Ah, me! Remember when the world was young, and suffused with potential? Recall, if you will, the era of the early Internet. Cast your minds back to the Before - that all-too-brief epoch when things weren't sour.
The early days of the public Internet was an era defined by the recognition, if not always the realization, of boundless potential. In the field of webcomics, a phrase came into common parlance - the infinite canvas. Why, comics could be anything, online! It just so happened that much of online comics cohered around a comic strip format that occupied a space roughly the dimensions of a CRT computer screen, a development which inadvertently reified the limitations and the strengths of the daily comic strip format familiar to generations of newspaper readers, and advantaged those creators most comfortable adapting to that familiar format. Sure, sure, formal ingenuity wedded to technological advancement is great and all, and the early years of webcomics were filled with pleasing and memorable experiments. But as to the initial question of which elements of comics would becoming the defining elements of online comics, the first decades of the 21st century seemed to imply heavily that the answers were less formal than generic. More than anything else, people wanted ongoing narratives that fit into their daily routine: soap operas or gag vehicles of various stripes. The type of strips that could be followed in bite-sized chunks, once a day, first thing in the morning with your coffee. Just like Garfield and Apartment 3-G.
Did you know I was the print Journal’s first webcomics columnist? Yeah, yeah, I know, maybe not who I would have picked to expound on the boundless potential of the digital frontier either. But in hindsight, many of us writers on the field were dead wrong - the future of webcomics turned out to be less defined by “boundless potential” than the gradual encroachment of corporate hegemony. Just like every other field online. As a home for cartoonists, the Internet offered a series of putative formal challenges which in the fullness of time revealed themselves as the same very old imperatives that had already defined the medium for decades: how do I make a living drawing little pictures? With great difficulty, as it turned out, and more than a little in the way of pandering. Turns out the answer was ongoing characters living funny adventures that often cohered around daily punchlines, and just as often revolved around popular themes like video games. The infinite canvas was all well and good, but what ultimately mattered for webcomics was monthly subscriptions and t-shirt revenue. Get you some kind of wacky robot character who can go on a coffee mug, that’s the business right there.
And it’s not like they don’t make webcomics anymore. Of course they do. You can still buy a URL and hang up a shingle any time you like. They even still make Penny Arcade, because only the good die young. But as social media became the dominant form of online media, the horizons of webcomics shrank and simplified along with the rest of the internet. How do you make a living with webcomics online? Maybe hook up with some kind of webcomics portal. Make something that can reproduce small and that can be easily forwarded, possibly attached to a tweet. Er, sorry, an X. Attach it to an X.
Fuck, that’s never going to catch on. We can all agree on that, right? Anyway, there goes yet another venue for webcomics - already a format compromised beyond the wildest nightmares of Berkeley Breathed. Another forum flushed down the toilet as a viable outlet for independent creators, all to make room so the most annoying person you’ve ever heard of can flood your timeline expounding on the lighter side of eugenics. Did you know they’re a columnist for the New York Times?
Now, take for a moment the example of John Allison. One of the great pioneers in the field of webcomics, certainly. Bobbins premiered in September of 1998 - wait, is that right? Has it really been 25 years? John Allison has been making comics online for a full 25 years this September, first with Bobbins, which transformed in 2002 into Scary Go Round, which itself transitioned into Bad Machinery in 2009. From Bad Machinery to a rebooted Bobbins and various smaller runs, Allison’s indefatigable daily online output has changed over the years to reflect both his own interests as a creator and the constantly metamorphosing challenges of online monetization.
In 2015, this path led inexorably to print, in the form of Giant Days, which lasted an impressive 54 issues from BOOM! between 2015 and 2019. Allison didn’t draw Giant Days; he wrote the book initially for artist Lissa Treiman, and later for Max Sarin, who would go on to illustrate the bulk of the series. Giant Days even won a couple of Eisners in 2019 (Best Continuing Series and Best Humor Publication). Since that series ended he’s kept his hand in print, with shorter-run projects such as By Night (2018-19, BOOM!) and Steeple (multiple volumes beginning 2019, Dark Horse). Not every webcomics creator has been able to make the jump to print quite so handily as Allison. But he was an expert at switching up formats to adapt to new circumstances, having already switched up a few times in order to follow the ostensible interests and attention span of a fickle online audience.
