Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #321: Strip Joint by Carol Lay

Someday, someone will write the true history of strip cartoons, and will describe in precise detail how the complex alternative-paper ecosystem of the '90s was destroyed and replaced by an equally complex ecosystem on the Internet that included (as far as I can tell) exactly none of the same cartoonists. The two systems pretty clearly filled the same niche: smart, somewhat outre cartoons for an audience younger and hipper and more engaged than the grandpa-fodder of the daily paper. And that only makes the extinction event that much more interesting -- sure the two systems overlapped for a long time, with the potential income from weeklies dropping as the potential income from online went up (though the latter always looked shakier and less obvious, being rooted in T-shirts and ad sales and begging for spare change), but, from after the fact, it looks like there could have been more of a path from one to the other.

As it actually happened, no one major made that jump successful -- I waffle slightly, because I think no one even tried to make that jump, but I'm sure there are cases I've forgotten. In any case: there was a whole world of cartoonists whose work appeared in weekly papers in every decent-sized city, all across the country, throughout the '80s and '90s, alongside local journalism, ads for escorts, and The Straight Dope. And that's basically all gone now.

One artifact of that world is Carol Lay's 1998 book Strip Joint, which collected "Story Minute" strips from the previous four years, and which I came across randomly not that long ago. Strip Joint is so obscure that Amazon doesn't even have a cover for it, and Lay, I'm sorry to say, isn't much better, despite her well-reviewed diet book/memoir graphic novel The Big Skinny a few years back.

Lay had been a working cartoonist for two decades at that point, and had been running a weekly strip for about a decade as well, under various titles and with various central conceits. Her art style was mature, supple, and entirely her own: no one else would think to draw people with no lower jaws, or make them look so good doing so. And the Story Minute strips were unlike anything else in those weeklies, each one a complete story -- usually wryly ironic -- in twelve panels and accompanying captions. She had a few continuing characters, mostly a grinning devil and his fortune-telling nemesis, and a few sequences of strips -- where she worked out variations on one theme that particularly grabbed her -- but most Story Minutes stood alone. She made and destroyed worlds on a weekly basis, tossing out a premise in the first panel and then working out the inevitable consequences in Lay-land.

I don't see people talking about "Story Minute" these days: maybe because each one was its own little world, maybe because it trafficked a lot of the time in O. Henry-ish twists on those premises, full of the kind of irony no longer in vogue. Or maybe just because it's better to read a Carol Lay cartoon than to talk about it -- that's the explanation I hope is true.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

1 comment:

Ray said...

She was published online in Salon for years, they seem to have dropped all their comics now

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