In the mid-90's, when I started to fully engage the world of alt-comics, some of the first artists I encountered were the KEYHOLE duo of Dean Haspiel & Josh Neufeld. Shortly thereafter, I discovered the comics of Nick Bertozzi, whose development as an artist was rapid and remarkable in how quickly he matured from work to work. In the mid-90's, Haspiel created a livejournal group called ACT-I-VATE, designed to bring together a group of artists serializing their comics on the web. There are now 28 different series on the site in various stages of completion. Some have seen publication in print, and others will even likely get published by a major house. They are certainly an interesting alternative to the sort of thing I'm used to on the web: variations on comics about video games, role-playing games, derivative sci-fi, manga rip-offs, etc. I realize that there are obviously plenty of intelligent strips online, but on first perusal it's like walking into a comics store that is almost entirely mainstream-oriented. I am not interested in reading strips like PvP or Penny Arcade, and I am especially not interested in reading knock-offs of those strips. Having an alternative like ACT-I-VATE (and sites like serializer.net) has been important for both fans of alt-comics and webcomics readers alike.
After a couple of successful years as a livejournal presence, the group now has its own dedicated website. Since the site has expanded so much, with a roster of 24 artists, I'll be taking a periodic look at the site, exploring the work of three artists at a time. I'll start with comics by Haspiel, Neufeld and Bertozzi, those three artists whose work I've been following for a decade.
Let's start with Josh Neufeld's THE VAGABONDS. Using the same title as his occasional series from Alternative Comics, Neufeld spins the same sort of stories we're used to from him: travelogues, meditations on war, disaster and art, and a touch of the absurd. The advantage of seeing his work online is that he gets to use color. Like most of his work, his use of color is subtle--the use of blue & orange for his funny riff on steroids & baseball (imagining the Mets' mascot as a rage-fueled abuser), washed-out greens for a story about Neufeld reacting to seeing a film about Viet Nam, a light & friendly green for a little "travel tips" bit. My favorite of his strips here is "Post-Traumatic Skyscraper Anxiety", a triumph of design and tension. Embodying many New Yorkers' fear of buildings coming down post-9/11, Neufeld cleverly creates a linear narrative with his captions and contrasts that with panel design that is at once meant to be read as a gestalt and as individual panels. It's not a profound or revolutionary observation, but it's heartfelt and well-crafted. Neufeld is mostly working on his A.D.: AFTER THE DELUGE strip at the moment (to be reviewed in a later column), but his contributions here made a great place to start.
Dean Haspiel is serializing a couple of Billy Dogma stories here. IMMORTAL is finished, while FEAR, MY DEAR is still in progress. IMMORTAL is probably the strongest work overall I've seen from him in his long career. Billy is "the last romantic anti-hero" and these comics have always been a blend of superheroics, romance and Haspiel's own eccentricities and beliefs. Billy is Dean's own stand-in, and so these stories have elements of autobiography to them, at least on an emotional & philosophical level. Everything about his work, from dialogue to art, is about as stylized as one can get. The one problem I've always had with his art is that he makes it too slick, too much like a typical mainstream superhero comic. That's especially evident when one compares his rough pencils to final product--it's obvious that the energy and power of those initial sketches doesn't always translate into a final product, robbing it of the visceral quality that is so clearly his aim.
With IMMORTAL, Haspiel let go of that need to over-render and provides a story that still has all of the warmth and oddball humor of a typical Billy Dogma tale but that also packs a punch and a crunch to the reader. The platform for reading it works quite well, providing a single panel at a time but allowing the reader to quickly page through. Haspiel immediately sets the tone with a stark red-and-black palette, extensive use of shadow and silhouette, and a grittiness reminiscent of Will Eisner or Frank Miller (only with much different goals). The story concerns the tumultuous love affair between Billy and his girl Jane Legit and how it awakens an immortal god from outer space. One can see all of Haspiel's many influences at work here (Kirby, Chaykin, Simonson), synthesized to provide an experience that has echoes of each of them yet is straight out of Haspiel's id.
The follow-up series, FEAR, MY DEAR, is just about a third of the way through, so one can't offer a full judgment of it. The story concerns Billy learning that the eighth deadly sin is love and confronting his own past, in what can be called a slam-bang allegory. It lacks the same kind of punch as IMMORTAL and is a bit murkier and talkier. As a reader, I can say that IMMORTAL had me frantically clicking ahead to the next frame but FEAR, MY DEAR feels like a bit more of a slog. There are still plenty of striking visuals and there's still that rawness to his art that was so appealing in IMMORTAL. We'll see how this one develops.
Nick Bertozzi offers up three features, each of which is completely unlike the other. EARNEST SHACKLETON, a story about Antarctic explorers trying to survive a desperate sea voyage, was later printed in the third volume of the anthology SYNCOPATED. This is a fairly naturalistic story that has a certain breathless quality, as Bertozzi adapts a real-life event into comics form.
From a naturalistic style and thrilling adventure, Bertozzi switches over to a highly-mannered, warped tale about anthropomorphic sweets called PECAN SHANDY. The title character is a dreadful, self-centered fop whose font is an affected cursive script. He winds up in a series of misadventures that are mostly caused by his own selfishness, and while he winds up paying a heavy price, he enacts a humorous form of revenge in the end. I don't associate Bertozzi with straight-out humor, but this was a very funny strip, mostly because of his extreme stylization in his art and his use of fairy tale-style pastels.
The most ambitious of Bertozzi's three strips is PERSIMMON CUP, a sci-fi/fantasy/world-building exercise that follows the quest of a creature named Garo and the female creature he loves, named Persimmon. It's a twisted world of pirates who live in rivers, stone monoliths that offer wisdom, traveling inside of other creatures and other assorted oddness. I'm not sure that the web is the best place for this strip, I think that it will flow a bit better on the printed page. I do like Bertozzi's total commitment to his world in his strip, leaving out or muddying exposition and forcing the reader to figure out what's going on. Bertozzi's use of color here is a key element to his story, something that's been true of his work since he had the opportunity to start using color. In my next look at ACT-I-VATE, I'll take a different path and examine the work of three cartoonists I've never read before.