The Pulp Press Interviews Tracy Butler

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Tracy Butler is the creator of the Eisner-nominated Lackadaisy. With its detailed, expressive artwork and character-driven plot, Lackadaisy proves that webcomics are more than equal to their print counterparts.

1. Your artwork combines a high level of detail with a fluidity rarely found in static images and the style itself appears to be influenced by classic Disney animation and the work of Don Bluth. Can you tell us a little bit about your artistic influences?

TRACY BUTLER: You’ve more or less hit the nail on the head already. I suppose a lot of my influences are obvious ones, and ones that many comic artists in my generation share. It was my early childhood interest in animals that seemed to fuel my compulsion to draw initially – I’d fill sketchbook pages with doodles of dinosaurs, cats, dogs, horses and other zoological assortments.

The earliest media to have a real emotional impact on me came in the form of cartoons and animation, though, and as I zealously absorbed things like Who Framed Roger Rabbit, An American Tale, Watership Down, Bambi and The Lion King, a litany of Looney Tunes shorts and comics like Calvin and Hobbes, I think the nature of my drawings began to transform. I no longer spent spent hours sketching horses in various poses without context. Instead, I began drawing animals with a sense of character and story and humor behind them, even if the story only ever remained in my head.  I never set out to be a comic artist specifically, but looking back, I can see how that path led directly here.

2. What was behind the choice to give the comic a sepia palette? Is it partly because this aesthetic seems appropriate for the time period in which Lackadaisy is set?

TB: There’s a lot of nostalgia and romanticizing of the past going on both in my treatment of the subject matter and in the motivations of several of the story’s characters. In keeping with that, I suppose I wanted the artwork to have a wistful look, like each panel was an old photograph. Things are happening, characters are in motion, but everything looks a little distant, a little hazy and tattered with age. It’s a memory, however fictional.

3. I believe that you originally studied biology. What caused the shift to sequential art instead? And what is your artistic background? The dynamic nature of your figures leads me to believe that you may have worked or trained in animation.

TB: I very badly wanted to go to school for art, but my parents deemed the idea impractical, if not fully hairbrained. It was a well-intentioned objection – I think they had that archetypal image of the ‘starving artist’ in mind – but as they were going to be helping me foot the tuition bill for my first couple of years of school, I couldn’t win that debate. We compromised on biology, my distant second choice. While in school, living in a dorm, though, I was still moonlighting as an artist. I put up a website to showcase my work, I began taking on commissions and small freelance gigs, and I eventually received a full time job offer from an independent game development studio out in St. Louis. Off I went.

I spent a number of years working in games, initially as a 2D artist, creating web graphics, promotional illustrations and graphical user interface designs. I gradually transitioned into doing concept art for projects in development, and then I got my hands on 3D tools and found I had a knack for modeling, rigging and animation. Character animation became the highlight of my games career, really. As I later moved into an art director role, however, I had less and less time for the more hands-on work. I began craving some kind of creative fulfilment outside of my job, and I think that’s more or less the story of how I ended up a comic artist.

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4. Lackadaisy certainly boasts an original concept. Anthromorphic felines in the Prohibition era. You live in St Louis. Did this help shape the themes and setting of Lackadaisy? Did the idea come in a flash of inspiration or develop slowly over time?

TB: Around the same time I was feeling the urge to embark on a personal project to fill in some of the creative gaps the direction of my day job had left open, I bought an old house in the St. Louis area. My interest in the history of the house quickly blossomed into an interest in the history of the city on the whole. I was listening to a lot of jazz and jazz revival at the time, and I had picked up some reading material about the labyrinth of limestone caves underneath St. Louis. These things began developing like little story kernels in my head, and so I took them, combined them and ran with the result – a comic about bootlegger jazz cats trying to run a Prohibition Era speakeasy in the caves below the city.  It’s an odd combination of things, I suppose, but somehow it felt right. I approached it at a comic simply because it seemed like the most feasible way for me to convey a long-form story as a singular artist/author with not a lot of extra time on my hands. Little did I know how little I knew about comic making before I dove right into it, though…and little did I know just how all-consuming it would be.

5. How do you think the internet and digital publishing are affecting the comic book industry? Do you see it as a positive or negative thing?

TB: As with any cultural and economic change that creates a lot of interconnecting ripples, its effects probably amount to something more complicated than would fit into a positive-negative binary. For what it’s worth, though, my outlook leans toward the positive. Digital publishing opens the doors for an array of artists who would not have otherwise found a venue for their work. By nature of the game, print publishers must be cautious and risk averse and narrow about what they pick up and produce. But a field that can accommodate a wider diversity of people, ideas, viewpoints and weird, technology enhanced, ingenious approaches to comic-making will also attract a wider audience of new comic readers. Some might argue this over-saturates the comic market, or lowers the bar on expectations of quality, but I’d happily spend a little more time digging through the rough if it means finding a rare gem that never would have made it past the desk of some curator on the basis of marketability alone.

It also changes the publisher-author power dynamic a bit, maybe tilting it slightly more in favor of creators than it traditionally has been. If as a comic-maker, you’ve got a good thing going online with a sizable following, instead of pitching your work to publishers, you may find print publishers reaching out to you, competing to make the most enticing contract offer. The artist gets to be the selector instead of the selected in this scenario. Because the digital arena gives artists a conduit to reach their audience directly as well, one can enjoy bypassing middlemen, like monopolistic distributors. And who doesn’t enjoy sticking it to middlemen? 

