How to Fix John Allison’s Bad Machinery

John Allison’s webcomic Bad Machinery is not doing well. This is rather normal compared to thousand’s of other webcomics, most of which also do pretty poorly. Bad Machinery is actually doing rather well compared to most of them. But, John Allison is a veteran webcomic author and artist and Bad Machinery should be doing much better, given his obvious talents and the amount of work he puts into it.

What are the problems? John Allison has publicly mentioned problems with readers not enjoying it and low reader numbers on his blog. Meanwhile, reviewer and long time John Allison fan, El Santo, criticized Bad Machinery for not living up to the high standards set by Scary Go Round. I myself have noticed a difference as well and agree heartily with El Santo’s review. As Scary Go Round is one of my favorite webcomics, I want to offer up my own opinions on the problems plaguing the new comic.

Bad Machinery is John Allison’s third webcomic. The first one was called Bobbins and took a year or two of lame jokes and horrible art before it hit its swing. Scary Go Round was the second webcomic and took place in the same universe as Bobbins. Most of the characters returned, a few left, and one changed his last name. Scary Go Round added a slight fantastic element, including monsters, alternate dimensions, and other supernatural oddities in occasional stories. The supernatural element itself, however was never the drive behind the story. Both Bobbins and Scary Go Round focused much more on conflicts between characters as the central conflict.

In Bad Machinery, John Allison kept the same universe as Bobbins and Scary Go Round but made the supernatural the new drive. He still tries to develop relationships between the characters as side plots. Also, while he kept the same universe, he moved several fan favorite characters out of town, and is focusing much more on side characters who were previously younger siblings. Even Erin Winters, who was a fan favorite in Scary Go Round, is the younger sister of the even more popular main character Shelly Winters. Just to make it clear, John Allison made some major changes to his formula which were probably a much more significant change than moving from Bobbins to Scary Go Round.

In Disruption terms, I think that John Allison is “cramming” his kid’s mystery story idea into a Bobbins / Scary Go Round formula. The problem is that Bobbins / Scary Go Round are built around relationship conflict (man vs. man) while mystery stories focus more on observation (man vs. nature). John Allison knows relationship conflicts very well and still builds them into the story. Because they don’t drive the plot anymore, however, they feel empty because they never build up to the climaxes that his other comics did. Meanwhile, he drops his clues for the mystery plot heavy handedly. The conclusions are obvious and spelled out and are usually uncovered by events outside of the student’s control.

In normal mystery stories, the clues are subtle and the conclusions are only revealed later on in the story as they combine with other clues and the characters discuss their progress. The significance of a few clues are kept hidden until the final reveal. Meanwhile, some clues are added which point to other solutions to the mystery under other interpretations of the facts. The main characters usually have special powers of observation, investigation, and interpretation which allow them to understand the situation better than the innocents surrounding them and depending on their skills.

Combining that plot heavy structure into the existing Bobbins / Scary Go Round relationship driven formula would make the story lines too long and unwieldy, or diverge in other ways. It would be like trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. Rather than trying to fix it, he needs to take another approach.

In order to keep momentum, John Allison should probably write some more Scary Go Round spin-offs and short stories. During a break from Bad Machinery, he wrote a short called “Giant Days” featuring one of the popular characters that he moved away before starting Bad Machinery. It went over very well and showed that he still had his magic. This is only a short term fix, however, as Scary Go Round felt very complete and was rightfully put to rest.

In order to replace Scary Go Round and Bad Machinery, John Allison needs to experiment in a fresh format without the baggage of Scary Go Round or Bad Machinery. This would keep him from cramming his new story ideas into his old frameworks and allow him to expand his universe without just rebooting Scary Go Round again. He actually already does this on his blog, A Hundred Dance Moves Per Second. Many of his experiments there already get plenty of approval and could be turned into short stories as experiments for future comics.

There is a potential problem of resolving a conflict between what you want to do and what your fans want you to do. If you only do what you want to do, then nobody cares. If you only do what your fans want you to do, then your final result will have too many compromises to be enjoyable to anyone. The solution is to find something that both you and the fans like without too many compromises. Creating prototypes tends to be a great strategy for managing this process because they are simpler and easier to change.

On this post, Writer’s Block, John mentioned that his favorite part about writing comics is developing the relationships between characters. While I love his jokes, it is the relationships that makes the jokes funny. I really hope that John figures out how to fix these problems so I can get back to enjoying his brilliant comics like I did before.

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About Bryan Rosander

I am a Reformed Baptist Christian who likes critical thinking and analysis, especially of things that have been ignored or under-analyzed.
This entry was posted in disruption, John Allison, literary analysis, webcomics. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to How to Fix John Allison’s Bad Machinery

  1. John Allison says:

    Bryan,

    I think you make a lot of very sensible points. After a shaky start Bad Machinery has largely recovered the Scary Go Round audience and is building on its own. The first couple of stories were shaky, I think the third was better – remember that I had never tackled stories of this length or format before and I think I overreached early on, with very little preparation. With time I will continue to refine my approach – whether in Bad Machinery or other projects. I would have liked to have made a clean break from the past but continuity was something I felt I had to keep – to put it bluntly – making a living.

    The reason that plot elements may seem to fall heavy like a hammer is because they have to when you are serving pages a day at a time. It’s a piecemeal way to tell a story – a hybrid between two or three forms that might not work. But hopefully I do things that other people don’t and if I get it wrong or seem thin-skinned about criticism, it’s just down to working a bit too hard.

  2. Thanks for responding!

    My point about the heavy handed plot elements was focused on the clues to the mysteries. Normal mysteries drop a clue but don’t reveal its significance until later, after several more clues have been found. On the other hand, if the significance of all the clues is obvious right away, you don’t build any tension or suspense. Since all of the clues have been the mid-level, big reveal clues, they haven’t had any simple, low level clues to build on.

    In the current story, Corm and the simple soul both had big reveal clues to suggest that they both were and were not the firebug. Since they didn’t have any clues without conclusions suggested directly by dialog, there was no suspense. I am not comparing clues and trying to figure out the mystery by myself. I am resolved to leave it up to another big reveal.

    On the other hand, maybe I am confused about the genre, and this is really supposed to be more like Scooby Doo than a traditional mystery. Scooby Doo clues were more big reveal than normal mysteries and nobody really cared about the resolution except as a joke. The tension came more from personal danger to the monster than from the clues, had similar supernatural elements, and the plot focused more on Shaggy and Scooby goofing off and getting in trouble than actually looking for clues. If they found a clue, it was probably because they were running from the monster and got lost than because they had analyzed the circumstances.

    Regardless, I don’t think that comics about kids are a problem on the internet. This generation cites Calvin and Hobbes as one of their favorite comics. Meanwhile, Gunnerkrigg Court, Bittersweet Candy Bowl, and Sandra and Woo all seem to be doing extremely well with tons of active and excited fans.

  3. John Allison says:

    These are all reasonable thoughts on genre, Bryan – but I’m not really writing the sorts of stories you think I am. I could easily write a very formulaic piece in the manner of the Three Investigators or Nancy Drew, but I suppose what I’m trying to do is pump up the bits I liked in kids’ books at the expense of the mystery elements, which I never cared about. I was more interested in the relationships between the characters, the environment they were in, humour and dialogue. I liked the imitation of life and the vicarious thrills therein, not the dopey unmasking of some creep. The extent to which I achieve my goals is for the reader to decide – but the “fix” your blog post hopes to apply is by and large in already. I’m doing okay these days.

  4. It sounds like you’ll be moving closer to Scary Go Round style stories, which is fine by me.

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