Eric: State of the Web(cartoonist): John Allison
The Webcartoonist: John Allison
Current Webcomic: Scary Go Round
Enthusiasm: The Hoi Polloi
How Frequently Read: Occasionally Checked
Sometimes, life ain't all that easy to understand, you know? Take Scary Go Round. It's too good a webcomic and I like it far too much to be this apathetic about it, but there we are. I'll have to try to explain.
John Allison is one of the old school. He's been doing this since 1998 on the web, but he started playing with the characters who would ultimately become the Bobbins and Scary Go Round cast in 1994, when he was wee. He went through a period where he wrote and drew Cat Flap, a protostrip not on the web, but bits and pieces show the sensibilities (and cast) that would define the strip ahead. He took a side tour through a supernatural comic (with cameos and bits with some of his later Bobbins cast, prefiguring Scary Go Round), and then finally began his full on webcomic career with Bobbins, which was one of my favorite comics during its run.
When he ended it in 2002, and began the sequel Scary Go Round, he did something I thought was very smart at the time: he focused on a new cast, and to cement the deal, he killed off Shelley, his most popular Bobbins alumna, in the second chapter. It was a bold move, making it clear that Scary Go Round wasn't Bobbins -- it was a new strip, with new people and new happenings.
Only that's not where it went. Shelley was revived as a zombie, and then revived as a real living person, and became the protagonist. The two new leads, Rachel and Tessa, went bad and went on to suffer multiple bad ends. And many, many great stories followed, the ever evolving mythology of Tackleford growing with them.
Thus is the glory of Scary Go Round, and thus is its curse. Scary Go Round is a dense webcomic. Even if we discount the preweb years, these are characters, settings, and mythology with roots going back about ten years, each and every day, storyline after storyline after storyline. And if you read any one of those storylines, you'll find several things in common -- smart, snappy dialogue, good humor, a coherent plot that moves forward, a cast of engaging characters, and oddities that endear rather than put off. How many? Just counting Scary Go Round we're on chapter forty-two right now. (And as a side note, the Chapters page may be one of the nicest storyline selectors I've seen on a website.)
And after enough years, it all becomes a bit overwhelming. We launch into a new story with fire and vigor, but after a week or two our energy is dissipated, and like The Boy we revert to callow youth and poke at things with sticks.
Which is why I've found myself doing the "occasionally checked" shuffle with Scary Go Round these days. If I go a few weeks, there's a healthy chunk of British fire waiting and I can devour it like brisket, fighting off a vague sense of confusion though sheer gusto and an appreciation for pluck. With luck, by the end I feel the satisfaction of good reading and appreciation, without quite noticing that I'm not sure who some of the characters are because two of them were added new for the story and three others are callbacks to storylines from the late teens I can't remember at the moment. Part of the problem there is the former look like the latter, and I've been known to reread seven years of comic strips trying to find when a newly created character "first appeared." Honestly, the third or fourth time that happened you'd elect to be apathetic too.
Which is hardly Allison's fault, mind. He does his job and he does it damnably well. This is a stylish, fun comic full of good things that he puts together well. But, well, I'm old now, and I get tired, and sometimes I don't remember so well. I drink tea and I play with my magical E-Ink book reader designed to take the most sophisticated technology ever turned to the literary arts and make it as close to a $5.99 mass market paperback as the Sony Corporation can get it, rereading stories and occasionally writing a thing or three and wondering when my hair got this white and these students I work with got so young, and then boom it's time for medication and the old thump-chest and....
...I seem to have completely lost my train of thought. Sorry.
Anyway, I should probably move on to the usuals, before I start talking about when I was your age and Ithaca or Seattle or something.
Dialogue dialogue dialogue dialogue dialogue. While Allison can fall into the "all these characters sound the same" trap, the repartee he writes is spot on and downright crackling. I love reading friends and enemies alike chat and cut into each other with verbal jabs.