6. Self-publishing and webcomics still carry a certain stigma. How do you feel about this stigma and what steps do you think should be taken to better legitimize webcomics?

TB: I think the self-publishing stigma has done a lot of dissipating as of late. As a comic artist, you may not have landed a contract with a prestige publisher, but when you can, say, pull in a couple hundred thousand dollars through Kickstarter to print your first book, it’s hard to argue that you haven’t ‘made it’ in some sense. And hey, you didn’t have to sign over one shred of your intellectual property to a corporate entity that will always value their bottom line more than they will value you as an author and artist. Perhaps it’s not a widely held opinion (yet), but in the comic and webcomic circles I lurk in, people tend to have a great deal of respect for creators who can generate their own success this way.

There are other signs of changing attitudes as well. Among nominees for awards like the Hugos and Eisners, there’s definitely a greater digital presence than there was a few years ago.  Furthermore, in places like South Korea where mobile webcomics are immensely popular, film and television producers are optioning and developing some of the more successful titles. I think it’s just a matter of time before we start seeing studios in the west harvesting from the web in kind.  Although I would not necessarily agree that this represents ultimate validation – it’s up to each artist to define success for their own self – it certainly is perceived as mark of legitimacy in the broader consciousness. Perhaps that’s what it will take for everyone to be on the same page about the general worthiness of webcomics.

7. Lackadaisy has received a number of illustrious awards and nominations. All well-deserved. How did you go about bringing your work to the attention of various awards committees? Can you tell us a bit more about this process? Obviously having a high-quality product like Lackadaisy is the starting point.

TB: Thank you! I’ve had occasion to express my appreciation to those who’ve informed me that they nominated my work for an award, but I’ve never undertaken any deliberate effort to be nominated for anything myself. I’m just out here doing the best work I can do. If you’re putting your heart and soul into something, if you have a real love for what it is you’re doing, I think an outside audience will tend to pick up on that. However much it may sound like feel-good pablum to say it, maybe something you’re fully in love with sparkles a little more than something you’ve been tasked with or something you’re doing just for the paycheck. Honestly, though, there’s also a fair amount of luck, timing, and happenstance involved. I can think of a number of comics that, by any reasonable measure, deserve an award or two but have received none.

That said, there’s (usually) no rule saying you can’t submit your own work, and if you feel like your comic is deserving of an award or that it’s at least worthy of consideration, you should!  Perhaps it’s a personal goal of yours, or you might even consider it a practical means of self-promotion. To some that sounds a little bit mercenary, but if you’re a self-employed artist, it’s part of the job. You may be your own harshest critic, but it’s important to be your own advocate too.

8. You’re not simply an artist; you also write your own comic scripts. Do you find this less or more challenging than working off someone else’s script or brief?

TB: Hehe – well, it is more difficult in the sense that it’s quantifiably more work than being handed a completed script to draw from. There are certain hurdles that one avoids by working alone, though. I know very well from my time working in games that coordinating with one or more people on an extended artistic endeavor inevitably leads to some differences of opinion, both creative and logistical. Sometimes you may find you have a fantastic rapport with a teammate, and in other cases, you may never quite be on the same wavelength in terms of vision or execution. That can make for a very bumpy or even impassable road to completion. It probably works out for the better in many ways that I only have myself to contend with.

9. Can you talk us through the process of creating a page? Do you write a formal script or do you prefer to let the page develop more organically? Is the bulk of the art work done via traditional medium or digitally?

TB: I work from a story outline that I progressively flesh out. Chapters I’ll soon be tackling in visual format exist in a more fully scripted state while things further down the pipeline tend to resemble a rough draft. As I begin the artwork phase for a given part of the story (I usually work with a chapter or a series of 3-4 pages at a time) I’ll often do multiple dialog rewrites in tandem with thumbnailing page layouts to make sure the visual and verbal components complement each other.  It’s one thing to write down a story scene in text alone, and another to revisit it bearing in mind how visual angles, staging, composition and panel flow will factor in. Once I land on page thumbnails and dialog that I’m satisfied with, I begin penciling panels with traditional tools – a simple mechanical graphite pencil and Bristol paper. I scan the panel drawings and create the digital layout in keeping with my thumbnails. At this stage, if something isn’t quite working or I have a last minute epiphany about how to better approach a given panel, I’ll do some further layout editing or a panel redraw. From there, I begin the labor intensive work of adding values, tones, textures and sundry ambient effects and details on top of my scanned pencil art. For this, I work primarily in Photoshop with a Wacom Cintiq.

10. What is your dream project? If you could work on any existing gaming franchise or comic series, which would you choose?

TB: Perhaps I’ll sound marvelously conceited in saying so, but there’s nothing I’d prefer over my own creations. There are many comics and games and franchises I follow and enjoy and many, many artists whose contributions to popular and indie media I appreciate and admire, but working on my own thing, developing my own ideas and seeing them through to fruition is the ideal circumstance in my book.  I’m very grateful now that I have the opportunity to do that, for however long it remains possible.

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