Twenty years ago the notion that so much of the success of online comics would still hinge on the all-important transition to print would have seemed perverse and reductive, if not clueless and hopelessly cynical. If I’d said that in my webcomics column, I’d have been laughed at. But history makes fools of us all.
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Allison is an expert at rolling with the punches. His ongoing shared universe is by design a flexible apparatus, easily changing up main characters and even genres every now and again. The main characters from the earliest days of Bobbins never quite disappeared, but he grew dissatisfied with solely chronicling the soap opera adventures of aging twentysomethings, preferring instead to move on to newer generations. The protagonists of Bobbins and Scary Go Round became background characters in Bad Machinery and Giant Days, both focused on younger sets of characters within the same setting.
And now, in 2023, the younger cast from Bad Machinery have themselves matriculated into young adulthood, which is where we find the protagonist of Allison’s latest print comic - The Great British Bump-Off, recently concluded from Dark Horse. Shauna Wickle—one of the kid detectives who starred in Bad Machinery, now a bumptious, vibrant twentysomething—has been skulking around the periphery of various Allison titles since Scary Go Round ran its course. What’s that, you say? Seems like a topical reference to a TV show? Well, yes, the series is built around a parodical iteration of popular TV program The Great British Bake-Off. Maybe not the freshest cultural reference, but still relevant given the program’s lasting success. People on both sides of the Atlantic still talk about it on social media, so you know there’s still a constituency.
Bump-Off marks the return of the Allison/Sarin team. The latter spent an interlude drawing Harley Quinn for DC, probably as smart a match-up of talent and character as you’re likely to find in modern mainstream comics. Sarin knows well how to draw character-driven comedy starring women who can be both sexy and funny - the kind of stories that depend on both expressive figure work and precision control of setting. Bump-Off, for instance, has a large cast for a four-issue series: a raft of contestants and judges, all different, all distinct, in an indoor setting. Each character type is defined by specific body language funny all on its own, reams of crucial character detail communicated solely through gesture and expression. The sexy young ingenue Françoise has massive, expressive doe eyes and body language that bends to fit her surroundings, while a hard-bitten older male judge with an eyepatch stands like someone stuck a ramrod up Trafalgar Square. Sarin is clearly indebted to Allison as an artist. Allison is an excellent designer, knows how to build his characters around expressive facial expressions and contrasting body types, and Sarin knows to trust Allison’s instincts in this regard. But Allison’s own art is also built to fit crammed within the confines of daily comic strips, making the most of the limitations of his chosen format. Sarin knows to open his layouts, expanding the narrative to fit available space on a more expansive patch of real estate.
It helps, of course, that the game show format is a familiar one; not so difficult for the reader to keep track of who is what. We’ve all seen enough of those programs to follow along with the drama even if we tune in halfway through a random episode. Much of the plot depends, actually, on just this predictability of the format, and the potential for contestants to game the contest based on prior experience of how the shows work. Certain kinds of contestants traditionally do better than others: the kindly grammas with decades of experience but a limited palette tend to get eliminated before the uptight male professionals, who invariably make it to the final. We know what a kitchen looks like. We know what’s supposed to happen in a kitchen. We even know the order in which what's supposed to happen is supposed to occur, more or less, so it’s easy enough to follow along.
What’s not supposed to occur, of course, is attempted murder. But that’s just what happens here, with the most annoying contestant of the new season poisoned prior to the start of filming. Rather than call the police and court disastrous publicity, the producers consent to allow another contestant to try to solve the mystery - said contestant being, of course, the irrepressible Ms. Wickle, who still has her nose for mystery. Like most of Allison’s heroines, Shauna is both a little bit daffy and a little bit oblivious, driven at every turn to transform the banal circumstances of daily life into the stuff of adventure, despite the fact that most people around her have little interest in being press-ganged onto such a voyage.
