ACT-I-VATE Artists on IDW's "Primer"

October sees the release of the "ACT-I-VATE Primer," a print anthology of new work from the titular webcomics collective founded by Dean Haspiel. The collection is published by IDW, and earlier this week CBR spoke with Haspiel about the Primer and his community of artists. Today we bring you an extended chat with several of the creators appearing in the book:"Fahrenheit 451" adaptation artist Tim Hamilton; "Muppet Show" artist Roger Langridge; Michel Fiffe; Mike Cavallaro; "Nikolai Dante" artist Simon Fraser; and Joe Infurnari, who also designed the anthology.

Tim Hamilton, one of the original ACT-I-VATE members, described the many changes this webcomics community has undergone since its founding in 2006. "I think we used to have maybe one person on ACT-I-VATE who didn't live in New York City, and now there are so many comics and creators from other places," Hamilton told CBR. "Both new creators and old pros like Warren Pleece are part of ACT-I-VATE now. We used to only be on LiveJournal and now have our own website, which never seems to lose its interconnected worldwide thrill. As the group grew and new family members were adopted and or initiated, there has been high drama, heartbreak and debilitating drop-kicks to the ego. Of course, there have also been many teddy bear moments where I've made new friends and collaborators! The more things change, the more you learn to grit your teeth and put your shoes on in the morning."

Outside of founding members Dean Haspiel, Dan Goldman, Nick Bertozzi, Michel Fiffe, Leland Purvis, Nikki Cook, Tim Hamilton, and Josh Neufeld, new creators are recruited by invitation. For Roger Langridge, artist of BOOM! Studios' "The Muppet Show," the invitation to join ACT-I-VATE came at a particularly convenient moment. "The invitation arrived as I was gearing up to do a new strip on my own website, so the timing was perfect -- I would be doing something I'd planned to do anyway, but I'd potentially be getting a much wider audience for it," the cartoonist said. "Not the most difficult decision I'd ever had to make."

Mike Cavallaro's initiation was unusual in that he started at ACT-I-VATE by filling in for Tim Hamilton, who Cavallaro had met when both were adapting classic books into graphic novels for Penguin. "Tim needed to take a hiatus from AIV to concentrate on another project, so he asked me to fill-in for him until his schedule cleared up," Cavallaro recalled. "I had already begun working on a retelling of a story about my paternal grandfather, which ultimately became 'Parade (with fireworks).' After I posted the first couple episodes, Dean Haspiel and the other AIV'ers invited me to join permanently."

Cavallaro compared the ACT-I-VATE model to the DIY ethos of a certain breed of musicians. "Many years ago I spent all my time playing in punk rock bands. We made our own merchandise, recorded and pressed our own records, maintained mailing lists, booked our own shows and tours, etc. etc.," the cartoonist said. "My band did five U.S. tours and played in seven other countries, apart from hundreds of relatively local shows over the years. No labels or financial backing beyond what we could scrape together on our own. No one telling us what we could and couldn't do. In a situation like this, you learn to Do It Yourself. If you look at things today like the Warp Tour, for example, those bands and their DIY spirit have taken over. Why? Because no label or imprint or publisher can replace what you build yourself from the ground up. No matter how much promotional dollars a company throws at something, it's still artificial. When you do it yourself, it's real. That's what ACT-I-VATE does.

"Given my background in music, this made perfect sense to me. Not only did it make sense, but it's the kind of thing that fires me up and makes me want to participate. Everything I learned promoting my own band applied to comics as well, and it was easy to shift those skills over to AIV. In nearly every sense, ACT-I-VATE is like any band I've been in: We laugh, we debate, we support, we argue and we strive, all for the greater good of the group."

Like ACT-I-VATE founder Dean Haspiel, many of the member artists see a printed comic or graphic novel as the edition of record, with the interactivity of the webcomics site providing a testing ground for new material with professional and reader feedback. "Webcomics have largely taken the role that mini-comics had when I was starting out, in that they're a place for cartoonists to hone their skills, or try things out that might not have a commercial market, or simply to have something to show one's colleagues and peers," Roger Langridge said.

"These days there's an extra function for webcomics too--with the alternative comics market largely abandoning the serialized comic format, the web is somewhere to work on longer projects in manageable chunks, with an eye to a collection in book form further down the line," Langridge continued. "The web version is like a first draft that can be altered and refined and edited up to the point at which it's eventually printed. And I guess that's the role of print -- to give the work a permanent home, once it's been shown to have some value on the ephemeral, ever-changing web."

Michel Fiffe also praised the serial nature of comics on the web. "Webcomics are designed to be serialized, making it convenient to follow and update comics. I personally wouldn't be able to read an entire graphic novel from a screen without my eyes burning out of my head, but it's a great way to keep in touch and connect with the audience."

