The Webcomic Overlook #12: Scary Go Round

There are very few webcomics in existence whose artwork would translate well into the traditional print medium. Most webcomic artists would not be offered a paying job at a comic book company since the art is usually passable at best.

That’s why I was thrilled when I saw artwork from the webcomic I’m reviewing today. My first impression was that the art that would find a good home at one of those counterculture alternative imprints, like Vertigo or Fantagraphics. The content and namge suggest a dark comedy with Harry-Potter-esque fantasy elements. My expectations went through the roof.

I’ve always been a fan of well-done stories that placed fantasy elements in modern times, from Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comics to Mike Resnick’s oddball Stalking the Unicorn. I consider them to be the proud continuation of a noble tradition, which in the past have included some great works like Alice In Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz. And for you anime lovers out there, there’s InuYasha.

Of course, it’s quite easy for a fantasy/modern world story to go off the rails. Terry Brooks’ Magic Kingdom of Landover series, anyone? But I pressed on with giddy confidence anyway, hopeful that the artwork I’d seen would be the x-factor that would place webcomic firmly in the win column.

Today’s Webcomic Overlook will look at John Allison’s Scary Go Round.

Super Best Friends Society

John Allison is a member of Dumbrella, a comic collective that has also spawned notable webcomics Wigu and Diesel Sweeties (which has somehow managed to get printed in newspaper funny pages). According to Wikipedia, Scary Go Round was named one of the best webcomics of 2004 by The Webcomics Examiner and given good reviews by both The Sunday Times and The Morining Star. All good signs.

So I click onto the first page of the webcomic and… I start to wonder if I’d stumbled onto the wrong Scary Go Round.

This isn’t hyperbole. I’d thought for a second there that perhaps that the name Scary Go Round had once been appropriated by another webcomic artist who had done a Penny Arcade-style series about two college chums (only they were women), and John Allison had purchased the rights to the name but kept the old webcomic around for nostalgic reasons.

The tone was more mellow than I expected. The characters were unfamiliar from what I’d seen, and they looked like they’d be more at home in a Thursday night NBC sitcom about young hip New York professionals. Even when the story eventually got to the supernatural twist, it was less wacky than I’d hoped.

What was going on here?

What I should have guessed is that Scary Go Round, like most webcomics, is a continually evolving series. It’s the kind that strays far from its origins to become something new and different. However, SGR, like David Bowman, was on the evolutionary fast track. By the time I’d jumped onto the series, it had metamorphized into a webcomic completely unrecognizable from the first strips.

Tessa and Rachel

The Second Coming Of Shelley Winters

At the beginning of the series, the main characters are Tessa and Rachel. They’re two journalism students and bar owners. The two are nearly indistinguishable from each other, except that Rachel wears the hipster Buddy Holly glasses. It’s clear from the beginning they were meant to be the central focus of the ensemble cast.

Things don’t always work out as originally planned.

Tessa and Rachel have major roles in one more story — “Chapter 7: Dimensionality” — but from that point on, they’re on the long, inevitable road to Obsurity: Population Two. They’re in the webcomic less and less, and … well, let’s just say that, in their latest appearances, the two wouldn’t be winning any Best Friends of the Year Awards.

So who is the Popeye to Tessa and Rachel’s Thimble Theatre?

In “Chapter 2: Science Fair,” perky redhead Shelley Winters makes her stunning debut … by dying. Oddly enough, this single act may have established her as the star of Scary Go Round. First of all, her death forces the rest of the ensemble cast to deal with it. And second, it also turns her into the most adorable zombie ever. Shelley stands out of the cast by being an eccentric weirdo. And this is has been proven to be the best way to pick up fans, because, to coin a phrase from a later strip, “they’re the natural audience for all [Shelley’s] gnome talk.”

Obsessive Wonks

And as if Shelley needed something more to bolster her street cred, she’s also the main practitioner of one of the strip’s most distinctive aspects: its non-sensical gibberish.

The dialogue is laced with crazy non sequiturs, childlike observations, and just general nonsense. In a 2004 interview with Kung Fu Rodeo, John Allison described his writing style as “the sound of words being mangled as they are forced out under extreme external pressure.” Shelley isn’t the only one with the weird dialogue; pretty much every character, to some extent, is guilty. Yet, they take on an extra level of bizarre when spoken with a generous helping of Shelley’s unflaggable glee.

Shelley’s tattooed friend, Amy Chilton, plays the straight woman. She’s the one who offers a relatively sane point of view, odd since she has been in as many strange adventures as the redheaded dynamo.

And so Shelley and Amy become the strip’s Tessa and Rachel. One suspects that if Tessa and Rachel had remained the main characters, the story would have not been different. I mean, you still have two twent-somethings anchoring the series. However, Shelley and Amy are vastly more interesting characters, and it is to everyone’s benefit that it’s on their capable, broad shoulders that the sizable burden of the webcomic rests.

