Writer/artist John Allison is perhaps most well known for his webcomic Bad Machinery, which started in 2009. The winner of a British Comic Award this year for the comic, he’s also created several other stories including Scary-Go-Round, Giant Days, and Bobbins. According to his Wikipedia page, it is also important that you know he is unmarried. Regardless of whether anybody has yet put a ring on it, Allison is one of the most charming and interesting people you could hope to meet, and I got the chance to speak/babble at him at Thought Bubble. Hurrah!
This was the morning after his BCA win, so we spoke about how he’s seen the British scene grow in strength over the last decade. We also get to talk about his writing process – with just about everything he says proving to be brilliant advice for anyone out there wanting to improve their craft as a writer or creator. I start off with perhaps the most British question ever asked of somebody, but hopefully my side of things will improve as the interview goes on:
Steve Morris: Congratulations for last night, where you were awarded Best Comic at the British Comic Awards. How was your evening?
John Allison: Very exciting. A bit overwhelming. I’m not used to all the attention, because I spend most of my time in my house, on my own.
Steve: Do you think it’s important that we have awards like this, which can recognise and celebarate perhaps the smaller press comics in Britain?
John: Yes, but I think it doesn’t just celebrate the smaller presses, but it’s more that it acknowledges that comics in Britain are more than just 2000AD, The Beano and The Dandy. Things have changed a lot in the past 10 years, and the comic awards have grown out of that. While the old comics are important, they’re not everything Britain has to offer anymore.
Steve: How have you seen the British scene change over the years, yourself?
John: When I started in 1999, there was nothing. There were a few ventures and conventions where people showed off their superhero comics, but there was barely any sense of a community. There had been some older comic communities which were still sort-of around – like there was a scene around Deadline Magazine – and there were people making interesting stuff. But there was no real avenue for anything other than a very narrow British mainstream. I remember Marvel UK were around in the mid-90s, but I don’t see that they had anything to do with British Comics – other than that they employed British people.
Steve: Was that part of what inspired you to start off your comics digitally, such as Bad Machinery? How has that experience changed or grown over the years?
John: Anyone who works online becomes used to an immediate reaction – but I don’t think that can be healthy. It’s like if you sit with your phone, updating twitter all the time. You can go two hours and come back to find that nothing’s really happened. It doesn’t have to be immediate and constant. Once I realised that it changed the view I had of digital comics.
I think my readers, because Bad Machinery is serialised, save up and read a chunk of story every 2-3 weeks. And that’s fine; I don’t mind that at all. It’s simply a case of making sure that those people spread out when they check back on the story, so there’s a flow of traffic. If I were putting up 15 pages every three weeks, the way people read the story, then I’d have far less traffic – and traffic is vital in driving income to digital comics.
Steve: Does it give you more opportunity to play with structure? Every strip can end with a cliff-hanger or surprise to keep people coming back. Is that something you find interesting about the medium?
John: I find you can’t have cliff-hangers with every page, because then when you read it all together as a single story you find that you’ve got a ruddy awful book. It feels staccato, and choppy. I used to work more like that with my earlier books, and when I read them back I find that I don’t enjoy them. They don’t form a story. People have approached me wanting to publish them or reprint them, but I don’t want to do it because it doesn’t feel like a story.
Every page has to have a height, a little hit on it. Even if it isn’t an immediate joke, there’s still a hit somewhere on the page. A lot of comics, especially ‘art’ comics, can be slower or dreamier. I think you have to balance art with entertainment, give people some bang for their buck.
Steve: A little showmanship in the storytelling.
John: Yes, and an awareness of the audience.
Steve: How do you structure a story like Bad Machinery or Giant Days? Do you have a plan of the story, and work from that?
John: Yes I do. I plan out the skeleton of a three-act story, but the second and third acts won’t have much detail to them. If I start a story I’m going to spend 6 months on, I know I’m going to have more ideas for the plot or characters as it goes along. I can’t spend two months planning every inch of the story in depth – I have to keep producing pages. If I then get a better idea along the way, I can use it then, and feed it into the story.
Steve: Do you find you surprise yourself often, in that regard?
John: All the time. ‘First thought best thought’ works a lot of the time, but when you’re on your sixth mystery you’ve probably used up your first thoughts, and should probably find a second one. You’ve used up your instinctive reactions and you have to find a new way for characters to react to the story.
Steve: When reading the first story, I was struck by how — without notice — elements of the supernatural slowly crept into the narrative, without me realising. Do you enjoy playing with genre in that way?
John: Oh yes. Genre can be a primrose path – you can walk down it and come up with something completely predictable, which has been seen before. But as a creator you have power over your comic, and you can do whatever you want, however you want.
If you’re making 100 pages a year, I think ultimately you have to throw in anything you can think of. You can’t let ideas slip. Unless you are an incredible suppository of autodidactic ideas, you have to keep reading and learning and inspiring yourself with things. You have to keep putting ideas in if you want to put them out.
Steve: What inspires you, as a writer? Do you read other comics?
John: I read fewer comics now than I do before. There is such a temptation… well not even a temptation, you will just copy stuff from other people. Especially when it’s your peers, you’ll lift things without knowing, and it’s absolutely mortifying once you realise. You’ll take the tone of somebody else’s work and slap it onto your own work like a sheet of tracing paper.
So I tend to draw from other art forms, like prose. I do very much enjoy comics, but I read out and away from the things I make. I read things like Yotsuba&!, the manga series. It’s beautifully drawn — but it’s another world from my comics. I don’t speak French but I love reading French books. You can pick up and be so inspired by the layouts, but the language barrier prevents me from lifting anything from it.
I’m also inspired by people who work very hard at what they do. People like my friend Jonathan Edwards, who is always trying to better himself and moving upwards. If he feels like he’s heading to a plateau, then boom, he’ll go somewhere new. He’s always doing new stuff.
Steve: How do you start a story? What’s the genesis for anything you write?
John: I think readers primarily have to see themselves in the work. There needs to something they recognise, or are afraid of, or can empathise with, in order for them to believe it. There’s a lot of work produced which is technically brilliant, but there’s no empathy within it. So why should the audience connect with it? That’s why I don’t like a lot of superhero comics. The craft is excellent, but when I see a cover on the shelf with a bunch of people snarling at each other, I wonder “what does this say to me?” I can’t respond to it or understand it.
There’s a language to superhero comics, to the post-Image, early 90s works. I can’t associate myself with it. I used to really enjoy superhero comics, and I still enjoy a lot of the artistry in it. But most of what you see in the racks, I wonder “who is this for’? It’s not for kids, it’s not for adults, it’s certainly not for women, so who is it for?”
I feel that you have to get a nugget of an idea and try to get some feeling behind it. There has to be some kind of emotional response to whatever the characters are doing. If it’s a series of pretty pictures with nothing happening, then no matter how pretty it is, tomorrow it’ll be chip paper. People will look at it and think it’s nice, but they won’t remember it.
There needs to be a heart. It’s a problem I think in some of my older work, where there’s no heart to the story. No matter how cool it might look, it says nothing about me and it says nothing to my readers. If you can find an emotional core, then you can work in jokes, monsters, and nuttiness over the top of it as much as you like.
Many thanks to John for taking the time. You can find Bad Machinery here, with the first volume due to be published by Oni Press in March. You can also find him on Twitter @badmachinery.