Smash Pages Q&A: Tracy Butler

The creator of ‘Lackadaisy’ discusses her new Kickstarter for an animated version of the popular webcomic.

Tracy Butler has worked as a game designer and illustrator, but for many of us, Butler is the best known as the person behind the webcomic Lackadaisy. Set in St. Louis during Prohibition, the comic has followed a band of anthropomorphic cats in story involving speakeasies, bootleggers, jazz musicians. It manages to both simultaneously romanticize the past, while never straying into sentimentality. Butler depicts the hardships, the violence, the sacrifices, the tough choices and losses that characters face along with many of the real life details and complexities that marked that period.

Butler’s new project is an animated version of Lackadaisy. To help her, she’s enlisted Fable Siegel, an animation veteran that Butler is co-directing the film with, and C. Spike Trotman, the woman behind Iron Circus Comics. The Kickstarter for the project launched this week and hit its goal in a matter of hours, but Butler answered a few questions about the project and offered us a look at some of the design work for the film.

So how did you come to comics?

Coming from a background in illustration and 3d animation, I stumbled my way clumsily into comics, but the medium has become a welcoming (if not consistently challenging) place to call my artistic home. As the concept for Lackadaisy was beginning to coagulate in my thoughts, I knew it was going to require a very visual translation. Written-word with illustrations wasn’t going to suffice, but the story was too long and complex for a solo animation project. Sequential art, on the other hand, offered a means of telling a longform story, portraying highly expressive characters against detailed historical backdrops, and tackling it all as a one-artist show. I dove in not really knowing anything about comics except what I had picked up from strips I read as a child (like Calvin and Hobbes). That forced me to learn quickly, though, and it wasn’t long before I had a newfound, broader respect and appreciation for the medium, and for the artists who use it to tell their stories.

So how did this animated project happen? How did you and Spike and Fable connect?

So much of what Lackadaisy is was influenced by the animated features I absorbed with great relish as a child. Since the project’s inception, I’ve wondered about the possibility of adapting it for animation, even if only as a small personal project adjacent to the comic. Still, with limited time and resources, that prospect seemed like a far off, wouldn’t-that-be-nice pipe dream. Lately, though, as sophisticated animation and editing software has become more accessible, as I’ve watched virtual studios producing high quality, original shorts that surpass what many more mainstream studios are doing for television, as I’ve seen more platforms seeking original content, I began considering the idea more seriously. 

I reached out to Fable Siegel, an artist and animator I’ve known for a long time (we’ve traveled in the same circles, publishing in the same online galleries and bringing our self-styled comics to the same conventions) about putting a pitch together. Almost immediately, and more than once, we were advised by insiders that the best way to clamber over the hurdles posed by a risk averse industry was to prove our case by producing a short animation and demonstrating that it could capture an audience. Fable and I started calculating the possibilities. We concluded that even if this hypothetical animation failed as a series pitch, it was something we both wanted to try – it’d be eminently gratifying as a creative pursuit, and something we would delight in being able to share with the Lackadaisy readership and a broader online audience.

Fable enthusiastically approached Spike about the idea – someone who we both know to be a champion of indie comics publishing and proponent of new and different types of storytelling. Spike responded with interest, and following some discourse, we realized our respective goals (like carving out some new, more diverse places for western animation to venture) were well in alignment. With this crucial publishing and crowdfunding muscle on the team, we knew we were really onto something – and so here we are now!

You’ve spoken about your love of animation and your influences, but Lackadaisy is a longform comic. To animate it, to adapt it, what did you have to keep? What did you have to change? What was absolutely essential?

For this project, we knew we had to conjure something that would appeal both to the longtime Lackadaisy readership and to a broader audience yet unfamiliar with the title. We can’t fully explore some of the more convoluted alleyways of the comic’s plot in a short film of roughly 15 minutes, though, so we decided to distill some of the most fundamental elements into a sort of standalone story that serves to introduce the setting, conflict and characters (like Rocky the quixotic rumrunner, Freckle the reluctant muscle, and Ivy the fast-talking demon of the dancefloor).

That said, in many ways, the animation project allows us to add far more than we’ve had to cut and compromise. We get to weave in ambient sound, and soundtrack, diegetic music, voices and characters (though they must be simplified and streamlined for animation) fully in motion. I think it’ll add some lush new dimension to the source material.

In the end, the film will require no prior familiarity with the comic, it should illuminate the various ways in which this world of Prohibition-fueled mayhem may be excavated for rich storytelling in the future, and it should look and feel quintessentially Lackadaisy.

As part of this you also have an art book and other things. Do you want to say a little about the campaign, what’s included in the art book?

The art book will be the first print incarnation of the multitudinous Lackadaisy mini-comics. The mini-comics are standalone vignettes that explore facets of the characters and their lives outside the context of the canonical story. Additionally, the book will include art tutorials, some 1920s history, and numerous color illustrations.

Beyond funding production so that we can produce the animation with the full amount of polish and shine we’d like to apply, one of my biggest hopes for the project is that it provides a space for contributors to exercise their skills and glean some filmmaking cred. I’ve been very fortunate to have had the mentorship, help and support of many creative people on my way here, so I feel the righteous thing to do is to try to help lift other artists up in the same way. If this were to act like a bit of a stepping stone for burgeoning talents to find future industry or studio work, I’d be thrilled with that. Perhaps for some, this’ll even be a piece of a roadmap for adapting their own personal, original projects for film.

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