SPX Talks: John Allison / by Spandexless


John Allison knows a thing or two about creating a universe. Since his first comic Bobbins arrived in 1998, his stories have rested in the fictional Tackleford, England, spanning dozens of storylines and three individual casts. The latest cast lives in the comic Bad Machinery, where the youth of Tackleford take on crimes a la Nancy Drew or the Hardy Boys. I was lucky enough to snag him for an interview on Sunday--our first of the con--and he was gracious enough to deal with us breaking in our interviewing chops. Enjoy.

Alex: So you've kept one universe, Tackleford, England, and you've kept it through three different iterations of your work, first Bobbins, then Scary Go Round, and now Bad Machinery. Why keep it in one universe?

John Allison: It's just easier. It's expediency. Because I really don't have to. I could have made entirely new characters for each one, but if you do make it all one universe, the readers really get something out of it. And it makes it harder when you want to change. People don't want you to change. They don't want you to break from what they're currently enjoying even if you as the creator want to say, "It's time for a change." So the fact that there was a line between Scary Go Round and Bad Machinery where I did some kind of disguised pilots or whatever at the end, and I kept it all the same universe just so I wouldn't lose readers. Because it's my job. And if I push every reader off a cliff, or two-thirds of readers off a cliff, I'm not going to have any money and I'm not going to be able to eat and I'm going to have to go back to working at an office again. So it's all business. It's just business, you know? There's no creative reason for it. I could make a whole new universe, but it's all the same. It's really all just the inside of my head when it comes down to it.

A: What was it that made you realize that you needed to evolve, let's say from Scary Go Round to Bad Machinery? And then, as a second question, why Bad Machinery? Why that world? Why did you feel the need to tell that story?

JA: Oh, well. With Scary Go Round, it ran for seven years, and after five years I knew that I'd pretty much tapped out. It was created piecemeal. Bit by bit I would layer stuff on and layer stuff on, which is a lazy way to work, using novelty rather than evolution. I would just shove a new character in and shove a new character in. I like new characters and people would like them. I am quite good a making characters actually, but in the end I had created something that was a lot like Jenga. You just keep pulling out and pulling out and eventually it just wasn't going to hold together anymore, you just create a mess. You just keep pulling another character out of your brain and another out of your brain and eventually it had too many characters. It was too sprawling. And people have their favorite characters as well. So I just wanted to pare things back, start again, tell different sorts of stories. I didn't really want to write the same way I wrote in Scary Go Round either. When I started writing, if you look, the language is layering loads and loads of stuff on. It's like old Joss Wheedon shows that are just so dated now. It all springs out of Dawson's Creek. What's his name, Williamson? The guy who did Dawson's Creek?

A: laughs Let me tell you, we were really more of the Buffy crowd.

JA: All these shows grew out of Kevin Williamson's very wordy style. Because they are all WB shows and that was very much the WB house style.

A: It still is to some degree.

JA: Yeah yeah. Smallville. Smallville is such a debased version of that style. I have watch every episode of Smallville.

A: Really? I have not.

JA: Yeah! They're just getting through the final season in the UK. But I've watched it because it's about Superman and it's good harmless fun. Good harmless tea-time fun. But I didn't want to write in that verbose style. I wanted to write in a simpler, clearer, more naturalistic way. And so I had to start from scratch. I couldn't knock it out of the old comic. There was a rhythm to it, and I had to start fresh one.

A: In reading Bad Machinery, one of the things I really enjoy is that every one of the characters seems to have a really distinct voice. I wouldn't want to say what is the "secret" for doing that, but what is your personal technique for coming up with and individual voice for each character?

JA: You want to know what the real technique is? It's people telling me "every character you wrote was pretty much interchangeable" in the past.

A: Really?

JA: Yeah. People looked at some of my early work, and I would see things on message boards that like, "You can't tell the difference between the characters." And that really stung me. That's like a knife in your side, because I thought you really could distinguish it. But I looked and actually it is a little bit twenty-something and generic and maybe it's time to differentiate things more. And that's when I started to move towards what I'm doing now. So you just have to think about that character everybody's, character and you have to make sure you keep it within that character and that you care for them and that you're judicious in your writing. That you make the correct choices and that you take the time to do it. I always work a week ahead. So I'm never panicked when I'm working. I try to write ahead of that. So that I'm never in a position where I'm forced to make a decision that was made in a hurry. I do make lots of snap decisions, but I'm usually happy with them. And I have time to change them if I want to.

A: One last question: Are we going to see any of the more fantastical elements of Scary Go Round in Bad Machinery? I know we've kind of already seen questionable animals...

JA: When I started Bad Machinery it was going to be about fictional folk monsters. And they were going to be investigating mysteries that were actually at root folk monsters, but I've only done a couple of those. I've found there were different sorts of stories you could do with these characters. There's a lot more that I could do with it than that. This story that I'm doing right now is kind of like those teen sci-fi books. There's an author in Britain named Nicholas Fisk, and he would write these very neatly done little science fiction, sometimes they'd be a little future shock or something like that. And I thought, I could do a little future shock. I didn't read his books again, I'm just trying to do what you remember. As best as you can, what you remember, and then really use your own experience rather than go back and work out what the actual system was. And so there are also other things I can do with them. The next story is going to be like a murder story, but with ghosts as well. I want to kind of combine an Agatha Christie thing with kind of old Victorian ghost stories. On a cruise ship. It's going to be called the Christmas Cruise. "The Case of the Christmas Cruise." And that's going to be, again, a different archetype, if you like. It's just fun to do them and see if I can do them. You know, this is what I'm trying to do now. I'm a writer. I can do what I want. I can turn up and do whatever I like. I might as well try and do everything if I can.