Thin Lines, Loads of Madness: John Allison On Revisiting ‘Bad Machinery’ From The Start [Interview]
John Allison's teen detective/coming-of-age series Bad Machinery balances supernatural mysteries with the ever shifting landscape of teenage friendships, and is a hit both online as webcomic and in print as collections. Next year, Oni Press a reprinting the first Bad Machinery story "The Case of the Teen Spirit" in a new pocket edition, and ComicsAlliance caught up with Allison about mysteries, slang and very British stories.
ComicsAlliance: With “The Case of the Team Spirit” being reprinted, what was it like going back and revisiting the first Bad Machinery story, did you find little moments or jokes that you’d forgotten putting in there?
John Allison: Yes. It’s heavy laden with stuff, I was so eager to please that I put loads of extra things in there. Thin lines, loads of madness. I tried really hard with the posing to draw kids who were fidgety and silly. Looking back, I can’t believe how much I fired at it.
CA: As a fellow Brit, a lot of Bad Machinery feels very familiar; the social structures, the football stickers, etc, but how have the stories been received by non-British readers?
JA: I think they get it. Bad Machinery has a funny audience, split between webcomics readers, readers of my old webcomics, and kids who’ve picked it up independently --- especially in libraries. The last group are exclusively American and I have very little idea how they have responded to the work, other than too-rare anecdotes and book reports passed along to me. But kids just seem to swallow up weird vocabulary and foreign notions as fun things. There’s a glossary of British terms in the back of the first three books so I make it easy for people.
CA: How much time do you spend plotting and building the mystery before you write a Bad Machinery story? Do you have a specific process for creating cases and puzzles?
JA: A long time. I tend to have a notion of where I want the story to go emotionally, and I build on top of that. I think hard about how old the kids are in each story, and the progress each would have made, how their relationships would change. Then I try to think of a mystery that will illustrate that. I’d be the first to admit that I am not so interested in creating intricate puzzles for them to solve --- the mystery is meant to be a counterpoint to how they all grow and change over a story.
CA: Is there a different process writing stories and scripts for yourself to draw, as opposed to something like Giant Days where you have collaborators?
JA: On Giant Days, I present a nice, typed script with instructions for the artist. I try to make things very clear and save them work if I can. I have two very gifted editors in Jasmine Amiri and Shannon Watters who offer strong direction when I need it. For my self-drawn work, I have sheaves of scrawled notes, two-line story breakdowns by page that sometimes only get a few weeks ahead of where I’m written up to, and scripts where I draw a panel grid on the page and write straight onto the panels, sometimes thumbnailing as I go. I don’t have an editor on Bad Machinery day to day. There’s a lot of improvisation. The webcomic is the first draft, my editor Ari Yarwood comes in when the book edition emerges a couple of years later.
CA: Without giving too much away, was there ever a question of how supernatural to go with Bad Machinery? Is there a perfect balance you’re wary of striking?
JA: Not at all. I feel like magical realism is an easy refuge for an inexperienced storyteller, and as I go on I feel less like using those devices all the time, but at the same time I know I have used them mostly well on Bad Machinery. As the kids age, case-by-case, I’ve played down the supernatural, as if they were setting childish things aside, but that’s a red herring. Tackleford is a supernatural town.
CA: The majority of your work features characters from their teens - mid-twenties. Do you take strides to “Keep up with the kids” so to speak?
JA: I read an interview with (Tracy Beaker author) Jacqueline Wilson, where she said that after writing books about contemporary kids for decades, she just couldn’t do it any more. She either didn’t understand how they lived today or couldn’t relate to their experience in a way she felt was authentic. I think that’s fair enough. All I do is keep my ears open. For me, there’s no point loading pages up with contemporary slang, it’s more about attitude. I heard a kid in the supermarket, a girl of maybe 10, really holding forth to her mother. Everything was “literally” this or “literally” that. The important thing for me was not the words she chose, but the confidence with which she unleashed this fusillade of opinion while her poor mum just waited for this hurricane to stop. That’s the thing right there.
CA: Lastly, just between us, do you have a favorite of the cast? We won’t tell anyone, it’s fine.
JA: I don’t. They’re my six children and I love them all equally.
Bad Machinery, Vol 1: The Case of the Team Spirit (Pocket Edition) will be available on March 15, 2017.