The GoComics “Meet Your Creator” series brings you firsthand insight into the lives and careers of your favorite cartoonists. Each week, we hand over the keys to one of our talented creators, who share their inspirations, achievements, creative processes, studios and more! Read on to hear from this week’s featured cartoonist: Carol Lay of Lay Lines
How to Build a Cartoonist
My mother doomed me to be an artist when she praised a drawing I did when I was maybe 3 or 4. My good parents also sent me to extracurricular art classes and, later, to UCLA where I learned how to paint and draw naked ladies, but not how to make an actual living at it. My first non-waitressing job after college was drawing trucks and carpet cleaning guys for Yellow Page ads, which taught me how to use a dolly, carve Rubylith, and operate a stat camera (ask your grandpa).
But, back to when I was small. Influences were plentiful: “The Twilight Zone” and “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” came out fresh each week on the black and white Zenith. I also devoured Warner Bros. and Fleischer cartoons, Disney films, newspaper strips and lots of books at the library. Oddly, I didn’t read many comic books as a kid – I didn’t chance upon the good stuff, and I picked up comics that didn’t really do it for me. Little Dot instead of Little Lulu. Casper instead of Barks’ Ducks. I really missed the boat. The final blow came when I read a Classics Illustrated version of The Oxbow Incident. It was someone’s terrible idea to inflict that on kids. I mean, really. I didn’t pick up another comic book until I was in college and my boyfriend showed me Zap Comix. Mind blown, but I still had no idea I would turn into a cartoonist as I was studying to be a Fine Artist, ha ha.
An illustration for The Wall Street Journal
During my junior year, I took one class too many in Conceptual Art. At first, I was fascinated. I sought out audiences with artists John Baldessari and Chris Burden, trying to fathom the Fine Art scene. One of the best pieces I did involved hooking the class into finding out what happened to an object, a storytelling device. I wouldn’t realize until later that that is what was missing for me in Fine Art: story. Finally, one instructor was so full of nonsense, I suddenly stopped wanting to be an artist. It felt like having a broken heart. I quit drawing for two years and almost switched my major to Computer Science. In an alternate world, I am married to a charming geek with a nice home in San Francisco or San Jose, bored out of my mind and seeing a shrink five times a week. (That version of me can afford it.) Mom came to the rescue by asking me to draw some number cards for her first-grade class. I made some clever, funny-looking cartoons and re-discovered art, but in a pragmatic, non-pretentious mode, rejecting adult notions of art and circling back to the childlike fun stuff. Meanwhile, after flirting with the idea of becoming an SF/fantasy illustrator, a friend gave me a crash course in comics history. Before long I met a gaggle of cartoonists and writers at a small comics convention. One of them hired me to letter some pages for an underground comic, so I used skills I’d picked up along the way to do that, which snowballed into more and better lettering jobs, mostly through Roy Thomas on Marvel Comics.
The first Marvel page I was assigned to letter terrified me. It may have been a Buscema Tarzan – artful, professional and intimidating. What if I spilled ink on the page? But … I did an acceptable job. Roy gave me more work, and I got better at it. Having penciled originals in hand gave me the opportunity to trace them off and teach myself to ink. I absorbed composition, storytelling skills and more by lettering pages drawn by excellent artists. I also learned from good and poor writers the pacing of dialog and captions, and the pitfalls of overwriting.
Over the next couple of decades, I did a lot of commercial art (Mattel, ad illustrations, T-shirt designs, etc.), storyboards or art for rock videos, animation, commercials and live-action films (“Top Secret,” “Back to the Beach,” DEVO, Def Leppard), and more inking or art for mainstream comics. I even airbrushed a pill turning into a roast chicken for the SF camp film, “Galaxina” (yes, I have screen credit) and rotoscoped some light saber action for “The Empire Strikes Back.”
A storyboard page for an animated show, The Zula Patrol.