Print comics and graphic novels based on web serials, Fiffe said, "serve as a way for people to traditionally collect comics and for shops to sell actual product. You can't walk into a store and buy a webcomic, per se, unless it has a pulpy counterpart. Tangible comics are to webcomics what DVDs are to TV shows; if the audience likes it enough, it will own it some way or the other."

Joe Infurnari, another ACT-I-VATOR and the designer of the Primer, told CBR, "Publishing comics on the web and with ACT-I-VATE in particular gives me a venue for my most personal projects without editorial or economic considerations. It's also a great way to inspire and fuel creativity. When I'm updating my comic, I have the structure of posting comics every week to keep me focused. I also have instant gratification coming from the comments of my peers and fans to help keep me excited. The webcomics experience opens up to readers the process of developing a strip and, in turn, their input also informs some of my decisions down the road. Without a doubt, 'The Transmigration of ULTRA-lad!' is no longer the strip that I thought it would be. That is thanks to the influence of fellow ACT-I-VATORS and fans."

Infurnari said he would love to see ULTRA-lad make the jump to print publication. "Where publishing to the web is more mercurial and in flux, print is more static and so I see it as the culmination of the creative hotbed of publishing comics on the web. Once it's gone through the weekly posting and the feedback loop of fans and peers, your webcomic has been transformed and is ready to be edited and repackaged for print."

"If I were to make a film analogy, webcomics for me is like a working print for audience feedback where print is like the final theatrical release," Infurnari continued. "This is why the Primer is so important. In almost every case it's the first time these characters have seen print! It's really a great entree for folks who haven't been following along online and it also represents a very focused and polished product. We've edited and encouraged each others stories for the purpose of making this the best book it can be."

Mike Cavallaro also emphasized the importance of web publishing as an alternative to the increasingly difficult prospect of independent and small-press publishing. "The fact is that as great as the direct market is, it comes with a whole set of conflicting dynamics including Diamond's ever-climbing benchmarks, the oppressive size of the Previews Catalog, and the struggle of retailers to stay in business," he said. "All these things inadvertently conspire to support the tried-and-true sellers and diminish the potential of new publishers and titles. Notwithstanding a handful of success stories, many great books never have the opportunity to take root and flourish. It's nobody's fault. Everyone's doing their best to deal with the inherent economic realities. That's just the way it is.

"I don't think I would ever self-publish again, because even when I sold a book, I couldn't be said to have 'made money,' given all the other considerations," Cavallaro continued. "So I was losing money and, more importantly, I wasn't able to get my book out to readers. It was a lose/lose situation. Enter the web and ACT-I-VATE. If you accept the fact that you won't make money self-publishing -- and you probably won't -- you can concern yourself with the next priority: reaching readers. The web does this better than the direct market.

"As a result of the exposure my work garnered on ACT-I-VATE, my comics career gained momentum. 'Parade (with fireworks)' was picked up and published in two parts by Shadowline/Image Comics. It was then nominated for an Eisner Award for Best Limited Series. Early this year, we added some pages of additional artwork, and released it as a trade paperback. My work on 'Parade' helped get the attention of Mark Siegel at First Second Books, for whom I've just completed a graphic novel with legendary young adult author, Jane Yolen. My follow-up to 'Parade,' 'Loviathan,' caught the attention of acclaimed comic book writer J.M. DeMatteis, and together we developed the five-issue miniseries called 'The Life And Times Of Savior 28,' which is currently being released by IDW Publishing."

Simon Fraser agreed it's unfortunate how difficult it is to make money in webcomics, but said the rest of the experience has proven incredibly beneficial. "After so many years working on company-owned characters, I really needed to do something for myself," the artist said. "I had planned to find a publisher for 'Lilly,' but ACT-I-VATE turned out to be a much more supportive environment and I think the work is much stronger from having been made online in this way."

"I travel a lot and I've lived in a few different countries. I always have the problem of explaining what I do to people who don't read comics and maybe can't get hold of a copy of '2000AD' to read 'Nikolai Dante.' Doing a webcomic solved that problem for me," Fraser said. "'Lilly Mackenzie' gets universal, instantaneous distribution, for free. That's huge! I also like the page-a-week schedule. It enforces a discipline that, as a procrastinating freelancer, I really need. Then there's the community aspect, which has kept me honest and given me so much encouragement and inspiration, none of which I could have had while working for a conventional publisher. It's also worth pointing out that a work serialized over two years, as 'Lilly' has been, is effectively marketing itself. So that when the time comes to go to print or generate some merchandising, there is already a receptive audience for that."

Fraser's Lilly story in the Primer, titled "When Lilly Met Cosmo," is a prequel to the first arc that has appeared online and recounts the first meeting of the two lead characters. Fraser told CBR that it also introduces an episode from Lilly's past that will factor in the second online arc, "Lilly Mackenzie & the Treasure of Paros." "Now that Lilly & Cosmo have had a taste of adventure and understand their own capabilities and the strength of their relationship, they can go forth and attempt to deal with a much larger issue than before," Fraser said. "A secret from Lilly's family that could fundamentally alter human civilization." Fraser said he expects to start drawing the new arc in 2010 after completing a few smaller projects.

