For a webcomics platform to reach the ripe age of seven years in the daily-changing world of the internet is a remarkable accomplishment, and for it to keep producing original, fresh, and engaging work even more of a triumph that accounts for its survival. Founded by Emmy award-winning artist and comics creator Dean Haspiel in 2006, ACTIVATEcomix, formerly known as ACT-I-VATE, is a comics collective devised to showcase original work and provide a platform for direct interaction between creators and readers. Many of its featured creators, and the works that have appeared on ACTIVATE, are award-winning, illustrating the benefits of creator-owned collective platforms, and the collective also generated a print volume, THE ACT-I-VATE PRIMER, in 2009. Upon reaching its sixth anniversary, ACTIVATE released a sixth “new wave” of material and member Simon Fraser took on the job of directing its future course. Several current ACTIVATE members joined me for an interview to ring in its seventh anniversary, including Simon Fraser, long-time member Jim Dougan, and sixth-wave newbies Neil Dvorak, Gideon Kendall, and Cristian Ortiz. Fresh from a celebratory DARE2DRAW event featuring ACTIVATE’s seventh birthday, here’s what these ACTIVATErs have to say about their experiences working with a collective webcomics platform, what they see as the site’s biggest accomplishments, and what the future holds for this one-time experiment, now exemplar, in web publication of creator-owned comics.
Neil Dvorak’s series EASY PIECES premiered and continues to appear on the web platform ACT-I-VATE, but his print issues were available at NYCC and sold out. Dvorak composes in large format on light weight cream colored paper and uses white space around his clear line drawings that encourage pausing. Sometimes long pauses, where you might forget to turn the page. Keep turning the pages. You might call THE LIFE AND TIMES OF ME AND YOU, EASY PIECES’ first installment interactive. It poses questions, and includes a perforated bookmark depicting the narrator dangling, doll-like for your implementation, as well as an insert card that allows you to cut-out and insert pictures of the important people in your life to convey an equally important message. His prose directly addresses the reader, “Ready? What shall we call this journey?” and you’re away on a journey with Dvorak through some of the fragmented questions we face in life.
Dvorak creates ingenious images to suggest the contradictions of identity and perception. One two-page spread about being “struck” emotionally, mentally, physically, depicts in diagrammatic fashion a figure being impacted, reeling backward, and perceiving the the rooms of his home within his line of sight, conveying both motion and sharpness of detail as awareness changes. A remarkable double-page line-drawing of entire blocks of buildings, houses, trees, and a shoreline from an elevated vantage simply states “You know where I am”. Dvorak’s elegant style, and his careful use of language create a unique comics experience at once unfamiliar and engaging. It’s like reading Walt Whitman in haiku form presented with powerhouse design and detail. The first issue concludes “now on to the adventures”, and you’re likely to be game. Hunt down Dvorak’s comics if you want to see the simplicity and psychological depth comics are capable of.
DEE’S DREAM: THE COSMIC WOMBAT HOUSE by Dre Grigoropol
Dre Grigoropol creates a disarmingly attractive half-sized comic in black and white with a colored cover featuring a retro palette. Her indie style has manga accents and refreshing, hand-lettered speech balloons. THE COSMIC WOMBAT tells the tale of Dee, aspiring rocker, on the eve of opening for her favorite local band. Vomiting ensues. And there is still more vomiting on the way. To her credit, Grigoropol manages to make hurling meaningful and rather amusing, a shorthand for emotional states, and essentially the “dream” of Dee’s band name. The story of the nervous underdog is relatable and the achievement of a little piece of her dream, opening for her favorite band, is satisfyingly undercut by disastrous, if slapstick events. One of the most appealing aspects of Grigoropol’s artwork on DEE is the varied width of line, giving a textured feel. Her uncrowded panels and choice of moments also show a strong sense of storytelling and an eye for eliminating the extraneous. Grigoropol crafts a protagonist full of “hang ups” with plenty of sympathy and “gusto”.
