The first print collection of material from the online webcomic collective Act-i-vate is both a stunning display of talent, crossing a variety of genres and styles, and a bit of a letdown, as it feels more like a series of trailers for the webcomics instead of an anthology of complete short stories. That sort of preview wouldn’t be out of line in other formats, but for a $25 book, it doesn’t quite seem worth it. Thankfully, the strips that are complete stories in their own right more than make up for that.
Presented on horizontally-long pages that make sense when you consider the dimensions of a computer screen, the “Act-i-vate Primer” clocks in at over 160 pages with 16 stories, giving each adequate space to tell a complete story. The material ranges from very realistic stories like Jennifer Hayden’s “Rat-Chicken” to space stories like Simon Fraser’s “When Lily Met Cosmo…” or pure gag strips like Roger Langridge’s “The Boy Who Came to Stay.” Odd romances, comedy, varying fantasies, a children’s story… there really is something for everyone in this book, but, by that token, it’s difficult to imagine every strip working for every reader.
The aforementioned problem of acting like teasers for the webcomics hurts a few strips like “When Lily Met Cosmo…” and “Veils” by Mike Cavallaro. Both stories work well enough, but act more as lead-ins to further stories in obvious ways, which isn’t necessarily what readers will want from a book of this sort. Balancing the needs of a permanent book and wanting to shift eyes online is tough, but other strips do it better by simply focusing on delivering quality stories and art, trusting that doing so will drive readers to look for more.
Visually, not much negative can be said about this book as the art is gorgeous first page to last. The visual styles run the gamut with the animated-looking Maurice Fontenot art on “All Men are Whores,” which works well against the more mature subject matter, or the harsher, classic comic-looking work of Joe Infurnari on “Memoirs of the ‘Kid Immortal,'” a fantastic story where he does two regular-looking comic pages on each page, telling the story of a wrestler who shares his time with a superhero counterpart. Roger Langridge and Leland Purvis both deliver wordless strips, allowing the visual storytelling to do all of the work to great effect.
In a book of this sort, it’s hard to pick out best and worst strips since that will depend on what genres and types of stories you enjoy, but, as I said earlier, there is plenty here that everyone will enjoy. An eclectic, sprawling anthology, “Act-i-vate Primer” showcases the best that Act-i-vate’s got and, as Warren Ellis notes in his foreword, at the bare minimum, you can think of this as helping some cartoonists keep putting out quality work online for free — and get plenty of great comics in the process.