My main love was comics, though – my own. I wrote and drew stories for undergrounds, which were morphing into “independent” publishers: Rip Off Press, Last Gasp and Kitchen Sink Press, among others. Good Girls 1-6 started with Fantagraphics as a sort of variety show, but turned into Irene Van de Kamp’s story, a send-up of adventure and romance comics. The lovely and talented Ron Turner of Last Gasp published the collected Irene stories, for which I tackled Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh to write the introduction.
Mark Evanier is one of those people I met at the small convention back in the Stone Age. He spotted potential in my amateur efforts and was a big help in letting me earn while I learned on Hanna-Barbera comics, writing and drawing. He also showed me how to do storyboards so I could get work in animation, introduced me to Del Connell at Western Publishing when I was ready to ink ducks ‘n’ stuff and more. Thanks, Mark!
An aside about cartoon formats and some of the greats
I’ve sold a few single-panel gag cartoons, but this is a specialized and minimalistic form of cartooning. Aside from a few syndicated cartoonists, dedicated artists submit dozens or hundreds of gags for every printed success. I don’t have that kind of mental stamina, nor the thick skin needed for countless rejections. My all-time favorites are Charles Addams, William Steig and Saul Steinberg. Of the current crop, I often find Roz Chast and Edward Steed funny.
When I was young I read all the daily strips in the L.A. Times and more in the evening Orange County Register. It’s telling that I can’t recall what ran in the Register, but the Times ran Dick Tracy, Li’l Abner, Nancy, Emmy Lou, Apartment 3G, Brenda Starr, Peanuts, Rick O’Shay, Mary Worth, B.C., Wizard of Id, Big George and more. Even though Al Capp’s work took a bad turn in the late ’60s, I loved Dogpatch, Shmoos, Kickapoo Joy Juice and Fearless Fosdick. Rick O’Shay had likeable characters, and great art. Brenda Starr confused me because I was too young to figure out Hank. Dick Tracy got weird with trips to the moon, but I read it anyway. Overall, I became invested in the serials, which now seem to be almost an endangered species. Later I discovered my all-time favorite dailies, Herriman’s Krazy Kat and Segar’s Thimble Theater. Calvin and Hobbes got my attention and admiration, then disappeared. Today, I read Doonesbury and Endtown.
Segar hits the nail on the head.
Comic books come in many flavors: funny animals, kids, capes, adult, realistic, fantasy, silly and serious. There are good and awful works in all categories, I suppose. Influences include ZAP, early MAD (Don Martin especially), Carl Bark’s duck comics (which I didn’t read until after college) and undergrounds. I got a lot out of Robert Crumb’s work, and loved Rick Griffin’s pantomime eye candy. I also enjoy works by Carol Tyler, Aline Kominsky-Crumb, and the Hernandez brothers, among others.
Graphic novels. Comic stories in long form, these involve a tremendous amount of work and planning for often very little reward. I love anything by Kim Deitch. I admit I haven’t read many GNs – a couple written by Alan Moore, the excellent The Carter Family by Frank M. Young and David Lasky, Blankets, and I picked up Pinocchio by Winshluss but have yet to get to the end. (I’m easily distracted.) Marian Henley’s The Shiniest Jewel will make you laugh and cry, and I see why Persepolis was turned into an animated film.
L.A. and NYC
So, there I was in East Hollywood during my young adult years doing art as a day job, comics on the side, and wishing I could do comics full time. I tried pitching a daily strip two or three times, but my brain doesn’t go to that format by choice. I love comic book-length stories, but the opportunities for doing that kind of work are slim if you’re not into superheroes.
In the early ’90s, I started my weekly strip and was also doing illustrations for New York-based magazines like Entertainment Weekly. At the same time, I was also doing storyboards on an unlikely animated show starring talking cattle dressed as cowboys that rode horses that didn’t talk. That job started an inner revolt in me – I didn’t want to make good money working on bad stuff.
An illustration for “What if Women Ran Hollywood?” Entertainment Weekly.
