Sunday, July 05, 2015

The Back Half of Scary Go Round by John Allison

John Allison has spent most of the past twenty years chronicling an ever-proliferating series of strange events in and around the small British town of Tackleford, somewhere in darkest Yorkshire. More impressively, he's done all of this in public, on the Internet, most days of the week, for free. And he's done it in comics form.

First up was Bobbins, which I haven't made a serious study of yet, but was in the traditional newspaper strip-comic format and focused on the staff of Tackleford's City Lights magazine, with perhaps some supernatural eruptions. After Allison closed that down around the turn of the millennium, he launched a new series with a somewhat overlapping cast of characters called Scary Go Round, which itself ended in 2009. SGR was formatted like a comics page, which made it easier to collect in book form and (possibly) allowed Allison to write more complex stories and include more of his quirky humor and details in each update. It also was clearly fantasy: characters visited Hell, were turned into zombies, and battled giant monsters to save the world. (Though Allison's offhand tone and character-based plotting turned all of those elements into something very different from what you'd expect.) That strip was entirely collected into eight volumes, though -- in the way of the webcomic -- it's also still all available online, as are Allison's other strips.

For the next round of stories, Allison switched format again, to a double-tier newspaper style, which gave him a similar number of panels per page to SGR but with a more compact feel. That strip was called Bad Machinery, and it followed up the end of SGR to focus on two "teams" of tweens at the local school, who solve mysteries in competition with each other. Allison still includes supernatural elements, but they tend to be more subdued in Machinery than they were in SGR, making his stories better controlled and more focused on characters. He also clearly designed Machinery for eventual book publication, with long story arcs that each fit cleanly into a single book. (See my reviews of the three Machinery books to date: one, two, and three.)

Allison has also made a number of related print comics in various formats over the years -- including Expecting to Fly, which appeared online first -- and there's a 2013-2015 run of Bobbins, just to confuse things even more. Since Machinery in its turn ended last year, he produced a transitional story called "Space Is the Place" (with part of the Machinery cast going to a space camp in Wales). And he's also been writing a monthly comic called Giant Days -- confusingly, this is also the title of a major SGR storyline, plus an earlier sidebar print project -- for a different art team, which may or may not have a Tackleford connection. (I haven't seen it yet, since it's only in floppy form so far.)

So Tackleford is a place that Allison knows well, and has been telling stories about in a variety of ways for a long time. It's his Yoknapatawpha County or Castle Rock -- the core of a world that extends out to many places. With that said, though, Machinery feels more focused on Tackleford than SGR did -- maybe because the main characters of Machinery were kids, and limited in their ability to go other places and do other things.

I've been a fan of Machinery for a while, but only recently started diving back into Allison's archives. The first four SGR collections are currently unavailable to most readers in book form -- I believe ebooks are still obtainable in the UK, but not elsewhere due to a stupid recent tax law in that backwards country -- but books five through eight are still out there, most easily obtainable in the US from Topatco. And so that's how I got those books -- Great Aches, Ahoy Hoy!, Peloton, and Recklessly Yours -- and finally read a big wodge of SGR for myself.

What strikes me most about this slightly-less-formed version of Allison's world is how consistent he's been in his concerns: his stories have focused on smart, sarcastic women with a goal in mind -- Shelley Winters as the exemplar for SGR, Charlotte Grote for Machinery, with plenty of others including Amy Chilton and Dark Esther -- in a world of slightly slower, bemused men who end up along for the ride.

Unlike the Machinery books, each SGR volume collects a number of stories, adding up to about eleven months for each book. (More or less, to allow for full stories in each one.) Allison also includes notes on each storyline and some sketches and similar material at the end of each book, in the old way to entice freebie online readers to actually pay money for something.

These books, covering the strips from early 2006 through the end in late 2009, show serious growth in Allison's art style, from a cleaner version of the look he began SGR with in 2002, drawn on a computer, through a hand-drawn middle period and a brief "hand-drawn, but much bigger originals" period before settling back onto the computer. (Where I think he's stayed ever since.) The first story of Great Aches is in that early, flat-computer-color style, but everything else has a energetic hand-drawn look which well suites Allison's frenetic characters and zigzag pacing.

The stories are a bit sillier and more anarchic than Machinery, and Allison's notes make it clear that he spent this period making it up as he went along, diving into long stories without necessarily having a clear idea of how he'd get to the end. But even if the stories are somewhat shaggier and less formed, they're still Allison stories, with unlikely turns of plot and deflation always waiting in the wings. And his dialogue was whip-smart from well before this period, full of witty asides and great cross-talk that always feels plausible enough while still not conforming to the way real people ever did or would talk. (That is a good thing: people talk badly almost all of the time. Fiction is to make things better and more interesting.)

So, in conclusion: John Allison is awesome. Buy his books, read his comics, enrich him with your dollars and pounds and more exotic currencies. Start here, start with Bad Machinery, go crazy and drop all the way back to the beginning of Bobbins in 1998 to get the full John Allison experience from the beginning. It's all good. 

Note: I'm not including the usual Amazon links this time, because that's a very bad way to read and/or buy Allison's older work. You can get the Bad Machinery books there if you want, but the others are available other places more easily. And, honestly, for a webcomic you should just read a bunch of it online first -- surely we understand that by now?

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