Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Graphically Speaking: The ACT-I-VATE Primer

Words: Jared Gniewek

Community, or better, the illusion of community has been a part of the comics experience from the very beginning. Those of us who bury ourselves in the nostalgia of the Golden Age imagine rooms clouded with cigarette smoke as artists practically on top of one another sweat through one tight deadline after another, helping and learning from each other as they go. Those of us who enjoy the undergrounds imagine a cloud of smoke of a different kind hovering over the bohemian lofts and basements, walls draped with tapestries and psychedelia.

There is the idealized image of the sixties Marvel Bullpen where everybody gets along and work is fun and fresh every day. The EC crew, the usual gang of idiots, the dudes from the Studio, Mirage Studios… comics creators very often run in packs. Being that writing and drawing can be lonely and mind wrenching acts of solipsism it is very understandable. No one wants to exist or create in a vacuum.

And of course, there is fandom. Fandom, which at one point was a series of mimeographed run offs of small ‘zines and pen pals met through letter columns but has morphed in the past decade or so into a high tech community of vocal and educated voices. The internet changed fandom and the way we see comics.

And the way comics are made and shared.

Enter ACT-I-VATE, who bill themselves as “The Premier Webcomics Collective”. Usually the term “collective” makes one imagine a hippy commune scraping by on the side of a hill in the rural South or a rock band who just can’t accept they are a rock band. I don’t care for the word. I haven’t in a long time. It smacks of modern marketing and faux roots activism. The term probably wasn’t so grating when they started in 2006. This is actually the only negative statement you’ll read for awhile here and it is largely meaningless. Word tastes do vary after all.

The ACT-I-VATE Primer is a collection of 16 all new stories by the stars of the ACT-I-VATE.com universe. Reading the whole volume in one sitting leaves one wondering what makes it a collective. It takes a minute to see because the styles are so varied but I felt that the connective tissue between each of the creators was larger than simply putting their comics online under the same umbrella.

When taken together it feels like a manifesto for the future of comics. Not as abstract as some of the creators out there, but not simple story driven either. It achieves equilibrium between fantasy and love of fantasy. This is where the form has come to at this point in history and this primer represents where it is going.

Not middle of the road either. These artists are taking the best from high and low brow comics to create intelligent, fun, and readable comics stories that know exactly what they are.

These kids know how to make comics. From the classical lines of Tim Hamilton to the sweetly simple natural curve of Mike Dawson, the styles are as varied as they come. On an individual basis the stories tend towards excellence. Tastes vary but I can honestly say that depending on the reader I could recommend each of the stories in it.

Much of the material is forged from a love of comics. Mike Cavallaro’s Veils and Joe Infurnari’s Memoirs of the ‘Kid Immortal’ (which for my money is worth the cost of admission alone) heavily refer back to different genres of comics through visual cues and language. Cavallaro’s purple prose and visual signifiers (I’m sure Doctor Strange’s interior decorator had a hand in the design of Atlantis) hearken to the very best of Marvel comics while pushing just a touch further into the absurd. Infurnari’s duplication of the look and feel of a seventies horror comic rotting in your Uncle’s attic is simply astounding. And to use the dynamics of that form to tell a story fraught with such personal angst is astounding.

There is an old-time circus/ vaudeville type atmosphere that surrounds the pieces by Roger Langridge, Tim Hamilton, Pedro Camargo, and Molly Crabapple. These all use tropes of the traveling entertainer and theatrical worlds. Pro wrestling plays heavily in the aforementioned Joe Infurnari piece as well. Perhaps the world of the itinerant entertainer struggling by in a sea of rubes is appealing to the youthful mindset of these comics creators. Perhaps the borderline respectability between high and low arts that comics in general (and this collective specifically) tread is mirrored by these worlds.

There is a joy in exploration of the darker corners of the psyche too. The pain and need of personal relationships is reflected. All Men Are Whores by Maurice Fontenot reads as comedy but is actually one of the darker pieces in the book. I was moved by the conflagration between pity, sex, need, and futility. The piece is countered brilliantly by the most kick-ass love letter to monogamous love I have ever seen. Bring Me the Heart of Billy Dogma. In it, Dean Haspiel makes single partner sexuality seem more intense and mind blowing than all the sleazy wet dreams of all the hair metal jackasses that ever were thrown into a centrifuge and force fed down our collective throats.

Need is a theme that pops up again and again throughout. But also truth. Honesty and the nature of honesty. This book, in spite of the joy of pop within, is as great a place to start exploring (or further explore) these mysteries as I can think of. Nick Bertozzi’s Persimmon Cup looks and reads like an old Heavy Metal story without the alien fucking. His art is so beautiful and his world is so fiercely and integrally imagined that I couldn’t help but be moved not by the strangeness of the rites but by the utter humanity of his warped plant people.

The editorial edict of the group tends to be “keep the lightning in the brain pan”, as only one story seems to take place wholly in our world (Jennifer Hayden’s Rat-Chicken) and even then the art is so expressive and pleasantly dismorphic that it may as well take place on another planet. The rest tread into other worlds, times, and dimensions with fluid ease that can only come from those steeped in a love of trash culture. My people.

All in all, it’s worth the cost of admission, the book design is artful, the stories comment on and compliment each other nicely, it fuses many disparate ideas into a single movement, it is a complex and whole representation of a collective.

Jared Gniewek has worked in the music industry as a back line technician, performer, and promoter. He has also been a freelance writer whose work can be seen in the recent re-launch of Tales from the Crypt and heard on The Dark Sense, an audio anthology of the macabre for which he is also the story editor. Jared’s blog, Die By The Pen, outlines his philosophies and personal quest as a writer.