Tracking the Lusty Life of Shelley, John Allison’s Uncompromising Webcomic Star
Single and sexy since her inception in John Allison’s September ‘98s debut webcomic Bobbins, now Shelley, Shelley, has a fetus in her belly. And a live-in lovin’ man, who has a child and ex-wife of his own. Things have changed for Shelley Winters! But then, for her, things rarely ever stayed the same.
Over the course of seventeen real years and three webcomics set in the same locale --- Bobbins, Scary Go Round and Bad Machinery --- John Allison has taken one of his original breakout characters, Shelley (his other would be Esther, currently appearing in Boom’s Giant Days) through various incarnations.
Starting as an office worker and “country girl” (her parents owned a farm, vaguely) in the not-especially standout early Bobbins strips, Shelley moved from newspaper writer to unemployed (literal) zombie, to PA, to mayoral press officer, to magazine writer, to novelist, to famous novelist. A lifelong pop musical diarist with a post-graduation stint as a lawyer and occasional dreams of rock stardom, Shelley’s taken hiatuses to solve crimes, exonerate friends and acquaintances, fight fell beasts, liaise with robots many a strange time, and help raise and care for an obnoxious fishman. Shelley has done it all, and when it comes to boys, she’s done a lot of those too.
I, as she would say, luff her. But she’s a hot, saucy dame made up by some strange man! He could be a weirdo, or pervert! How can I reconcile my outspoken feminism with adoration of a character who’ll let an old dentist stick a sticker on her bosom for her, and call it “a nice moment”? Shelley. You’re bad.
Perhaps it wasn’t such a shock that luxuriously stenchy cheese led to a night of sensual passions with married friend Tim, when long-defunct Bobbins returned in 2014’s “where are they now” strip format. But that led to heartbreak for poor Shelley, at least for a while, so is she really as naughty as all that?
Come back to the beginning with me, and we’ll track a lusty life in webcomics.
The first Bobbins strip has these notable points: Rich asks Shelley for tips, as if she (a woman) is a professional of equal value to himself (a man). Shelley responds in good faith with a high femme mindfulness technique. Rich trusts Shelley, and the quality of her work, enough that he is willing to trial her glamorous, feminine method in order to succeed in his own work, despite his neutral masculinity.
Sure, it’s a gag strip, and sure, it depends on the outlandishness of a man painting his nails. But in a normative environment (“some office”), it offers a step away from the conservative roots that we know still hold so much sway.
Skip to May ‘99 and you’ve got Shelley teasing someone with GoBots the Movie; October 2000 and she considers mysteriously carrying an egg to inspire amorous interest; in August 2001 she gets handsy with a stranger in full Michelin-man armor. That turns out to be part of a dream (when experienced in real-time daily updates, this was no guarantee). The below strip from March 2002 is not:
Even way back in the effectively disavowed Bobbins, Shelley is a hornbag whimsy mimsy who likes sexual affection and delights in human failings.
And, uh. Under the right circumstances... me too? There’s no hypocrisy in saying, “don’t ogle women like meat, ladies are humans too,” and then turning around to relate to Cheap Trick, when they waaant us to waaant them.
Bobbins, original-flavour, was sort of a testing ground for Allison’s next project, Scary Go Round. Featuring most of the same characters and a lot more of the supernatural, Scary Go Round gave us the Dead Shelley arc. Upon detecting who had committed a recent murder, and ready to climatically reveal the culprit (see how smart she is? And nosy? An eye for justice and a flare for drama), Shelley was also dispatched.
Sad at her passing, perhaps a lot drunk, Ryan, friend and boob-starer of the above strip, is talked into a sly bit of necromancy. Shelley digs her way out of the grave and wanders about looking sad and grey until Ryan, and fellow occasionally erotic pal Tim, take her in and care for her.
During Dead Shelley, both of these friendships are long-lived and platonic. They’re also tender, and un-threatened by physical revelation; Shelley is reduced to helplessness and both men offer care as and when she needs it. Tim doesn’t ogle her --- incidentally, those are her knees, not knockers, in the panels above --- when he gives her rotten zombie bod a bath. He just looks after her like you would a sweet dog, or your baby.
Ryan’s less of a capable adult, but he offers Shelley his literal lifeblood, and she responds by turning to him for asexual nighttime comfort. Such trust! Mute, zombie Shelley’s not written to inspire feelings of helplessness in the female reader, because she is not, in fact, without help. She is respected, and secure.
This comfort and welcome is scaffolded into the structure of Allison’s comics; while he’s met criticism of his mid-2000s bend/flex posture illustration choices with humility and improvement, he’s also never produced art that offers his characters up to the gaze. He’s not over-detailed with breasts or stomachs or buttocks or crotches. He doesn’t compose panels so that T or A is prioritized. Close-ups, of any sort, are extremely rare.
Allison is not an over-pedantic background artist, but his paneling will always situate characters in relation to each other and their environment, instead of considering their physical charms in relation to a grubby audience’s desires. The characters might objectify and randily describe each other, but that tells us about them. We are not involved in dehumanization. We are witness to humanity.
Shelley’s sexy justice has no better showcase than in 2012’s That, currently available in print and online, but not for free. A verbal hiding is given to a man whose intentions towards our heroine were obviously priapic, but who reserves “the skull eye” for the teenaged boyfriend of his teenaged sister. “Tom, you run a DOUBLE STANDARD!” she says, poking his chest. “I recall you had plans to use my body as an AMUSEMENT ARCADE. You’re either FOR romance… Or AGAINST IT!”
Shelley, Shelley. You’re so fierce! You’re it, you’re wild! You’re sex positive.
2014’s Expecting to Fly visited Shelley, Ryan and Tim at the earliest we’d ever seen: teenagers in school together. A light retcon, but as he says, Allison is “man enough to draw a recap.” Shelley is dealing with the suicide of her best friend, Ryan is trying to figure out what is means for him to be bad at school but good at relating to people, and Tim gets the first of many bumps down from his naturally high horse.
Expecting to Fly is quite exceptional and closes some circuits; Shelley and Tim have an obvious eye for each other. So it turns out that she “ended up” with a teenage crush --- Bobbins’ resurgence ended “for good (maybe)” in March 2015 with Shelley and Tim, as I said, knocked up and happily cohabiting.
Just like that first, original strip, this one shows a normative, over-romanticized premise pushed into an unconventionally tolerant attitude by specifics. Never do we blame or regret Shelley’s previously Casanova attitude. Dead friend Mandy even pops in to teenage Shelley’s dreams to compliment her bum; “it’s going to bring a lot of people a lot of pleasure”, she says, when we’ve literally just seen Shelley fix her sights on Tim. And we’ve already read her future, where she lays him, leaves him, and loves him.
Shelley Winters, added up, presents a portrait of happy, committed, romantic attachment between adults as part of the journey of a shag-happy, pleasurable, loud-living life --- not expressly subsequent to it, or at the "end of" it. She cannot have one experience without the other. Sow your oats, plant your tree; you can do both if you want to. It doesn’t make you any particular type of person, and none of it makes you nothing.
Shelley and her Scary Go Round webcomic universe don’t fix every bad message in the world, and they aren’t a recipe for universal happiness, but they are much, much better than a lot of things.