Sometimes I’m reminded that, despite our best intentions, we at Short of the Week can apply too much focus on the film festival world. Yes, it is still independent filmmaking’s elite pathway to validation, but S/W was founded on the internet and champions the unique advantages of the web. So much of what has sustained this project over the years is the sense that the internet had become the global communal showcase—vast but navigable, and that cream could rise from anywhere in a reasonably democratic and meritocratic way.
Many things have complicated that viewpoint in recent years, but that’s a separate essay. For now, I want to highlight a film launch this past week that reminded me of why the internet felt so revolutionary some years back. The project is Lackadaisy, a lovingly constructed 27min animated pilot based on the hit webcomic of the same name. Lackadaisy was a complete unknown to me as of yesterday, but 4M views on YouTube in less than a week was enough of a signal to secure my attention. How did this happen?
Lackadaisy is the creation of Tracy J Butler and is an independent web comic launched in 2006. The series revolves around a colorful and eclectic cast of anthropomorphic cats who run and supply an underground speakeasy during prohibition-era St. Louis. This joint, the titular “Lackadaisy” was once a thriving operation, but violent competition has chipped away at its status in the city, and the murder of Atlas, the organization’s leader, just about finished it off. In the aftermath of Atlas’ death, a motley crew, led by his widow, attempts to build their way back to the top.
Now I was quite into comics in the 90s and even something of a scholar of the form in university, but largely exited the medium around the time Lackadaisy emerged. My early participation in fan communities revolved around anime and manga, so, aside from following the first few years of the seminal American webcomic Megatokyo, I largely missed the entire phenomenon of webcomics’ rise.
It’s a fascinating, large, and committed community, however. Lackadaisy immediately drew attention due to its fun premise, but also the unusually detailed and polished nature of its art. Publishing a page at a time (and available in its entirety to read online) the series quickly gained popularity, gathering a pair of “Web Cartoonists’ Choice” awards in 2007 and 2008 and receiving a prestigious Eisner Award nomination in 2011.
Along the way, Butler began to construct an apparatus around her art that is familiar to us in this modern influencer age. Extremely active on social media, she maintains engaged accounts on Tumblr, Twitter, and Instagram. More important for her niche is the comic’s presence on WebToon, a large platform for webcomics. 2017 saw the launch of the Lackadaisy Discord, to centralize discussion amongst fans, which is now at 13,000 members. But, most importantly, she maintains a Patreon of nearly 2000 members which, when paired with merchandise, has allowed Butler to pursue the project full-time.
The power of this engaged and committed fan community became clear in 2020 when Butler partnered with Iron Circus Comics on an ambitious Kickstarter campaign that would provide the resources for this just-released pilot. In a statement at the time, Butler admitted that,
“I’ve presented Lackadaisy strictly as comic panels and speech bubbles since its inception, but the story has all this time been playing out in my head like an animated film. It’s a side effect, perhaps, of a childhood nourished on Looney Tunes, Disney, and Don Bluth features, but I’ve been dreaming of sharing that living, breathing, musical version of it with readers and newcomers alike for so long.”
Butler, partnering with American TV animation veteran, Fable Siegel, had been pitching the prospect of a Lackadaisy animated series around to little success. The tone—slapstick, but undeniably adult—does not have a direct analog on American television, and the sizable fan community of the comic still doesn’t measure up to the standards of TV. The pair were advised by executives to self-produce a proof-of-concept short.
Enter, Iron Circus. The company is a Kickstarter veteran and had funded several comics projects on the platform—its CEO, Spike Trotman, was even named an official Kickstarter “Thought Leader” in 2017. They knew precisely how to engage a committed fandom via a blend of engagement and perks. They asked for $85k for an art book and, maybe, a 10min animated film. They ended up blowing that number out of the water, raising a total of $330k. The 10-min film became a 25min pilot, and by hitting a $225k stretch goal, fans were even able to secure a post-credits scene!
What’s somewhat funny is that, at the high point of excitement, the webcomic that had made all this possible just…stopped. Comics in general are notorious for irregular publishing schedules and webcomics are no different, but shifting her focus to the animated film, Butler ceased work on the comic itself.
Yet, despite the flagship product going on hiatus, the Lackadaisy community did not skip a beat. A steady flow of engagement went out ceaselessly: concept sketches, animation tests, AMA’s, and Patreon live-streams, were weekly, sometimes daily occurrences by Butler and others on the pilot production team, which eventually swelled to over 150 members. Committed followers had a front-row seat to the film’s development process and in turn, were emotionally engaged in the project and its outcome.
All of that poured out last Wednesday as the film premiered online. Boosted by coordinated action from its legions of fans, Lackadaisy vaulted into YouTube’s trending tab, reaching as high as #4, sitting alongside new music videos from global celebrities and the first look at gameplay for the newest entry in the beloved Zelda franchise.
Watching the success of Lackadaisy, a property conceived on the web, that was sustained by online fandom, which funded its pilot via crowdfunding, and has now released it directly online to phenomenal success, just warms my heart. As the co-owner of a website, there is a lot doomerism and nostalgia for the “old” internet, and those feelings are warranted. However, Lackadaisy is, in 2023, an embodiment of many of the early web’s utopian dreams for artist discovery and support, and it is lovely to encounter!
It’s also exciting to be reminded that a short film can emerge from anywhere and that high-level work doesn’t need to travel from an elite pipeline of film schools and non-profits on its way to top-tier festivals. Lackadaisy has clear advantages—it was a known quantity in the comics world and has been extraordinarily popular within that niche. But, that’s sort of the point—there are thousands of niches on the internet, comprising little archipelagos of fandom that are scarcely connected to one another. Independent film can be rich because it can be participatory and welcome all these other communities too. Then boom! A platform like YouTube can scale the exposure overnight, with millions of people learning about the series for the first time, all at the same time. There is no one path to take and I love the one Butler and the thousands of Lackadaisy supporters are on. I’ll be keeping an eye on the prospect of a series and wishing them luck.