An acquaintance offered to sublet his Brooklyn apartment to me for a magically low rate, so I left animation and moved to New York. All I had to do was pay the rent on time and keep his porn safe. It was a good move. Before long, I was getting more illustration work. My strip picked up more papers, including The NY Press and The San Francisco Examiner, and I met a lot of great cartoonists in the city – Jules Feiffer, Art Spiegelman, Sam Gross and Arnold Roth, to name-drop a few. I got semi-steady gigs drawing illustrations and strips for The Wall Street Journal and Worth Magazine. I got to do eight or nine comics-journalism pieces for The New Yorker. More papers picked up my weekly strip, which morphed from serials into Story Minute. I married a smart and funny man and, a few years later, we moved back to L.A.
Watercolor on illustration board for The New Yorker Magazine.
When alternative weeklies started tanking, cartoons were among the first features to get the ax, so I wrote a prose novel starring Wonder Woman for DC/Pocketbooks, and a cartoon diet book for Random House, “The Big Skinny,” of which I’m still proud.
Several years ago, Bongo Comics contacted me to write and draw stories for Bart Simpson and The Simpsons Comics. After many years of doing one-page stories for my strip, it was great to stretch out with 12 or 22 pages – the longer, the better.
Reprinted with permission from Simpsons Comics #170 © 2016 Bongo Entertainment, Inc.
The Simpsons TM & © Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved.
But as much as I love writing stories for Lisa, Marge, and Homer, they aren’t mine. Circumstances steered me away from that cozy gig and back to doing my own thing again.
Fast forward to present. I am having a great time coming up with new Murderville stories for GoComics. Everything I’ve done in the past informs what I’m doing now. I had to learn a new format, so I studied how Aaron Neathery pulls off his comic adventure stories in Endtown, although my style is more influenced by comic book form in that I write definite beginnings, middles and ends.
A page from Knit One, my first all-digital comic story, new for GoComics.
(If you have yet to try a Murderville, here are some starting points):
• “Knit One” – August 9, 2015
• “The One that Got Away” – June 30, 2015
• “A Farewell to Armories” – Oct. 18, 2015
• “Art Attack” – Nov. 29, 2015
A big change came in the summer of 2015 when I bought Manga Studio 5 and a 13” Cintiq drawing tablet. I never would have guessed I’d put away ink and paper, but it turns out drawing this way is so much FUN. MS5 has some similarities to Photoshop (on which I still rely for coloring), but it has vector drawing tricks that fit the angular cartoony style of my Murderville inhabitants. It saves me all kinds of time, and Look, Ma – no scanning. LOVE it! The only downside is having no originals to sell, but I still have plenty of art the silverfish overlooked.
I neglect my old drawing table in favor of the sleek Cintiq.
I recently did a commission, the first time I’d used ink and brush on paper in several months. That fear I experienced when I got my first Marvel lettering job came back. What if I spilled ink on it, or messed up that eyeball? There’s no undo button on paper. (P.S.: Everything turned out fine.)
Odds and Endings
As I write this, one of my two elderly cats is curled up on my lap, ready to hiss if I try to cross my legs. I love dogs, too, but these guys won’t have it.
I like quiet when I write or do thumbnails to plan pages, but I get to listen to audiobooks or stream TV shows or movies when I draw.
Several years ago I felt the need to learn something new, so I started playing English concertina. Traditional Irish and Scottish music makes sense to me on some ancestral level, so I practice and play, hopefully daily. It’s a good meditation and I’ve noticed that my writing becomes more fluent as I get better. Hmm.
Two favorite films: Tarsem’s “The Fall” and Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s “Labyrinth.”
If I could pick anyone to hang out with for a day: Neil deGrasse Tyson.
I grew up with horses in the backyard, and I miss that connection to large animals. I also used to scuba dive in beautiful Cozumel or exotic places like Yap and Palau, but I need a new dive buddy. If you have a spare horse, or a boat with an extra tank, drop me a line!
Read Lay Lines here.