Which can be expanded to writing. Like I said, Allison's great at building storylines -- and the fact that officially this is a horror/humor comic means he's not constrained in them. He doesn't have to have things work out in the end. Sometimes, Shelley gets killed or her sister Erin gets dragged into Hell and everyone forgets her or, worse still, Tim is exiled to Wales forever. Allison can have terrible things happen to his characters, and he's not afraid to let those things change the story, possibly permanently.
Artistically, I've always been a fan, but when Allison went back to hand drawing instead of Illustrator tricks and the like, the art went up a level or three. His artistic vision is highly stylized and made out of concentrated awesome.
His site is great, his cast list is up to date and detailed, his navigational tools and archives are strong, he has good value ads, and he sells limited edition tea towels. What isn't to like? Huh? Huh?
As stated, the sheer, daunting depth of the developed backstory can make for confusion. Allison's strengths don't include contextual clues on cast members -- he throws you into the deep end, letting you get to know new characters as you go along (usually) and letting you remember old ones -- or not -- on your own. While the cast list helps keep them straight, it can still make for difficulty and confusion.
The ever present danger of a bad ending adds spice to each chapter, but there's a danger there too. Erin Winters is a case in point -- Shelley's younger sister had a crush, only to see him fall in with a mysterious and blossoming goth girl. She then drank an unstable formula, making her an amazon and giving her rages. Then she was hypnotized and enthralled by a demonic school principal, who she then married while under his spell. And then she was dragged to Hell in trying to save said Principal, whereupon her family and friends all forgot her entirely.
While it's possible -- nay, likely -- that Erin will return later on... if you get right down to it she didn't really deserve any of that. This is a story where bad things can happen to nice people, sometimes in chains, and lead to... well, lead to all of this. And if it happens often enough you learn to not empathize too much with these folks -- bad things can and will happen to them. And that's a distance that can be dangerous for a story.
On the Whole
Scary Go Round is a great comic that I often really enjoy when I'm reading it but which can just wear me out if I'm not careful. The man brings the story and the funny in good measure, but right now it's best served -- for my purposes and its purposes -- with the occasional catchup than checking in every day.
And to this day I regret not having bought the first edition tea towel. But that's hardly anyone's fault but my own.
Tomorrow I'm off to Ottawa, but I'll try to have an essay waiting for you here and another on Monday while I'm driving back. Casting the bones we see...
Ooooo, Cool. That list needs some padding out. See you then!
Posted by Eric Burns-White at February 28, 2008 8:00 AM
Comment from: John A posted at February 28, 2008 1:22 PM
Man, this is like getting a bad school report, or someone telling me I am a good driver with a really shitty car. I think most of the complaints are valid. I do think about starting an entirely new comic, but this is the only one I know how to make and I sort of rely on it to eat and pay my mortgage. Envision the creator trapped between an igneous formation and some kind of super-dense location.
One thing I would say is that you approach it too formally - as if it was a 42-book series called "Chronicles of the Belgorian". The Bobbins era is never referred to, ever, and if I hark back to an ancient story, I re-draw it in the comic in flashback! But in the white noise of 6 years of comics I admit that might be hard to spot.
Comment from: Eric Burns posted at February 28, 2008 1:25 PM
Hm -- a good point. I remember one such when Amy was telling Erin how she and Shelley became good friends. I also remember being happy to see Rich that one more time, as a result.
Part of the problem I have with "Scary Go Round" is that I can't tell whether or not it's being serious. The art is cartoony, the attitude is 100% non-serious...it's tough to sell "Yeah, This Person Really Just Died And Is Totally Dead" in that environment.
I can intellectually see what you mean about getting attached to characters that might die right away, but personally I don't think I've ever responded that way to anything like that in SGR.
In terms of the backstory etc, I see SGR being a lot like Arrested Development, in that however much attention you put into it, you'll get that much back out of the strip. If you just skim over it and laugh a little at the sentence construction, you'll enjoy it for that, but if you follow it really closely you';; start to see small jokes and details that call back to small jokes and details from two years ago.