Cavallaro also presents a new episode from "Loviathan," taking place in the early days of the Atlantean intrigue between King Llyr and his jealous brother Ultan and spotlighting the wedding feast of Llyr, at this point heir-apparent, and the future queen, Aine of Celestan. "Of course, nothing goes as planned for anyone concerned, and that's the fun of the tale," Cavallaro said. "'Loviathan' was born out of my love for the early '60s Marvel Comics by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Enough has been written about these masterpieces of overblown action adventure without me having to reiterate here. After the heavy responsibility of telling a true family story in 'Parade,' I wanted to flex some other muscles and have some fun. But the story had a mind of it's own, and it's become so layered and intricate even I'm surprised.

"I always got the impression that Stan and Jack may have planned a couple issues ahead, but for the most part they were winging it. There was a spontaneity in some of the stories I wanted to experiment with. Therefore, I have no outline or script for 'Loviathan.' I make it up as I go. I've been amazed to see how a character or object I've put in earlier for no reason became ultra important to the story later on, as if there's some absolutely sub-conscious plan guiding the whole thing that even I'm not aware of. It's no exaggeration to say the story is revealing itself to me, and I'm merely following as best I can. It's a really fun way to work and it keeps me excited and interested because even I don't know what's going to happen next."

Tim Hamilton's entry, "Tales of the Floating Elephant: Elephant Cowboy" also feeds into the larger narrative of his online strip. "'Adventures' is something that comes from me, and my own childhood dreams in a way, and I originally thought I'd gear it for the young adult market," Hamilton said. "As always, I soon learned it didn't matter what I wanted the story to be 'geared for,' characters in the story will start to do things you don't expect. Characters in my stories always do what they want and I have to let it happen. I believe it's best that way, but they end up disrupting some interesting moments in the story I had planned. In which case, you just have to create other interesting moments. So, 'Adventures' will move forward however it needs to. I wanted it to be the length of a five-issue miniseries. I hope that holds true but I worry it may get out of control!"

Other contributors used the Primer to debut entirely new series that will later be featured on the site. Michel Fiffe's "ZEGAS," a domestic drama with a dollop of fantasy, begins in the "ACT-I-VATE Primer." "I created 'ZEGAS' so I can have a cast of characters that evolve over time in a place where visual metaphors dominate the landscape," Fiffe told CBR. "'ZEGAS,' while remaining somewhat off kilter and dreamlike in its stylistic framework, is very grounded in a sort of naturalism that deals with very real concerns, very real appreciations. I play it fast and loose with the conceptual direction of the strip while remaining reader friendly and unpretentious, but the caveat is that anything can and will happen."

Joe Infurnari offered a new story from his ULTRA-Lad universe-the strip is, in itself, quite design-conscious, as it is created to look like a well-worn comic from the 1960s or '70s, complete with yellowed pages and handwritten marginalia. "I'm attracted to the anachronism of making comics that look like scans of musty old pages and uploading them to the web where they are experienced on screen," the artist said. "'The Transmigration of ULTRA-lad!' is a new comic that's created to look old and a webcomic that looks like it's from print! It makes sense for the story that revolves around an immortal, superpowered toddler and his very, very old alter ego.

"I've also used this 'classic' comics feel as a foil for nostalgia. One of the major themes of the story is accepting our lives as ephemeral and mutable," Infurnari continued. "The characters have become ensnared in their desire to fight the passage of time and the inevitability of aging and death. So in some ways these aged pages illustrate the effects of time as well as comment on the reliving of youth that is a big part of the classic comics experience."

Infurnari told CBR that the main challenge in designing the "ACT-I-VATE Primer" package had less to do with moving webcomics into print and more to do with the nature of the content itself. "The wide spectrum of stories in this collection made it difficult to pull out a common visual thread that I could use as inspiration for the design of the book. Instead, I fused our cover illustrations by Nick Bertozzi as my muse. Nick was integral in shaping the look for this book and when we had reached an agreement on our cover image, the design sensibility simply flowed out of that."

This variety of material is, of course, part of the identity of ACT-I-VATE and a crucial component of its success-unlike a theme-based anthology or studio of artists, it's quite likely any given reader will find at least a few stories to enjoy. "The wonderful thing about the 'ACT-I-VATE Primer' is that if you like my story or any of the other between its covers, there's no waiting for the next issue or the second volume: just visit us at act-i-vate.com to read hours and hours and hours worth of these and other stories, for free, whenever you want," Mike Cavallaro said. "Plus, it's ever-growing and updated daily. In this case, the first one's NOT free, but the rest is. And when you consider the amount of work that's available on the website, the entry fee represented by this anthology is negligible."

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