The ACT-I-VATE Primer
US: Oct 2009
The movement of comics from print to web has been swift. Computer archiving of comics has been going on for years, and one can fairly easily download scanned complete collections of a series and read it on a computer screen through a comics viewing application. Today, the battle over which iPhone comic reader application will become industry standard is being fought, and Marvel has been experimenting with ‘motion comics’, almost cartoon videos of non-moving characters with animated backgrounds and voiceovers. Beside these attempts to capitalize on the digitization of comics, free webcomics have maintained their popularity. Given the growth of interest and quality in this emergent form, it is somewhat unsurprising how many webcomics have made the move to print. After all, as publishers try to find a way to capitalize on what people have been enjoying for free, for now at least it makes sense that webcomics creators would enjoy greater monetary compensation by moving their work to the more traditional print market.
Unlike many web to print books that serve as a direct rehashing of web content, the recent release of The ACT-I-VATE Primer presents reader sixteen comics stories that are not available on their website. ACT-I-VATE is a comics collective that has been publishing free webcomics since 2006. Over its three years of publication, the website has grown with the collective’s creators; some stories reach upwards of 150 pages and continue to be regularly updated. Members have received much industry recognition, including a slew of Eisner, Harvey, and Ignatz awards.
The Primer‘s stories are meant to be stand alone but are based in the worlds created in the site’s webcomics. The stories are strikingly varied in style and tone, which for the most part works if we take the book to be a ‘primer’, or addition, to the site. Sunday cartoon style works like Roger Langridge’s Mugwhump the Great sit somewhat uncomfortably beside Tim Hamilton’s circus noir Tales of the Floating Elephant. Both stories are set around circuses, and both present art that is beautifully rendered in the works respective styles, but the danger in compiling a website that represents an amalgamation of diverse content in one volume is visible in such pairings: the move from slapstick violence to an elephant being forced to pull a chain that will break an unconscious man’s hand is a hard transition.
In spite of the difficulty of collecting such different styles of works, the stories themselves for the most part pull off what they attempt. Both Mugwhump and Tales of the Floating Elephant are representative of how diverse great comics can be. Another standout story is Joe Infurnari’s Memoirs of the ‘Kid Immortal’, for example, which follows a defeated wrestler on an occult conquest to become a champion. The art for the story is made to look like a golden age comic you might have found in a junk bin. The page is faded and the edges are worn, but the story itself transforms the dramatic language of early adventure comics into a sad poetics that matches the main characters disappointment perfectly. In a completely different vein, Michel Fiffe’s ‘Cactus’ story from Zegas follows two seemingly normal characters through a surreal spiritual interaction with a couple of cactuses. Again the art is amazing and made me want to find out more about these characters.
Some of the stories were less easy to follow and seemed to require more background in the webcomics to make sense. Hyendo Park’s art in Sam and Lilah is beautiful, though I don’t feel that I fully followed what was going on with the story. I had a similar problem with the Loviathan piece in the book, which was a story about royal mer-people that seemed too epic for its length. Writing a short comic is quite a different task from the boundless panel numbers webcomics allow for and, while most of the stories in the collection are well-written and are matched with great art, some seem to require further reading for greatest enjoyment. Since the stories related webcomics are free, it’s not much of a critique to say the work is probably best enjoyed in conjunction with the website for new readers, and the more complex works that I found myself lost in will probably better appeal to established fans.
As someone who already spends more time in front of a computer than I would like, I often have trouble remembering to keep up with the webcomics I enjoy and feel intimidated by works that require me to catch up on 200 pages of backstory to enjoy the newest page. The ACT-I-VATE Primer serves as a good print introduction to these works, and I hope some of the longer running stories on the site find their way into print as well.