It sounds like, with this strip, you're just at the exactly wrong point, such that you know that there's a joke or detail there, but don't immediately know what it is.
Personally, I follow each new strip pretty much obsessively, so I recognize it without needing to dig back.
Comment from: eben posted at February 28, 2008 4:18 PM
I was where you are with SGR a couple of months back, and I can't really say why. It hit a couple of storylines I didn't groove on, for whatever reason, and I just wasn't looking forward to reading it every day.
SGR isn't exactly a gag-a-day strip; it is in the sense that it's funny almost every day, but often times the humor comes from funny dialogue exchanges. It doesn't have the rhythm of set up and follow through with a punchline, like most strips. So during this period of time I found myself skimming over a given strip, or skipping it entirely, due to general disinterest.
Whatever the cause of that malaise was, it went away eventually, and I am once again loving the strip. But I know what it's like to be at a point where something in your brain just isn't grooving on it, even though you still enjoy it overall.
Comment from: baf posted at February 28, 2008 5:02 PM
Hm. I never thought of it this way before, but what eben says about the humor coming from dialogue rather than from Joke Structure is something that SGR has in common with Pogo during its prime.
See, I think sympathy with the characters makes those moments work better.
Yeah, the way I see Scary Go Round is as a series of gothic horror/comedy stories. When I first read through I was a little appalled at the number of people who get the short end of the stick (Remember Ryan's French girlfriend?), and slowly got jaded as I struggled to finish the archives. But when I look at it daily, I can enjoy it just looking for all the gothic literary devices found alongside tongue-in-cheek humor in Allison's stories. Take the recent Great Tackleford Show arc. There's a lot of general wackiness, but at the center of the story is a rural man who's been bullied all his life, finally investing all his affections in raising an abomination of nature that he found or created, and being driven to murder when his creation/discovery is threatened. In the end, of course, he is arrested and his creation destroyed as a result of his own hubris (in this case, trying to enroll the abomination in the county fair, or its British equivalent). Strip the story down to that, and you have a recognizable gothic narrative.
As for Erin, I'm looking forward to the resolution of that arc, simply because, well, it hasn't been resolved yet. As Eric said, Erin didn't really deserve any of what happened to her, and fell victim to supernatural forces beyond her power to resist. That doesn't sound too familiar as a narrative in itself (the gothic/horror genre almost always has a sense of justice, even if it's only the virgin-doesn't-get-killed-by-the-slasher kind), but it's generally the backstory to almost every ghost story ever told. Because ghost stories begin with some spirit that's still in this world because it has unfinished business in the mortal realm. And while getting sucked into hell isn't necessarily the same thing as dying, I got a huge "ghost origin story" vibe from that storyline's conclusion. And who knows? Maybe first we'll get a storyline down in Hell, where two other members of the SGR cast currently reside, if their deal with the devil and subsequent deaths are any indication.
Comment from: John A posted at February 29, 2008 5:51 AM
Any and all points here are valid. Some stories I enjoy working on, some I start with a clear idea in mind. Some are gap fillers because I have no idea what to do. Some aren't very good despite strenuous efforts to avert that. I can't keep the energy level up all year long - I'd have to be crazy if I could. Personal events get in the way and can suck the pleasure out of a process that, 99% of the time, I really enjoy. So I would expect people's enjoyment to wax and wane!
But I always try to respect the fact that the reader has shown up in the first place by writing and drawing as well as I can. It's meant to reward close reading, without demanding it.
As for whether the comic is funny or serious - not to sound like a chin-stroking French philosopher, is life funny or serious? I would posit that it is both, often at the same time!
Comment from: B. Durbin posted at February 29, 2008 7:24 PM
FWIW, I like it, and have since the Bobbins years. It's a little present in my comics queue every morning.
Of course, I married someone with absurdist tendencies, and like to read everything from fluffy romance to serial killer biographies, so I've got the perfect set of sensibilities to appreciate a multi-genre comic.
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