
JA: Well, Scary Go Round and Bobbins were meant to run alongside each other. That's why the first SGR story is about Tessa and Rachel. Scary Go Round was going to be a collaboration with a friend of mine – he would do these lovely backgrounds in Illustrator and I would just set up the characters and do the scripts. But he left art to erect scaffolding on buildings and sit in a van all day, so I had to do it myself.
CP: Why did you leave Bobbins, then?
JA: Bobbins was a big mess, people were asking me to make a book of it and it just didn't make any sense to me, so I saw the opportunity to start with a clean slate. Plus I was keen to leave Keenspot, and Modern Tales initially looked like a good way out.
CP: How do you feel about the Keenspot - Modern Tales thing with hindsight being 20-20 and all?
JA: I left Keenspot at the right time. Maybe I should have left earlier. No offence to any of the people there, but I didn't have a lot in common with many of the comics there. As for Modern Tales, that was a straight out mistake. It took months to repair the damage. I should have said, that was Bobbins, this is Scary Go Round. It's basically the same thing with a line drawn in the sand. But it was another in a long line of carefully planned shots to the foot.
CP: Did you leave Modern Tales because people were expecting Bobbins?
JA: I left Modern Tales because, god love Joey, it is a bloody awful business model. No one will make money just from people looking at their comic. Not money that lets you eat. Or even buy yourself a nice pair of shoes. People thought I was dead when I left Modern Tales. I lost 2/3 of my readership.
CP: How are things now?
JA: I'm doing better now than I was on Keenspot. But I dropped off the radar for a lot of people.
JA: In San Diego in 2002 loads of people said they thought I had just stopped making comics.
CP: Wow. Have you done more promoting?
JA: I'm not very good at promoting myself. I'm not a businessman, I don't have a good head for making things happen. I rely on the kindness of others linking to me. And good word of mouth.
CP: So that would have been an advantage to Modern Tales... and disadvantage in the end.
CP:What brought about the collection of Scary Go Round?
JA: It was the very raison d'etre of the comic! SGR was created to be collected. I was waiting until I had a decent body of work to go and find out how much it would cost to print. I've been waiting so long.
CP: The typical dream to see your stuff in print?
JA: Well, I've worked as a magazine designer and a writer, so I've seen a lot of things I did make it into print. It was not so much a case of seeing my name up in lights as the physical act of making a book and holding it in my hands. It should look really, really nice.
JA: I want a nice artefact, if that makes sense.
CP: it does. how well do your merchandise sales go?
JA: Some things sell well, other less so. The tea towels were hugely popular. That was a bizarre item but folks seemed to love them.
JA: I think what Modern Tales missed is that covetable objects are where any entertainment product makes the real money.
CP: It was a cool thing – original. What else has sold well for you?
JA: Ryan's T-shirt has sold... maybe a couple of hundred over a year. I don't really push the merchandise too hard.
JA: The book is the first really serious item I've put out.
JA: Serious in terms of "this could bankrupt me if it doesn't go to plan".
CP: Hey - my boyfriend has the shirt with Tessa and Rachel in gun pose on it and our friends' kid point to Tessa and say, "Weah! Weah!" Just thought i'd throw that in.
JA: Most of my shirts were suggested by other people. I think Chris Onstad of Achewood came up with that one.
CP: It's a great shirt. I love Tessa and Rachel… Is Scary Go Round going to focus on them again soon? (I went to journalism school and identify with the sucky classes)
JA: Once SGR became the primary focus and Bobbins was out of the picture permanently, Tessa and Rachel kind of got shuffled into the pack again. I like them too, but I have trouble getting them to interact with the other characters.
CP: was Shelley becoming a zombie really revenge on the people who wouldn't let Bobbins go?
JA: No. I often say things to wind the audience up, and that could have been one of them. I am grateful to every Bobbins reader just for turning up. I would never revenge myself on the audience. I just thought it would be a fun, horrible story. I like making up horrible tales then trying to fix them. And I love Shelley. She and Tim are my favourite characters.
CP: But she's eating brains! (I thought the cauliflower-brain thing you did was brilliant!)
JA: In Bobbins terms, that's pretty extreme. But I grew up with British horror comics like Scream that were really unpleasant. There was one particular tale called 'Death Wish', about a racing driver who had lost his face in a race, so it was all mangled up. He didn't care if he lived or died!
JA: Every week the Death Wish guy would solvee a crime or a murder, just not caring. This was nihilistic stuff for a 7 year oldd to take in.
JA: Or Deathlock, the zombie cyborg guy. That freaked me out so badly.
CP: what else influences SGR?
JA: There's a guy called J Otto Seibold who writes kids books. The SGR style is how I think of his work, superimposed on the way I draw by hand.
JA: I love Pete Fowler, who is pretty much purely an Illustrator artist. His site is monsterism.net.
JA: I don't have a lot of influences in print comics beyond the obvious - Chris Sale, James Kochalka.
JA: And Groo.
CP: You've listed Shag at different points too.
JA: Oh man, yes, Shag! Shame on me for omitting him. it was my friend Marc, who became a scaffolder and now sits in a van all day, who got me into all these artists.
CP: Who do you read online?
JA: Achewood, Diesel Sweeties, Wigu, Goats, American Elf I read religiously. I read Ornery Boy by Michael Lalonde and feel deep deep envy. But it's just once a week.
JA: Lest I forget, Boy On A Stick and Slither. You can tell that guy earns a lot of money and lives on a boat. Deeply inspired.
JA: I read four or five others, but sporadically. I do a big month-long catch up.
CP: I can't think of anything else to ask you about... oh yeah - what do you do for a living besides comics?
JA: I am a graphic designer. I work for a software company, but I do bits of web design, print design. It ain't thrilling but it won't kill me!
Leah Fitzgerald is the Executive Editor for Interviews. More Details.