Scary Evolution
Shelley vs. The Zombie
Earlier, I mentioned that Scary Go Round evolves rapidly. The webcomic embraces change. Each chapter introduces new twists in character development. Amy, for example, goes from being a smelly and spoiled daddy’s girl to being the most responsible and level-headed member of the cast. The character of Tim Jones remains the same personality wise, but he’s thrust in different roles: from drinking buddy to inventor to fiancee to mayor.

Also, new characters are constantly being introduced. The most significant new characters, The Boy and Dark Esther, were introduced as late as Chapter 20. The injection of new blood changes relationships and keeps the webcomic fresh and interesting.

On the downside, several characters who had been somewhat important sometimes are tossed off into obscurity. Tessa and Rachel I’ve already covered. Hugo, an Indian hepcat, factors into plots early yet gets relegated to rare cameo appearance in later chapters. For the most part, this is a good strategy: too often, webcomics hang on to uninteresting characters just because they were created.

I have to take issue, though, with how John Allison has handled Shelley’s sister, Erin Winters. Her main sin, it seems, was that she was too straightlaced. (Or as Amy says, in what seems like expositionary justification, “Erin only had two settings, ‘Bossy’ and ‘Whiny.”) So what did Allison do? He transformed her from a mousy bookworm into a sexy Amazon. It’s a little reminiscent of her sister’s own human-to-zombie transformation. Yet, I thought it was forced, off-putting, and unnecessary. Although Nerdy Shelley may not have been a joy to write, I felt that she filled the needed role of a grounded, normal personality while the rest of the world went zonkers. Turning her into Sexy Shelley was like creating a whole new character who had no resemblances to the original.

However, the most jarring change happened during Chapter 24, when John Allison first switched from drawing the webcomic in Adobe Illustrator and began drawing in a more traditional style.

Shelley Vs. Shelley

Now, in the back of my mind, I had known this was coming. I’d initially discovered Scary Go Round through the attractive handdrawn art. Yet that didn’t prepare me for the slight disorientation I felt when the series finally switched styles. On the first page of Chapter 24, Allison explains that he changed styles because he was “starting to find it very boring to work on.” He also knew that the change might cause some fans to part ways with his webcomic.

Parts of the webcomic did suffer. There were supernatural beasties during the Adobe Illustrator run, yet the simplistic style made them look absolutely adorable. Under the new drawing style, though, the creatures — while still adhering to simple geometric forms — look more menacing.

Shelley suffers a bit from the new style as well. Before, she seemed like a bit of a ditz, but that was fine when coupled with her youthful and innocent looks. She was like Erin Esurance with more spunk. With her new looks, though, she starts to resemble a balmy cat lady in training. Actually, she reminds me most of Emma Thompson’s harried writer character from Stranger Than Fiction.

Overall, though, I highly approve of the new style. Later chapters tackle more gothic subject matters — such as Devil Nuns and The End of the World — and the artwork suits it nicely.

And a lot of the characters do look great in the new style. The ones with the most improved looks are the members of the Tackleford Grammar School. The Boy — and by the way, it’s never fully explained why he’s only referred to as The Boy (though he DOES have a name) — and Dark Esther are far more attractive when rendered in the Charles Addams style art. In retrospect, their original character designs were far too sedate. I guess it’s not surprise that when John Allison started to draw Scary Go Round by hand, the two characters began to play a far more prominent role.

The most dangerous animal of all.

So, to wrap this up, Scary Go Round is one of the few webcomics that I think is so good that it could succeed as a parint comic. Which begs an interesting question: since the print comics are dominated by superheroes, do webcomics provide a much needed outlets for things that are not easily categorized, such as this highly appealing blend of ensemble comedy, sugary dark fantasy, and surreal science fiction? Discuss.

On a final note, while it is rewarding to read the webcomic from start to finish, it isn’t necessary to do so. Each Chapter is a self contained comic. You can skip to Chapter 29, for example, to read a compelling story of robot diplomacy, and then catch up on “back issues” if you want to get better insight on the character of Tim Jones.

Here are my recommendations for the best Scary Go Round stories:

  • Meddling — Shelley comes back as a zombie, and Ryan and Tim help readjust her to real life.
  • Dimensionality — Tessa and Rachel have to rescue Amy from another dimension, where she has somehow become a huge celebrity.
  • Ballad of the Man — A surprisingly touching and sometimes bittersweet story about how Ryan finally finds a perfect soulmate.
  • The Child — A creepy little kid anounced that “Things are going to change.” No one really knows what he’s talking about.
  • Abductions — In my personal favorite story, Shelley must taken on a team of supervillains, all of whom hate her friend, Tim Jones. Plus the return of zombie Shelley!
  • Happy End of the World and Super Crisis Quests — The End of the World begins when Shelley’s sister is seduced by the Wickedest in the World, and it’s up to her and her newly assembled Super Best Friends Society to stop the chain of events from happening.

So if you haven’t done it already, get to it! Read Scary Go Round with your heart full of unfettered glee and and a high threshhold of enjoyment! You have my enthusiastic 5 star blessing.

Rating: 5 stars (out of 5)


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