Monday, November 16, 2009

The Act-I-Vate Primer: Initial layer of paint or explosive charge?

One link: This series of Jack Kirby-style comic book covers based on Inglourious Basterds is awesome.

The Act-I-Vate Primer
By Nick Bertozzi, Pedro Camargo, Mike Cavallaro, Molly Crabapple & John Leavitt, Mike Dawson, Jim Dougan & Hyeondo Park, Ulises Farinas, Michel Fiffe, Maurice Fontenot, Simon Fraser, Tim Hamilton, Dean Haspiel, Jennifer Hayden, Joe Infurnari, Roger Langridge, and Leland Purvis


When it comes to webcomics, Act-I-Vate.com has a lineup of creators and stories that can't be beat, but it can be a bit intimidating to look at the front page of the site and try to figure out where to start reading. Luckily, the forward-looking minds behind the site/artist collective/happening have a solution in this print volume that offers samples of several of the comics that can be found, but in a way that's self-contained, introductory, and encouraging of further exploration, rather than just excerpting what's already available. These stories are all exclusive to the print volume, but they all give enough of a taste of what can be found in the online tales that readers will want to rush to the site to see what other wonders are there to behold.

As with any anthology, it's a bit of a mixed bag, with some series and creators offering stories that might or might not interest certain people. But even if they aren't to everyone's taste, they all demonstrate a high quality of storytelling and great, often innovative use of the comics form. The lower end of the spectrum here is represented by Maurice Fontenot's Ghost Pimp story "All Men Are Whores", which, while being well-drawn in a cute, cartoony style and featuring some amusing sex jokes, is little more than a sitcom-style goof about the war between the sexes. Jennifer Hayden's "Rat-Chicken", from her series Underwire, is another one that seems a bit on the lesser side, but that's mostly due to the somewhat crude, simplistic artwork, which masks a rich bit of autobiography that seems to be similar to the work of Jeffrey Brown. The story sees an elderly stranger visit Hayden's family's house, where he used to visit friends when he was a kid. The visit sparks some memories in Hayden, and she and her family are fascinated by the man's stories, making for a short but engaging story, something that makes the idea of reading Hayden's similar online work quite appealing.

Other stories seem strikingly personal, such as Dean Haspiel's "Bring Me the Heart of Billy Dogma", which, as with his other stories featuring the character, like "Immortal" (which was serialized in the Image-published miniseries Brawl) and "Fear, My Dear" (which I reviewed here, if you're interested), sees the character's relationship with his girlfriend Jane Legit shaking the foundations of their world. It's as good as always, with Haspiel baring his emotions and feelings about love and the way it can seem world-alteringly powerful. There's the usual idiosyncratic dialogue, bombastic Kirby-esque artwork, symbolic hearts, and graphic nudity and sex. It's great stuff, a small sample of what's in store for readers if they choose to read more online; hopefully they won't be scared off by the intensity.

Michel Fiffe's "Cactus", from his series Zegas, is another one that explores interesting and seemingly personal emotional themes, combining them with his signature experimental artwork. The story sees siblings Boston and Emily search for a new cactus after she steps on and destroys his, which is a precious memory of a previous relationship. They end up coming into possession of a weird pink plant, given to them by an old homeless man, and after showing it some love, it falls apart and releases a spirit which flies up into the cosmos to reunite with its lover, allowing Boston to finally feel a sense of closure. It's a beautiful little tale, really brought to life by Fiffe's art, which sees some excellent character work and description-defying effects in the ghostly sequences:


Fiffe is an amazing emerging talent, and this glimpse is enough to make any reader want to see what else he can do. The same is true of Jim Dougan and Hyeondo Park's Sam & Lilah, which sees a couple have a fight just before going to sleep, with their feelings about each other reflected in their dreams. The story isn't especially deep, but the gorgeous artwork is amazing and innovative, with images continuing across the gutters between panels and morphing into something else, and a telling divide between the two dreamers being crossed by physical emotions:


It's beautifully detailed, intricate work, with bright, engaging colors and some incredibly evocative imagery. Hopefully the stories in the series are a bit longer and more complex, but this taste is enough to not only make the reader rush online to see more, but to wonder why Park especially hasn't been snapped up by a somebody to illustrate a high-profile title yet.

Ulises Farinas' Motro is another series that seems somewhat personal, telling the tale of a chubby little boy in an apocalyptic, barbarian-populated wasteland who doesn't quite seem ready to live up to his father's expectations. They go on a sort of vision quest in which he is supposed to acquire a name that will define his future, but he's not ready to grow up and take that responsibility. It's an interesting little tale, with some really nice art that strands its rounded, almost cute characters in a windswept landscape and features some gorgeously moody shadowy coloring in the scenes that take place at night, along with some weird, spookily detailed visions. Whether or not the kid is meant to be Farinas himself remains to be seen, but it should be interesting to find out.

