Interview: John Allison

I am mixing things up a bit and putting this week’s guest post up today.  After all, if you can’t go a little crazy at Christmas, you might as well be a lobster (or other secular life form / member of a non-Christian religion).  Also I had quite a manic weekend so I haven’t drawn anything…

Please put your hands together for the very talented web comicker John Allison, creator of Bad Machinery and Scary Go Round.

John Allison

image by @deadlyknitshade

What was the teen event you mentioned on your blog that spawned the aforementioned Bad Machinery and Canadian artist Kate Beaton’s Mystery Solving Teens?

Kate and I were in my car (she was visiting the UK); waiting at a junction, and a big group of teenagers went over the pedestrian crossing. Kids of working-class stock. Some of them were dawdling and a couple were smoking and two of them were kissing and so forth… A little cross section of the mid-teen experience. I was trying to think of ideas for a new comic, nothing was really working, and we got to talking about the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew, which I had never read. Mystery teens!

I don’t remember drawing the characters that day, but it was the event that got us both started on our respective mystery solving youths. This is a very dull anecdote. Then we got in the car and did some stunts.

Back in March you blogged that reader numbers for BM weren’t great and you got a lot of feedback trying to help – did those comments make you change anything you were doing, particularly?  Are you doing better now? 

I was down about my progress, but my expectations were out of proportion and perhaps I shouldn’t have made blog posts like that. The comic hasn’t put on millions of readers but people’s investment in it is far greater, and that was what seemed to be missing for the first year or so. I expected too much, I expected people to care right off the bat, and in retrospect you have to earn that.

I didn’t change anything directly due to the comments, but I did have a rethink right after that post. I realised that I couldn’t focus on 6 central characters, it was far too many and people couldn’t get a grip on the comic. You can have an ensemble cast, but you can’t treat them all equally all the time. For the next story I focussed on Shauna and it worked much better. The story starting in January is mostly about Mildred and Sonny. The little fill-in I’m doing at the moment is a showcase for Charlotte. All of a sudden readers write to me like a fog has lifted.

Quite a few of those commenters said you seemed to have really found your voice writing kids – why is that?  Do you ever do any work with young people, eg comic workshops?

No, none. I try not to overcomplicate the language, and make the reactions to situations less studied, but that’s it. I just try to write honestly, which is something I hardly ever used to do. I used to write in a tricksy way.

Charlotte

My stories are carefully worked out to avoid that happening. It used to, back in the day, so I’d add new characters who weren’t, in retrospect, all that different to the regular characters. I made a big old mess. Now I do my best to work with what I’ve got.

Would you ever write an entirely text based book?

I’m not sure that I would do that by choice, unless I suddenly couldn’t draw any more. Maybe one day I’ll want to. Sometimes a friend will ask me this and I get all tense, I start thinking “how on earth will I write this imaginary book? What will I write it about?” Making comics is like making a whole movie on your own, writing a book is more like just being a scriptwriter. It doesn’t appeal to me as much. I like being in charge of everything.

What is the weirdest commission you have ever had?

I can’t remember the oddest ones, I tend to turn them down and try not to ever think about them again. The weirdest one recently was a youth at a comics show who asked me to draw “a human version of Pedobear”. I looked into his eyes and it was like looking into a void. I went up onto the roof of the hotel where the convention was being held, grabbed a hang-glider, and just cruised around in the sky for four hours until I felt okay to continue.

Can you explain a bit about the Dumbrella Collective – how and why it got started, who is involved, how it helps you as artists?

Dumbrella was originally a little hub of sites that R Stevens of Diesel Sweeties and Sam Brown of Explodingdog set up for people they liked. They were by and large early bloggers, although I don’t think the term blog was even used back then. Drew, of Toothpaste For Dinner fame was involved. There was a girl who drew everything she ate on her Palmpilot. Other outliers. Slowly all the bloggers were replaced with webcomic artists and it was a nice little grouping. There was a big message board community attached which got a little out of hand.

It was a good way to share traffic and work together for conventions. The Dumbrella booth at San Diego was hard work and great fun. I started to think after a few years that the grouping hurt rather than helped us though. People saw this brand at shows that had no real online equivalent, six fascist islands who got along fine. These days Dumbrella is just a stamp Rich can put on anything he wants. If you look at Topatoco (online shop with merch featuring web comic artists’ designs), that’s ultimately the child of the Dumbrella years, probably its ultimate expression. Friends fall out over money so I resisted signing up to that for a long time.

I tend to draw comics freehand with a tablet and PhotoShop, as Illustrator frightens and confuses me. Should I get over it and learn?

Use what you’re comfortable with! I don’t particularly enjoy drawing in Illustrator. The only thing I ever tell any artist to do is sketch more, with pencil and paper. I’d happily never use Illustrator again.

What are your plans for 2012?

I want to have Bad Machinery books out and reach audiences that I can’t on the web. But those are my hopes rather than my plans. I don’t have any plans at all. I’ll just see what happens.

Keep up to date with John and his work on Twitter @badmachinery, Facebook, his websiteFlickr and his blog.

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