I’LL TAKE YOU TO THE MOON & LEAVE YOU THERE Vol. 1, by Skuds McKinley, partial inks by Dan Elisii
Skuds McKinley’s book screams “art first”, but interlaces compellingly grotesque scenes of transformation with intriguing narrative breadcrumbs. His oversize volume is presented in rather lavish, ink-heavy black and white with card cover in limited a limited palette of pink and red. Text inset in the cover tells us a little bit about McKinley and the people who have inspired his work, but between the covers it’s a sudden drop into a sometimes terrifying, mysterious world of shifting realities. A cracking egg, a transforming, monstrous man-bird being, and human characters who wear prosthetic beaks are surreal to say the least, but there’s a muscle to McKinley’s use of contrast and slick shadowing that encourages the reader to suspend their disbelief. McKinley also breaks down genre expectations through seamlessly blended elements of horror, sci-fi, and fantasy. Common themes of ominous transformation guide you through interrelated shorts before culminating in a relationship narrative, “This is how we destroyed each other”, in two parts. Here recognizable aspects of daily life blend into dizzying reality shifts that form a dialogue with earlier chapters and leave you with a haunting sense of psychological extremes and threatening isolation. McKinley creates an intricately visual trip that keeps you guessing.
DUELING by Noah Van Sciver
DUELING is so firmly grounded in Noah Van Sciver’s trademark historically evocative style that he has to clarify on the inside cover “a work of fiction”. It’s a simply stapled paper mini with a narrative voice that resolves into a speaking character during the finale of the tale. The detail Van Sciver crams into his carefully arranged panels gives a remarkable impression of texture even while the fast-paced narrative encourages you to move more quickly through his landscapes and interiors. The subject matter, dueling in a nineteenth century setting, builds plenty of tension on its own, but the barebones narrative commentary couches the drama in terms a modern reader can grasp easily, peeling away any romance that may cling to the concept. “It’s awful. Really awful…”, Van Sciver’s narrator warns. A “spat” between two congressmen “escalates” into gut shots and suicide in visceral terms, but not before nerve-driven mishaps emphasize the very human reality of violent conflict. Van Sciver’s use of silent panels is particularly effective, focusing in on the trembling hand of the shooter post-impact, as well as his use of narrative to emphasize the “message” of the story. “Do you understand?”, the narrator asks his audience, including the reader, even as we view the tragic outcome for the “winner” of the duel, living, and ending, his life as a murderer. It would be hard to conceive of a heftier message conveyed in short form, and this is largely due to Van Sciver’s eloquently bristling lines and emphasis on strained facial expressions.
Frank Barbiere and Chris Mooneyham have produced a larger than standard single issue comic in full color with a vintage sepia paper-tone that gives the book a prestige feel. It debuted at NYCC and promptly sold out, but will be available commercially from mid-November onward. This fantasy story has a strong literary strain but also suggests the more compelling elements of genre video games. Mooneyham’s confident and masterful artwork shows off his versatility both in action and in narrative-driven sequences. Color combinations are well chosen for mood. Use of heavy shadow with contrasting indigo, stark white, sea-green and scarlet red, gives the narrative a period feel while keeping the visual storytelling sharp. The story’s rather ingenious concept, that the protagonist, “infamous treasure hunter Fabian Gray” has been “possessed by five literary ghosts” and can partake of their qualities, sets up the potential for a serialized narrative.
This first issue illustrates Fabian as he takes on the qualities of Sherlock Holmes, Musashi Miyamoto, and Dracula to evade Nazi pursuit before he takes on a mysterious “case”. Readers follow Fabian into his tortured past and get schooled in the strange form of “demonic possession” or mediumship that afflicts him. Occult powers line up against our hero as pulp adventure sets in. Nazis, black magic, treasure-hunting, exotic locales: 5 GHOSTS has it all. Barbiere sets up a narrative that engages with the pulp tradition in comics and adds in a heavy dose of multiple-genre homage that would appeal to readers of horror, fantasy, and adventure alike. Mooneyham’s capacity for conveying motion and period settings in lithe fashion while suggesting pulp illustration is downright sexy. He captures the energy of older adventure comics that, in combination with the fresh color choices, makes for a highly readable comic. If you like esoteric adventure tales, you can’t go wrong with 5 GHOSTS. It even concludes with some lines of verse from William Blake.
Hannah Means-Shannon writes and blogs about comics for TRIP CITY and Sequart.org and is currently working on books about Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore for Sequart. She is @hannahmenzies on Twitter and hannahmenziesblog on WordPress.