So, with all that in mind, The Great British Bump-Off arrives under two separate remits: it must be both a funny story and a credible mystery. It's not always easy to juggle suspense with laughs, given the latter can easily compromise the former by undercutting narrative tension. Allison has a lot of experiencing juggling contrasting priorities. Although it's presented firmly tongue-in-cheek, there is nevertheless a legitimate mystery at the heart of the story: a panoply of different characters presented as suspects, complete with contrasting motives and dueling red herrings. It’s not perhaps the most challenging mystery, but it plays fair with the reader, which is always harder than you expect.
Mysteries aren’t as common as you’d think in comic books these days. Think about it: when was the last time Batman, the world-famous star of Detective Comics, actually had to solve a real honest-to-gosh mystery? The kind requiring more than a little hand-waving in the direction of forensic science or police informants? Easier always for writers to allude in the direction of “mystery” as a category by means of utilizing the tropes of hard-boiled noir. Allison, however, understands quite well the formal demands of mystery qua mystery. There’s always been a bit of Agatha Christie in his creative DNA. Shauna even alludes here to Hercule Poirot, a touchstone for any crime writer who begins with the questions, “What if there was a weird little guy who offered impertinent queries all the time? Wouldn’t that be sick as all heck?”
Indeed it would be. The joy of Poirot is the fact that the character is really quite funny in addition to being quite smart, although his adventures can certainly lean into the melancholy. There’s not so much melancholy here, however, as the stakes remain plausibly small-bore throughout. Most crucially, this is a funny story, with humor emerging organically both from the characters’ actions as well as perfectly chosen details. Each character is situated in specific recognizable cultural types - there’s a hippy-dippy dude with a man bun who insists on seeing the positive in Altamont and whose favorite movie is Nativity 2: Danger in the Manger. And let me tell you, I would have bet hard cash against Nativity 2: Danger in the Manger being a real film, but Dr. Google informs me it is indeed a real film, starring David Tennant, and it is a perfect character detail for the flakiest man in the world. Shauna’s own edible film diorama (it's part of the competition) is devoted to Under the Skin. You know, the movie where Scarlett Johansson is a monster who fucks people to death, or something. Perfect for a family baking show, clearly.
Once it gets going, The Great British Bump-Off never really lets up. The best jokes are the small asides. One of the bakers constructs a Home Alone-themed cake that’s an edible Macaulay Culkin - a normally frigid judge squeals, “A little boy’s head and hands. Delicious.” In regards to a Speed themed cake: “It certainly tasted like a bus.” A judge holds the severed head of a cartoon ogre aloft on the tines of a fork: “Yeah, that’s Shrek.” Maybe not every joke lands, but enough hit for a pleasing ratio. Allison has always been a dense gag writer, never content to build to a single punchline, usually layering multiple gags throughout a single day’s strip. That’s how you keep peoples’ interest on the World Wide Web, after all. On the printed page that kind of attention to detail creates a pleasingly dense reading experience. Like I say, if one joke misses, just stick around and there’ll be another three down the pike before too long.
My favorite running gag in the entire series is the show'a co-host, a cat named Primrose who baked himself into a loaf of bread to go AWOL from the Cat Navy. There’s no explanation or further elaboration on the concept of the Cat Navy, the book just throws it out there in a single panel. Sarin can draw a funny cat, disapproving and adorable in equal measure. When Shauna bases her architecture-influenced cake design on the work of Le Corbusier, it’s Primrose who points out that Le Corbusier was a fascist. Another comic might have leaned too hard on Primrose, but Allison knows better than to flog a stale gag. Primrose is funny because the cat is just one element out of a book chock full of such memorable elements.
The problem with The Great British Bump-Off is simply that the series is only four issues long. Allison is a machine and he should definitely be writing more comics. How come they haven’t drafted him to write X-Men yet? Seems like it should have happened by now. Easy money for an honest man.