Warmoth on Webcomics: John Allison

[Editor’s Note: This is the seventh in a staggered out series of some of my favorite webcomics creator interviews that previously ran on WizardUniverse.com and were a part of the site’s archives that are no longer hosted there. John Allison’s Scary Go Round just posted its final installment and in going back through the archives I decided to drag this out for the blog. This interview was originally posted on December 22, 2006.]

Scary Go Round
(from Scary Go Round by John Allison)

John Allison’s webcomic Scary Go Round stitches a world of frightfully bizarre and at times even Lovecraftian happenings together with a brilliantly quirky cast indicative of his understatedly British sense of humor. A former web designer, Allison has made the lifestyle switch to working on his comic full time and designing snazzy T-shirts, which he sells on the side. I reached around the globe to gently pick Allison’s brain about the webcomics scene from where he stands, how he brought up Scary Go Round and when he’s coming back to the U.S.

Before you had started your first webcomic, Bobbins, what was your comics background like, what had you done, and why did you decide to give the Internet a go for publishing it?

I had no comics background at all! I had drawn comics like every comic-reading youth does—sporadically, and badly! When I was 17 or 18 I had an idea about drawing comics for common people, because I was embarrassed to go into comic shops with my friends. This was the era of “bad girl” comics and racks of covers with giant, anatomically bizarre cleavage. Comic books, [before] the manga explosion and mainstreaming of titles like Ghost World and the crossover of people like James Kochalka, seemed to be aimed at a tiny demographic that didn’t include me anymore. So I decided to make a comic strip (which I figured was “legit”) and submit it to syndicates. I colored my black-and-white samples in and put them on the Internet just to show I knew how to color things in, and that’s how I started publishing comics on the web in 1998.

What was your experience like looking for print syndication?

I submitted to King Features and Universal Features, once. The first 25 strip cartoons I had ever drawn! The hubris of this now staggers me but I was young and indestructible. I received nice, encouraging letters back from both—King Features were particularly generous with their comments considering what I had sent them. By the time they replied, I had got a job as a magazine designer but decided to carry on making five comics a week, reasoning that if I hadn’t “made it” in five years, I would give up. I actually drew my first proper month’s wages from my comic four years and 11 months later.

How long do you think it took for you to find a sustained audience online for Bobbins and then with Scary Go Round?

Well, it’s all relative. Four hundred readers a day was considered astonishing in 1998; I had about 100. It just crept steadily up.

What’s different about your creative process and publication now with Scary Go Round as compared to the way you worked with Bobbins? Have you learned anything along the way that’s affected how you work?

I would say that the creative process is different in every way, since I was starting from scratch then. I had never made more than one copy of anything prior to Bobbins. If you look at those comics, it’s pretty obvious how rough they are and how little I knew. I can’t really list here everything I’ve learned. I’ve learned hundreds of things and I still don’t think I’m a particularly adept artist. It’s still a battle between me and the paper.

I confess total process ignorance here, but I know you’ve got two really distinct styles going on in various chapters for Scary Go Round. What do you do differently and what’s determined how you’ve drawn them?

The nice, smooth, clean artwork is done in Adobe Illustrator. I’d been working that way for years but your drawing skills are always atrophying in the background and I was tired of sitting in front of a computer screen, so I returned to penciling and inking the old-fashioned way. Those are the comics with the wobbly lines and every spare square inch compulsively filled with tiles, houses and trees.

What had you been doing full time before Scary Go Round, and what was that transition like you?

I was a web designer for an IT company that was endlessly downsizing. The transition was quite easy. I’d been drawing comics alongside my jobs for almost five years, so suddenly I got my weekends back. Naturally I was somewhat scared, but other people who were about as successful as me had proved it could be done.

Groups like Dumbrella and the nature of the webcomics circuit on the Net seems to have built a considerable network of creators. That said, it also obscures nationality, so I was wondering if you had any perspective on the representation of Brits in webcomics. Do you think the U.K. is proportionally represented?

Proportionate to our population, the U.K. comics scene is a joke. This isn’t a comics-literate culture, and when I see the breadth and quality of work produced and widely available in countries like Holland and France, I want to shrivel up like a salted slug. There’s an abundance of talent, but a massive shortage of ambition. If I hadn’t become involved with the people who now comprise Dumbrella, I’m sure I would have struggled in the same way other British indie comics artists seem to. I went to San Diego Comic-Con in 2001, saw how the other half lived, came home and worked out how these things work. But the fact that a chump like me can be No. 1 and stay No. 1 borders on madness.

I saw you at the MoCCA festival last summer. Do you think you’ll be attending any U.S. conventions or events in 2007? I heard San Diego especially is going to have a bigger webcomics presence.

I will be at Comic-Con for the first time since 2004. That last couple of times it was like working in a department store on Christmas Eve, four days in a row, but I have been lured back with the promise of “some help.” Doing cons in the U.S. doesn’t make very good financial sense; I’m paying to fly there, paying to have a booth, often paying to stay there. I’m not a “special guest.” I don’t get the gold sash and scepter. They gave those to Brian Michael Bendis.

Are any of the Scary Go Round characters based on real people you know? Anyone you’re willing to cite?

They’re all just me doing silly voices. Tessa and Rachel are based on two real ladies who won a competition to be in the comic, but I doubt either of them are very pleased about their decision to enter now!

Which character you’ve done do you think is most like you?

They’re all a lot like me. I just divided up my neuroses equally between them.

Scary Go Round has dependably healthy doses of quirky sci-fi and horror. Do you read many comic books? Any favorite creators or series?

I read Marvel’s and DC’s until I was 16 or 17, I liked Peter David and Gary Frank on The [Incredible] Hulk, Mark Waid and Mike Weiringo on The Flash, Sandman, Preacher, Groo—the high watermarks at the time. John Byrne’s Alpha Flight was huge for me when I was about 9 or 10. I just read David B’s Epileptic; that was the first comic I had picked up and really enjoyed for a few years, apart from the Scott Pilgrim books. But I get worn out on comics because it’s my job.

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