by John Allison
Scary Go Round. And a lot of what it requires isn't reading so much as looking, Scary Go Round being a comic strip and all. But anyway, the book collection appeared recently, enabling one to re-read the contents more briskly than one page per day - which does, all else aside, sometimes enable one to follow the details of what passes for a "plot" a little more effectively. For example, I now understand why Desmond Fish-Man attempted to recite an obscene limerick at the climax of the Jeremy Kyle Show. You can't put a price on that sort of understanding.
Furthermore, these collected strips are accompanied by brief notes from the author, John Allison, which together help explain why they turned out to represent the final year of the strip. Allison comments that he started the period in a positive frame of mind, but the narratives show that his mood - always crucial to his quirky brilliance - was changing from very early on, and it shifted radically even towards the very end.
There are five "stories" (often a rather loose concept in John Allison world) in this book, and the first two, "Carrot vs. Stick" and "Extra Income", show Allison's tastes in subject-matter moving towards the low-key tales and younger characters that have turned out to characterise Scary Go Round's successor strip, Bad Machinery. The first, a school story about the stress of growing up and the difficulties of maturity, substantially expands the role given to such previously minor characters as Carrot Scruggs and Sarah Grote. The second starts out with The Boy, for some time an interesting viewpoint character, seeking a part-time job and becoming entangled with sleazy businessman Hamilton Percy, but Allison evidently got bored with that idea, and shifts the focus to an unexpected romance between Sarah and Ryan Beckwith, which in turn leads to a brief outburst of drunken idiocy from Carrot - and the story ends.
"The Estate", on the other hand, sees Allison developing an almost social-realist interest in the actual community of the characters' home town of Tackleford, and making some vaguely thoughtful comments on its underclass - albeit with a plot centered on the moronic and obnoxious Desmond. While this is all a long way from the sort of story that made Scary Go Round popular, it's often very very funny indeed. The story also introduces Charlotte Grote and Shauna Wickle, two child characters for whom Allison evidently developed an affection, as they would become central to Bad Machinery.
Then, Allison made one last attempt at the kind of wide-screen-rococo, junk-movie-tribute tale that web comic fans like his so often love, and which he'd often started well and then ended rather abruptly as he ran out of the necessary bubbling energy. Actually, "Looking for Atlantis" is pretty good of its kind. Starting with a completely futile attempt to discover Desmond's origins, it brings in a dubious ex-Nazi researcher who takes Desmond, plus central characters Shelley and Amy to, yes, lost Atlantis. There, Shelley's idealistic optimism (plus some general human stupidity) causes chaos and destruction, despite Amy's desperate attempts to balance it with cynical realism. Allison claims that this story showed him that the plan he'd been developing, to replace Scary Go Round with a strip about Shelley's adventures as a time traveller, wasn't going to fly because he just couldn't face writing about Shelley's sunny sociopathy - although it appears that he kept the idea going until quite near the big break point.
Which comes, not surprisingly, at the end of "Goodbye". This brings back The Child, previously a quasi-supernatural agent of chaos, but here redrawn as a more mundanely manipulative brat, whose previously shadowy and Rasputin-like father-figure turns out to be a Michael Jackson doppelganger. Allison's notes say that this story was massively revised in the wake of Jackson's death and the ensuing public hagiographising, but it's hard not to see this as more of an excuse, because the original plot outline which he discusses here (with rough sketches) looks out of kilter with his shifting mood - and also uncharacteristically bitter as well as dark. Personally, I'm glad that he didn't use that plot, although this may be sentimental of me. Admittedly, he was planning to end things with a story involving a high school prom (not very traditional-British, that, though) and both Shelley and Esther going into action in Tim Jones/Matsushita Corporation battlesuits ("It's the Matsushita Gothnaut 1 - it can only be driven by someone Very Dark") - but he was also going to kill off a number of major characters, for one or two of whom I felt considerable affection. Instead, we get a lower-key precursor of the gentler wit of Bad Machinery, entangled with some life changes for other characters, with shifts and closures that almost verge on the moving. Mind you, the hopeless Carrot gets to suffer to the very end.
After this, Bad Machinery started slowly, and while I've stuck with it, I wasn't too surprised to hear that it had some trouble keeping the old strip's audience. It's a new angle on Allison's odd, sweet, dangerous, skewed world (which I haven't even attempted to describe in this review, because, well, you have to get to know it for yourself), suggesting a maturity which Allison shows largely through the eyes of child characters - although Amy and Ryan, once among Allison's least responsible adult characters, have survived and attained their own peculiar form of maturation. Hopefully, there'll be printed collections of that strip, too, documenting that rebirth into adulthood as this one documents the end of one era for one eccentrically brilliant writer.