Cartoonist finds her calling

Contributing writerJune 7, 2013 

Comics artist Carol Lay, a special guest at this year’s Olympia Comics Festival, has come a long way since she eschewed comic books as a kid.

She discovered Zap Comics, created the syndicated “Story Minute” strip, which ran in The Stranger, and she’s ventured into social networking with her first Kickstarter project, aimed at launching a new comic book called “Murderville.” (Check it out — and listen to Lay sing — at kickstarter.com/projects/1843551491/murderville-comic-book-1-a-farewell-to-armories.)

“I think she’s one of the wittiest cartoonists I’ve ever read,” said festival founder Frank Hussey, co-owner of Danger Room Comics. “Her work is pointed and satirical but always really funny.”

Lay, who lives in Los Angeles, laid it all out for us in an email interview.

Question: Were you a fan of comics and comic books as a kid?

Answer: I remember going to the drug store to buy comic books when I had a dime, but I didn’t happen to pick up any that grabbed me. I became a voracious (i.e., nerdy) reader, and didn’t try comics again until I was in college. I did read comic strips in the papers, and gag cartoons in magazines, and my favorites there were On Stage (pretty art), L’il Abner (kooky with good art), Rick O’Shay (friendly with great drawing) and Charles Addams (for all the best reasons).

When I got to UCLA, I discovered Zap Comics and Frank Zappa in the same week, along with other fun stuff best not detailed here. ZAP blew a hole in my mind. I had no idea we were allowed to be so imaginative and rude and psychedelic and funny. Surreal. I copied some of (Robert) Crumb’s drawings, but still had no idea I would wind up a cartoonist. I was in the fine arts department, paying my parents’ good money to learn to paint and draw naked people. I went through some shifts in my world view in school, gave up art altogether for a couple of years, but came back into it with some primitive cartoon number and letter cards I drew for my mother’s first-grade class.

A friend who worked at a local science fiction bookstore gave me a crash course in comic books. He showed me the good stuff, and I finally got hooked, and I knew what I wanted to do.

Q: Your art has a real sense of style and yet it’s funny at the same time. How has your style evolved? Any influences in particular? (The villain in “Murderville” brings to mind Natasha from “Rocky and Bullwinkle.”)

A: I LOVED “Rocky and Bullwinkle.” I also devoured Warner Brothers cartoons, early Popeye and Betty Boop, and whatever else was on TV. Hanna-Barbera was big when I was young, and some of their style soaked in, in spite of the bland scripts. I worked on Simpsons comics for a few years, and some of that infected me. But when I was doing my weekly strip, I developed a style that was hopefully my own. I worked on getting a balance of black and white on the page and as much energy in the small panels as possible with cartoon body lingo that used strong silhouette and hammy exaggeration.

I thought I didn’t have a distinctive style, but I read an interview with a cartoonist in Portland who named me as an influence. I looked up his work, and there I was in his lines and blacks. It was flattering and satisfying to seep into another artist.

Q: Would you define yourself more as an artist or a writer or perhaps in some third way?

A: I’m a hybrid. I can draw, but there are better artists. I can write, and there are better writers. But I can combine them to write short stories set to drawings. Not as many people can do this, and I am very happy and lucky to have that gift, because cartooning is an endlessly satisfying puzzle. I create a problem from some odd idea and then I get to solve it. Logic, linguistics, history, literature — all the information I took in in college has turned out to be useful! Making comics is the most fun thing I can do by myself. That, and playing on my concertina (poorly).

Q: When you started, was it unusual for women to be comics artists? Has that been challenging?

A: Being female in this business is a blessing and a curse. I got help and attention when I was starting because we all wanted to get laid. But males can be patronizing, or some often pigeonhole women. One time I sent out strips samples to weekly papers and I got a memorable rejection note: “Thanks, but we already have a female cartoonist.” The attitude is tiresome. The challenge is to be good enough that people forget your sex.

As a feminist, I try to use female characters as much as males and to make them good or bad in equal numbers. Even as a kid, I could see the scales were rigged to favor boys and men.

Q: How did you decide to do a Kickstarter for “Murderville”? How is it going?

A: The Kickstarter campaign looked like a breeze from the outside. I saw several web comics people make buckets of money so I thought I’d give it a try – I like being my own boss. And I have a comic I want to do, “Murderville.” But I had no idea how much promotion one needs to do for crowd-funded projects. I’m not good at that. I’m learning, but it’s too soon to tell if this project will make the funding goal.

I just finished coloring a page for “Murderville” in which a character gets kicked out of bed by the sexy villain, gets threatened with sulfuric acid, and has to split without his clothes. A man from Canada paid over $500 to be drawn into the comic as that character. That’s the fun part of Kickstarter — connecting with far-away readers who trust me to turn them into a cartoon. I am honored.

Q: What’s new?

A:. My most recent book is “Illiterature,” from BoomTown. It collects a couple of years of my weekly strip “Story Minute” and picks up where the “Kitchen Sink” books left off. There will be three more collections.

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