John Allison has made a career out of slice-of-life stories about people at different transitionary points within their life. His, Max Sarin, and Whitney Cogar’s Giant Days concluded back in October, as the core trio reached the end of the university journey and graduated.
However, they’ve wasted no time in getting back together for another series. Wicked Things – also published by BOOM! Studios – sees him return to writing Charlotte “Lottie” Grote, one of the mystery teens that made up the cast of his webcomic Bad Machinery, albeit it at a different point in her life.
With first issue of the limited series on stands now, Newsarama spoke with Allison to see how he’s feeling about writing the character again, what set this apart from her previous appearances and previous books she’s starred in and how he manages the continuity of his work.
Newsarama: John, you’ve spoken before about how you’ve unintentionally created a universe out of your work. Do you find it comes more from actively choosing characters to spin-off into their own series or does the concept for a series come first, then deciding which character is the best fit?
John Allison: The seeds for what I wanted to do next have been sewn in work that is spun off from. What used to surprise me when I was working on Scary Go Round was that a new character would suddenly be able to carry a story on their own. That was the earliest manifestation of this instinct. As time went on I refined the vehicles for these stronger characters and gave them a supporting cast rather than competing voices, as they’d had in the sprawling Scary Go Round cast.
Nrama: What’s the main draw for yourself of finally putting Lottie Grote front and centre in her own series after years of her being involved in other areas of the Bobbinsverse?
Allison: I’d been working on embryonic spin-offs for her for a long time. I did a Lottie spin-off in 2012 called Murder She Writes, a 36-page thing that I somehow sold 2500 copies of in print without my ever really pushing it – it had run as a webcomic already. I always wanted to do more of those but it was complicated to write and doing more needed more attention than I had to give it. I’m lucky to have a slush pile of ideas and it stayed near the top.
Nrama: Where does she find herself at the beginning of the series?
Allison: Two years after the end of Bad Machinery, Lottie has finished school and is ready to go to university. She’s still sleuthing, but now seems to be aided only by her Dr Watson, “Little” Claire Little. We don’t find out what happened to the mystery team. Given the preposterous size to which her ego has grown at this point, it’s possible to posit exactly what has happened, and given time, I may get to explore that. As she goes to collect a prestigious detective award, finally recognising her achievements, her life plans are spectacularly derailed.
Nrama: How does the tone of Wicked Things differ to the quaint small-English town vibe of Bad Machinery and has that affected how you write her?
Allison: Charlotte’s voice remains the same, but she’s faced with a lot of new challenges in the adult world. In London she’ll be dealing with crime on a metropolitan scale. In Tackleford, she dealt with supernatural mysteries alongside human avarice; Wicked Things sets aside childish things – she has bigger problems than ghosts and monsters.
Nrama: Did you find it necessary to go back to those strips in order to re-familiarize yourself with how she used to be?
Allison: The Bad Machinery strips have been re-run over the last few years on GoComics, and the last story is actually running now, so I am still familiar with the material. I’ve been revising the last two books for print for Oni Press, so I have had to keep my head at least partially in that space. I don’t know if I ever tried harder than I did with Bad Machinery, re-reading those comics, I wonder how I crammed everything in.
Nrama: Which crime dramas would you consider inspiration for this? Ones that you grew up with? Are there any recent ones that have found their way into the series’ DNA?
Allison: I’ve watched a lot of crime dramas. I learned so much about storytelling from them. Homicide: Life On The Streets and NYPD Blue were the big two for me – the perfect blend of good character writing and crime stories. The Death Note anime is a huge influence too. But I’m fascinated with slower British crime dramas too. My parents watch a show called Vera, where a seemingly emotionless police chief marches around desolate north-eastern locations, procedurally destroying cases. It’s for pensioners, it’s barely entertainment, yet I can sit for the whole two hours per episode and watch it. She keeps asking “are you all right in yourself, pet?” I’ve totally internalised it.
Nrama: And have any comics had an influence on it as well?
Allison: Considering that most big two comics are about foiling crime, I would imagine so. Maybe Ann Nocenti’s Daredevil, or Miller & Mazzucchelli doing Born Again. But then, maybe not. Most superheroes solve crime by hitting people. It was the emotional punch of those books that hit home, rather than the crime aspect. I read Darwyn Cooke’s first Parker adaptation, I figured that had to be the gold standard of modern crime comics. And it was beautiful work – spectacular, I love Darwyn – but I didn’t care about the characters at all. There’s a lesson in that.
Nrama: Considering that Giant Days had an implicit end built into its narrative – with the trio always getting closer to graduating university – when did wanting to continue working with the same creative team factor into this as a project?
Allison: It had been in my thoughts for a good year or so. I’m not sure you can just plug my writing into any system. There are years of trust and understanding built up with the Giant Days team and I didn’t want to lose that.
Nrama: Max Sarin and Whitney Cogar are a cartooning dream team. After working together on as many issues as you already have, what’s your working relationship like in terms of what you put in the script for them versus how you would script for yourself as an artist?
Allison: My scripts are concise, but specific. There’s a lot of information that I put into a comic I draw myself that is simply a process of exploration – of locations, character acting, character design, props – challenging myself to try different things. I’m used to seeing that specificity in a comic I wrote. So when I write a script, I try to specify those four things, but not go over the top, so the artist has room to explore too – as that is part of the fun of drawing.
Nrama: Is it strange to return to a character, only to have other people responsible for depicting her artistically?
Allison: Not if they draw them better than you can. It’s bloody great.
Nrama: Your other BOOM! Studios series, By Night, was set in small-town USA. What have you found trickiest: writing series with culturally specific British sensibilities, slang and events while ensuring it’s accessible to readers across the world, or writing one that’s different to your lived experience?
Allison: The latter. Writing By Night was harder, because I had to deal with specifics I knew nothing about. It opened up doors to different things, though. Research is hard, but it’s rewarding. That said, I think if I was starting it from scratch, I would have set it in a similarly downtrodden part of the UK. But it would have been quite different if I had.
Nrama: People often take issue with shared universe where, from the outside, it seems like you need to start right at the beginning to have any hope of understanding the current material. How do you balance continuing a universe for long-time fans of your work as well as creating entry points for new readers?
Allison: It’s a shared universe in the same sense that you and I live in a shared universe. I loathe the convoluted continuity of the big two. I understand why people like it, but I hate it. My aim with every project is to write about people, not perpetuate an endless timeline that people need to be very aware of to extract enjoyment from the story. Even the little character crossovers in Giant Days – Eustace Boyce, or Shelley Winters, or young Lottie, are presented simply in the context of the series. Here’s an old boyfriend, or an old friend, or a friend’s little sister who we babysat. If you’ve been reading me since 1998, there’s some bonus fun to be had, but if you haven’t, you’re at the party straight away. In my mind, that’s good storytelling.
Nrama: Lastly, can we expect any appearances from some of the other Bobbinsverse inhabitants, perhaps a certain D. Fishman?
The long run of Giant Days meant I got to do some stories I really held back until I knew we’d get to do the full three years. Lottie and Shelley showing up were indulgences for longtime fans that I thought carefully about. I knew Max would draw the best Shelley Winters, and I was not disappointed. Wicked Things is scheduled to be six issues and I have no expectation of more. Launching a new indie comic is hard! Gotta get those orders! In a world where I get to do more, there will be room to think about what happened to old faces. Scaly, fishy old faces.