Cartoonist Carol Lay Turns to Kickstarter to Survive in Post-Print Comic World

by Sam Meier
The veteran cartoonist decided she’d try her hand at Kickstarter.
If Carol Lay were writing a comic about the past two months of her life, that’s how she might begin it. For the Los Angeles-based cartoonist, whose 35-year career in comics began with lettering for DC and Marvel Comics, teaching herself to draw by tracing over artwork by the greats, putting in the work to get a project done is not a problem. Having money to support herself— and a way to reach her audience in a seemingly post-print comic book world— is.
When major comics publishers make most of their money off of giant Hollywood blockbusters, how can independent cartoonists compete? Like so many other cartoonists, Lay turned to Kickstarter to seek funding for her next project: Murderville: A Farewell to Armories. Luckily, her fans came through, and she pre-sold enough books to make the project a reality … just barely.

The 28-page comic book “incorporates old-fashioned family values with absurd murder scenarios” to tell the story of a fight-to-the-finish in Muderville (a.k.a. “Murderville”), Maine. In one corner, Marta Hardy, an antiques weapon dealer and sexy villain; in the other, semi-retired mobster Mayor of Muderville Leo Scazzo, his angular wife Antonia, and their three children. Lay notes that the book is “sort of a cross between The Sopranos and The Addams Family.”
“It’s a challenge to keep a good moral tone to this thing when there’s a murder going on,” said Lay. “We’re inured to violence. We see so many murders on TV, the movies, other comics. You’d think that half the population would be dead from the amount of carnage that goes on in that media. I’m a little torn about contributing to that, but on the other hand I want to make fun of it.” 
When Carol Lay first started cartooning in the late ‘70s, the comics world had just undergone a major revolution. Underground comix, created and popularized by the hippies and radicals of the ‘60s, upended the entire comics market, breeding publishers and distributors across the nation.  Suddenly, instead of an assembly-line process of divided labor —penciling, inking, lettering, coloring— cartoonists were writing and drawing entire books on their own (or with only a handful of other contributors). As barriers to getting published decreased, and demand for underground comix increased, more and more women began breaking in to what had previously been seen as an utterly-male dominated industry. In just a matter of years, more cartoonists than ever before were able to take on more kinds of projects than ever before — including Carol Lay. 
As she puts it, “Someone asked me once, ‘What do you want to do in this genre?’ I said, ‘I want to do everything.’” 
She essentially has. After appearing in underground comic anthologies like Wimmen’s Comix and Weirdo in the early ‘80s, Carol Lay created her own comic book, Good Girls, featuring her  iconic character Irene Van de Kamp. The Ubangi-styled heiress has been praised by everyone from Watchmen creator Alan Moore to DEVO’s Mark Mothersbaugh. Lay’s illustrations have appeared in the New Yorker, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and Newsweek. Her book The Big Skinny: How I Changed My Fattitude (2008) was billed as “the world’s first graphic memoir-cum-diet book.” Since 2010, she has written and drawn Simpsons comic books for Bongo Comics.   
Lay is perhaps best known for her 12-panel strip Story Minute, which she began producing weekly beginning in 1994.
“With Story Minute, I could tell a story that you might write 12,000 words on and tell it in 12 panels. I learned the ways to abbreviate everything, to use the images to get 1,000 words per panel, in order to get as much emotional and storytelling bang for your buck as possible per line,” she explained. “The strip was like doing poetry, where you have to really go for the essence instead of the thing.”
Story Minute first ran in alternative and independent print newspapers like the San Francisco Examiner and the L.A. Weekly. When David Talbot, Lay’s editor at the Examiner, started Salon in 1995, Carol Lay took her work online.
In 2012, she released Illiterature, a collection of 120 Story Minute strips. Now, she is depending on internet fans of her strip to make her new project a reality, even selling original artwork for her old Story Minute strips to help boost pledges for Murderville. 
“I had a web audience when my strip was on Salon, but it’s hard to say how many people were seeing it. Salon started out great guns, and as they lost audience, I lost web sales. I miss the emails from strangers around the world, but maybe I’ll be getting back into it as I move back onto the web,” said Lay. 
“I think that is definitely the future of comics. I don’t see how print is going to survive without web interaction, and I don’t see any real downside to the web stuff except finding out how to generate an income.”
Lay is not alone in wondering how the webcomics revolution will affect her career. For cartoonists struggling with to make ends meet as newspapers decline, once-great comics publishers flounder, and graphic novels become the domain of book publishers, publishing on the web seems to be the way forward for comics creators. (In fact, another Kickstarter project – Stripped, a documentary film about cartoonists and the comic strip industry— features a cadre of web cartoonists who argue just that.) But in order to make money from webcomics, which many cartoonists regularly post for free in order to attract a digital audience, another mechanism is necessary. 
While comics projects like Penny Arcade Sells Out or Womanthology have received hundreds of thousands of dollars in support — the third project to raise over $1 million on Kickstarter was a comic book — not every project fares as well. Producing new work is far more costly to cartoonists than reprinting or licensing existing work, and producing a solo comic book more of a burden to the individual than producing an anthology. 
More importantly, 54% of all Kickstarter projects fail, meaning that the project creators never receive even a fraction of the funds necessary to realize their projects. Kickstarter may provide more funding to the arts than the National Endowment for the Arts, but it’s clear that all projects are not created equal. (In fact, the crowdsourcing platform itself has recently received some intense blowback after successfully funding projects by celebrities like Zach Braff, who many argue don’t need to turn to the masses to finance their work.). 
After 35 years in the industry, Lay believes that the accessibility of comics as a medium can prevent readers from truly understanding how much training and work goes into creating books like Murderville. While webcomics, like underground comix before them, have opened up the industry to outsiders, it’s unclear if the meritocratic dreams of equal artistic access have truly been fulfilled, or if new forms of social cache have replaced the old. The future of cartooning remains uncertain for groundbreaking artists like Carol Lay. 
“It’ll be interesting to see in 50 years how many people are still drawing comics, and how many are digital … or if the world even exists,” she observed wryly.
Sam Meier is currently the gender and politics editor at PolicyMic, a news and analysis website for millennials. She writes, edits, manages, and promotes writing on a variety of social justice topics, including sex, gender, sexuality, race, activism, and organizing. Previously, Sam co-founded Sexual Health Education and Advocacy Throughout Harvard College, the organization which ran Harvard's first-ever Sex Week. Her work with Sex Week was profiled by the New York Times. Sam is currently working on a book about women in the underground comix movement. Her political writing can be found at PolicyMic, and her comics research can be found at <a data-cke-saved-href=" target=" href=" target=" _blank"=""></a><span>. Follow her on Twitter at </span></em><span><a data-cke-saved-href="" href="">@sameier12</a>.</span><br></div>