Saturday, April 28, 2012

Review: Lackadaisy volume 1

For all my interest in comic books and comic strips, I have to confess the webcomic revolution has mainly passed me by; occasionally I find a series which seems interesting, but I find it hard to develop a keenness to check the site for the next installment and gaps between the arrival of new pages erode the momentum of the story for me.

However! Fairly recently an article at Comics Alliance alerted me to the existence of Tracy J. Butler's Lackadaisy, comparing the series to Blacksad. As an avid Blacksad, I was intrigued. After an afternoon spent reading the webcomic archive, I was hooked.

Set in 1927 St. Louis, Missouri, Lackadaisy is a speakeasy operated by Mitzi May, who inherited the establishment after her husband's death. However, the business has seen better days. Fast-talking and just barely competent, Rocky Rickaby is trying to help keep Lackadaisy's lights on, assuming the job of obtaining their illegal stash of alcohol. This places Rocky in the forefront of violence with rival establishments, which is a problem since Rocky is not a gunman - he's a violinist. Fortunately, Rocky's soft-spoken loyal cousin Calvin has an explosive dark side. Is that all you need to know?
Oh, right. They're all cats.
So far there's just one print volume of Lackadaisy; despite bearing a copyright notice dating back to 2006, there's only so much content in existence. The story being told within Lackadaisy moves at an interesting pace; lackadaisical, you might say (ha, ha! don't hurt me). By the end of volume one, about 48 hours have transpired for the cast; since then, the website has added perhaps 24 more?
Lackadaisy has a vast cast of characters and takes its time establishing them and their relationships to each other; as noted, the Lackadaisy establishment has a history, one which is gradually developed: there's just barely a few pages in which one character, the assassin Mordecai Heller appears, but he's established as a quirky, violent yet cultured man; Lackadaisy employee Ivy Pepper is presented as a fun, vivacious character... but there are hints to her troubled history with boyfriends who wind up in the hospital; band leader Zib just barely tolerates working with Rocky; Slovakian bartender Viktor Vasko is the one Lackadaisy character suited to the violent world they live in, but the years are catching up with him.
Although the comparison to Blacksad caught my eye, it was ultimately the series' dialogue which kept my attention; it would have been too easy to let myself glaze over the pages of material and just the strip's sequential storytelling chops first, but the clever wordplay demanded close attention; attempts at period dialogue run throughout the series, but Rocky receives special attention for his harried jabbering, occasionally pausing to wax poetic. Further, the voices of the many characters come through as distinct as their grammar reflects their class, upbringing or ethnicity.
While Blacksad populates its detective noir world with many types of animals, comparisons to Lackadaisy are no doubt encouraged because John Blacksad is himself a cat. Both series' use the funny animal characters in a period setting to help diffuse what could be much more bleak material. However, Blacksad is still a noir and an air of futility and failure infuses everything in Blacksad's world. While Lackadaisy does feature violence and its repercussions (repercussions are unavoidable thanks to the aforementioned gradual pace), primarily it's written for comedy. You know, for laughs, son. If I must compare Lackadaisy to another funny animal comic, I would prefer Usagi Yojimbo: both tell stories of drama and comedy side by side.
Considering Butler has revealed she didn't attend art school, I'm very impressed with the end result: she's no Rob Liefeld (although she has made the comparison). I'm fascinated by how she uses the unique body types provided by her cat people to reveal character. In the above image, note how Calvin's head and ears tilt back while he attempts to hide his face from Ivy. The postures characters adopt while speaking, the way they manipulate objects and how their faces contort all help to establish character, as much or moreso than the dialogue.

If Butler does have a failing, it's in the art of speech balloon placement. Although she has some interesting ideas about overlapping speech balloons to indicate voices being drowned out:
...She struggles with balloon placement in back & forth conversations such as this:
The balloons need to be closer to each other on the page or the reader will simply read all of Zib's balloons on the left before starting Rocky's balloons on the right.

This collected edition of Lackadaisy includes various bonus sketches and gag cartoons. The strips themselves are presented in sepia and run for 68 pages, usually featuring three rows of panels per page. Strangely, three rows per page is not the standard format in the website version - in fact, there is no standard format as many pages go beyond three rows. Consequently, some of the "beats" between pages play out differently in the collection than they did on the website, but it's something only a person who's read both would notice.
Lackadaisy. It cures what ails ya.

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