Some of the other stories seem a bit experimental, but more in terms of storytelling and ideas than in the use of comics techniques, with Nick Bertozzi's Persimmon Cup being especially noteworthy. It's a fascinating bit of sci-fi worldbuilding, with the title character being a sort of scribe in a society that seems plant-based, or at least uses some sort of alien biology that's barely comprehensible in human terms. In this story, she is tasked with discovering the truth about the destruction of a village, leading to a sad tale about the way lies and greed can ruin societies. It's a great showcase for Bertozzi's imagination, as well as his skill at depicting ideas that seem just beyond the realm of our ability to grasp them, like this being that appears to be higher-dimensional:


And then there's something like Leland Purvis' Vulcan & Vishnu, which is experimental in its simplicity rather than in bringing new complexities to the table. It's a story about a couple of guys who apparently wander the land having adventures, and other than an introductory caption, it's completely wordless, with the characters speaking in pictographic form:


It's not really a new or groundbreaking idea, but it works wonderfully here, especially in the way the stark, bold-lined images in the word balloons contrast with the beautiful watercolors of the landscapes and characters. Purvis tells the story perfectly using his easy-to-follow images, and even ends things with a great punchline; it's a really nice little short story, and one that makes him a talent to pay much closer attention to.

And then there are the stories that simply seem to be good yarns, chances for their characters to build interesting worlds, draw exciting images, and develop characters to bounce off each other. Simon Fraser's Lilly MacKenzie, represented here in a sort of origin story called "When Lilly Met Cosmo", looks to be a fun sci-fi story about the spacefaring title character and her little person sidekick, with them meeting for the first time here, as the story's title indicates. The events seem like they might make a bit more sense after reading the rest of the story, but it's more of an interesting tease than an impenetrable bit of inside information, and the real pleasure is seeing Fraser detail life aboard a space station, and the weird characters that live there. The art is really nicely-detailed too, and Lilly herself seems realistically beautiful; I especially like the way the whiteness of her shirt is left as just the blank color of the page itself showing through the artwork, almost giving her a radiant glow:



Not to sound like a broken record, but this is another series that should be great follow online, and this taste certainly pushes one in that direction.

The same can be said for Mike Cavallaro's Loviathan, which also appears to have an origin-style story here called "Veils". Cavallaro is a fine cartoonist, possibly most famous for Parade (With Fireworks) (which I reviewed here), his series about a story from his family's history in fascist Italy. Loviathan, however, is completely different, a fantasy story that takes place in undersea Atlantis, featuring heroes, villains, political intrigue, magic, monsters, and interdimensional travel of some sort, and it's pretty amazing to behold, full of crazy detail and gorgeous coloring, and plenty of hints of the wonders and excitements that take place in the online series. It seems like a chance for Cavallaro to unleash his talent, filling pages with as much awesomeness as he can muster. This is the kind of thing that must make the other creators strive to keep up.

The rest of the book is filled with excellence as well. Roger Langridge contributes what appears to be another origin-style story in his Mugwhump the Great entry, "The Boy who Came to Stay", which sees a ventriloquist dummy boy enter the life of the title juggler and immediately cause funny complications. Tim Hamilton's "The Tale of the Elephant Cowboy", from Tales of the Floating Elephant, is a nice little story of brotherhood, honor, despair, and luck about a struggling gimmick cowboy, with some wonderfully scratchy artwork. Joe Infurnari's ULTRA-Lad! story "Memoirs of the 'Kid Immortal'" seems like it might fill in some backstory for the series, but works very well on its own, telling the tale of a wrestler who gains power by making a mystic pact and becoming a sort of youth-powered superhero and featuring some great examples of Infurnari's smudgy, detailed, faux-aged artwork. Molly Crabapple and John Leavitt's "Slow News Day" serves as a good introduction to their Backstage strip, showing the operations of a gossip rag that covers the 1940s New York theater scene and displaying some nice character interplay between the leads. Mike Dawson's "Goodnight Max" is another origin tale with a twist, showing the first fight between the superpowered brothers of his Jack & Max series, and appropriating the imagery (if not the language) of the classic children's book Goodnight Moon. And finally, Pedro Camargo's "Esqueleto" tells the backstory of what I assume is one of the characters in his series Glam, making for a nicely weird story of jealousy among circus acts and grievous payback for misdeeds, using some expressive black and white artwork to realize the grim tale.

Overall, the volume is an onslaught of artistic wonderment, something to get readers excited about the creators and what they're doing in their various comics, and a better advertisement for the site couldn't be had. Unless it was free, of course, but nobody should complain about paying for such a nice-looking volume filled with great examples of what comics can do. It may only be a sample of the available riches, but it's the kind of first taste that dealers must dream of, sure to transform those exposed to it into addicts for life. Even if you don't feel the need to hold these comics in your hands, don't miss out on them; they're some of the best the medium currently has to offer.
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Bonus: The sketch Dean Haspiel drew in my copy: