It’s neat how no matter how much time you spend in comics, you can always come across something that you’ve never seen before. The webcomic Lackadaisy’s like that for me — it’s been around for over a decade at this point, but I’ve only just heard of it, now that there’s an animated short.
You can watch the Lackadaisy pilot now on YouTube, or directly here:
The comic is product of writer/illustrator Tracy J. Butler, Lackadaisy is a long-running (if sporadically-updated) webcomic set in Prohibition-era St. Louis, Missouri. It chronicles the events of a cast of anthropomorphic cats as they struggle to keep the titular speakeasy afloat. It was an early favorite at award shows, winning a few Web Cartoonists Choice Awards and being nominated for an Eisner in 2011. It’s not hard to see why — even a cursory examination of the comic shows a deliberate and considered level of craft, with care taken to establish setting, character voices, and tone. Butler researches St. Louis history extensively in the production to make sure that she’s accurate both to the geography of the times and to the political climate, and the result is a memorable work. Thanks to that, an animated adaptation was announced by Iron Circus in 2020, and now it’s nearing release!
As adaptations go, the 27-minute animated feature is clever in its remixing, excising virtually all of the comics’ worldbuilding in favor of an exciting midnight rum run that provides a character showcase of sorts. It’s a smart use of the available runtime; first, it keeps things fresh for longtime readers by telling a story that doesn’t appear in the original comic, and second, it shows an understanding of animation as a medium. This is no long-running serial (yet, anyway), but a showcase of what could be.
The one event that appears nearly unchanged in the adaptation is lead cast member Roark ‘Rocky’ Rickaby’s moonlit poetry recital to the Mississippi River. It’s sonnet-like, but not a sonnet quite—there are too many lines for a sonnet, and the rhyme scheme doesn’t quite match up, but it holds to the same general rhythm. The context fits, too, an ode of love and appreciation for the river’s rushing waters. If there was a bit of the comic to keep line-for-line, it’s this. Hearing it recited aloud by voice actor Michael Kovach is a delight; it’s clear Kovach took his time to understand the meter as well as the playful cadence of the words, and the result is worth listening to.
From there, we’re introduced to Rocky’s compatriots; the emotionally unstable Calvin ‘Freckle’ McMurray (Belsheber Rusape) and leading lady Ivy Pepper (Lisa Reimold), as they attempt to escape a trio of ne'er-do-wells for hire, resulting in a literally explosive showdown in a rock quarry.
Despite this clever original sequence, the short does fall down a little on its lack of detail; entirely cut is the backstory between club owner Mitzi May (Ashe Wagner) and Mordecai Heller (SungWon Cho). Similarly, while we see the intimidating Viktor Vasko (Jason Marnocha), it’s in a vastly reduced role that gives us none of his violent versatility.
Butler’s art is known for its detail, a hallmark of the informal social contract she has with her readership. The updates are sporadic, but when they come, they result in polished, fully-rendered pages that present a meticulously researched vision of 1920s St. Louis. Whereas in most comics the norm is varying degrees of line art bearing some stylistic commonality with animation, it seems as though Butler’s pages would be difficult to adapt, but for the expressiveness of her designs. She wears her influences on her sleeves in that sense, and they become more apparent in the final product, animated by Fable Siegel.
The entire feature is awash in Don Bluth-style charm — if the animation’s not quite as smooth, well, that’s all right. It’s made up for by attention to story pacing, ambient mood, and an expressive physicality that makes each character memorable. Fans of the webcomic might be familiar with, for example, Rocky’s occasional maniacal laughter as a half-baked plan of his kicks into gear. That’s translated into animation with aplomb, not just in Kovach’s voice work, but in the mood and lighting of the scene as it pays off.
That mood and lighting seem to actually be the answer to translating Butler’s rendering, as well, as the animation lacks the texture and value of pencil rendering but makes up for it with full color and dynamic shadows. Despite the differing energy and tone, the night-time showdown in the quarry reminds me of Mrs. Brisby creeping through the dark in The Secret of Nimh, and the ritzy glamour of the Lackadaisy club itself echoes the sparkling showbiz allure of later Bluth features like Rock-A-Doodle. These are good things to evoke; in an age where animated features have largely moved on from this style of work, it’s heartening to see love and craft applied to it once more. Siegel should be proud of the expertise they’ve brought to this feature.
If anything, I’m left wanting a full feature, or an ongoing series; Butler was quoted on the Kickstarter for this project as having always intended it to be animated, and that’s clear in the product here. Additionally, the short leaves so much on the proverbial table from the original comic that begs to be translated to the screen; Butler’s vision of St. Louis is a sumptuous world that begs to be lived in.