Review: The Act-i-vate Primer

Interview with Ace Masters

The Act-i-vate Primer

Posted 06 Nov 2009

Writer: The Act-i-vate collective
Artist: The Act-i-vate collective
Publisher: IDW

 4.50 out of 5 Stars

Reviewed by Adam McGovern

The Act-i-vate Primer is Exhibit A in the hopeful internet-era maxim that if you hook them, they will buy. The Act-i-vate collective has done more than anyone to confirm webcomics as an artform, and this collection of priceless print-only stories from their free online series will with any justice go far to establishing it as an industry too.

Joe Infurnari’s gilt-picture-frame book design and traveling-sideshow typography clue you that, though showcased in the most current of media, this is entertainment beamed from the dawn of time to the direct center of your brain.

Michel Fiffe’s surreal slices of life are like the cross-sections of a celestial surgeon, everything from skylines to sloppy apartments to expressive rebus-like symbol-dialogue a weird organic tangle that makes an elegant sense only he can show.

Roger Langridge’s rigid grids and uncontrollable kinetics are a throw-forward of puppet-show proscenium, flip-card nickelodeon and 1930s cartoon, a spark of sentiment and slapstick that leaps from one magic lantern to the next.

The intricate, engraved style, sense of well-placed shadows and attention to grungy detail of Tim Hamilton’s Western gothic “The Tale of the Elephant Cowboy” mark him as the heir to Graham Ingles in a bravura density of line and human motivation that doesn’t just fill up the page but suggests whole epics in the textures of both what’s visible and hidden.

Mike Cavallaro’s neo-movie-serial Atlantean romance comic Loviathan, so overtaken by pollution, deep-sea probes, maturity and multiplexes, takes us to the yet-unseen horizons of imagination and the still-untraveled reaches of the heart.

The man who’s done for sex what Kirby did for violence, philosopher toughguy and figure of legend Dean Haspiel, continues the Watchmen of eight-pagers (though here he lasts for twelve) with Billy Dogma, the Melvillian urban hermit whose inner solitude is regularly scaled by Jane Legit, the literal sex-goddess whose stormy relationship with him keeps a totemic balance in the civic relations of Trip City. It’s a kind of modern Greek myth with an uber-sexed Persephone and Pluto who actually can’t keep their hands off each other, no matter what you’ve read in the tablets.

Peering into the faux-yellowed, off-register murk of Infurnari’s ULTRA-lad! we find a forgotten pulp potboiler concealing a serious graphic novel – concerning an amoral Captain Marvel-esque eternal child-hero inside a series of unworthy adult personalities – that flies toward the scary tension of superlatives without ideals.

Jennifer Hayden’s great “Rat-Chicken” shares the happy spirits of her un-haunted house as an oldguy stranger shows up to reminisce on youthful misbehavior there when it was a farm and the current family recalls their own teenage acting-out and noisy present life. With a busy black-and-white palette of comforting cartoon grit, Hayden comes from the other end of the future to close one circle of comics history with the Crumbs in an offkey anthem to misfit domesticity.

Nick Bertozzi’s unearthly morality tale of insect-like sprites maps an infested Wonderland of magical existence and stern natural laws. Bertozzi is like a Henry Darger on his meds, balanced perfectly between the fairytale charm of pure fantasy and the truly alien sensibility that even the warmest tale of imaginary worlds implies.

John Leavitt’s machine-gun-nest dialogue and Molly Crabapple’s carnival-tent artwork in Backstage are the ideal ephemeral media for an early-1900s urban America of merry cynicism, squalor and scandal we don’t want to remember is so influential and identical to our time; a breakneck culture consuming itself as we watch but conjured vividly by two master wits.

Ulises Farinas’ enchanted hero’s-journey saga Motro takes an arctic setting breathtakingly suited to his style’s eloquent clarity and sense of rarified revelation.

That leaves out a third of the book, and there’s volumes more online. The range of interests, level of storytelling and sheer wealth of style are staggering. I haven’t been this anxious to curl up with a colorful collection of the medium’s possibilities since The Great Comic Book Heroes in nineteen-seventy-never-mind. The golden age of comics gets its restart here.