For a webcomics platform to reach the ripe age of seven years in the daily-changing world of the internet is a remarkable accomplishment, and for it to keep producing original, fresh, and engaging work even more of a triumph that accounts for its survival. Founded by Emmy award-winning artist and comics creator Dean Haspiel in 2006, ACTIVATEcomix, formerly known as ACT-I-VATE, is a comics collective devised to showcase original work and provide a platform for direct interaction between creators and readers. Many of its featured creators, and the works that have appeared on ACTIVATE, are award-winning, illustrating the benefits of creator-owned collective platforms, and the collective also generated a print volume, THE ACT-I-VATE PRIMER, in 2009. Upon reaching its sixth anniversary, ACTIVATE released a sixth “new wave” of material and member Simon Fraser took on the job of directing its future course. Several current ACTIVATE members joined me for an interview to ring in its seventh anniversary, including Simon Fraser, long-time member Jim Dougan, and sixth-wave newbies Neil Dvorak, Gideon Kendall, and Cristian Ortiz. Fresh from a celebratory DARE2DRAW event featuring ACTIVATE’s seventh birthday, here’s what these ACTIVATErs have to say about their experiences working with a collective webcomics platform, what they see as the site’s biggest accomplishments, and what the future holds for this one-time experiment, now exemplar, in web publication of creator-owned comics.
Hannah Means-Shannon: What motivated you to publish your work on ACTIVATEcomix?
Simon Fraser: Primarily exposure, but a certain kind of exposure. I think that my work looks better in context with the variety and quality of the other work on ACTIVATEcomix. I like the eclectic world-view of the collective. Part of my initial desire to be a part of ACTIVATEcomix was a desire to avoid being pigeonholed. Frankly I like hanging out with these people, I love their work and I feel that being in a group like this ups my game and keeps me from getting complacent.
[Simon Fraser, photo by Seth Kushner]
Jim Dougan: It’s always great to find a larger audience and to me ACTIVATE was always the cool place to post webcomics. Not only because there was a lot of really excellent work posted there from creators I liked and respected, but there was also a culture of mutual support and collective spirit. When I got the invitation from Dean Haspiel and Dan Goldman, I jumped at the chance. They liked the short-form stuff I was doing at The (now defunct) Chemistry Set and challenged me to tackle something longer-form. Luckily I had something in mind, and wanted to work with Hyeondo Park more, and he was ready to do it, too. “It” was SAM & LILAH, and here we are nearly five years later.
Neil Dvorak: I met Simon Fraser at MoCCAFest 2012. He just happened to be sitting next to me doing critiques at the Dare2Draw table. Finally at the end of his incredible hours-long stint he took a look at my work and invited me to his studio in the coming weeks. In the meantime I researched ACTIVATEcomix and was immediately drawn in by the breadth and depth of work.
Gideon Kendall: I’d seen so much good work on there over the years by artists (too many to mention them all, but special shout-outs to Mike Cavallaro and David Klein who I knew in non-comics professional capacities beforehand: Mike and I worked together as animation designers on Codename: Kids Next Door and David and I are both illustrators and we used to live in the same building) that I respect that when I had the idea for WHATZIT, ACTIVATE was the first place I thought of to present it. I also thought that the community and the format would help keep my on track towards completion of the project.
[Self Portrait by Gideon Kendall]
Cristian Ortiz: I had the chance to meet Simon at the Thought Bubble Festival in England last year and he was kind enough to invite me to join ACTIVATE. The idea of having my work among all the experienced and talented ACTIVATE creators is motivation enough to publish my work on the site.
HM-S: How has creating for ACTIVATEcomix influenced your production style and methods?
SF: Doing the one page a week format has forced me to learn to write episodically, rather like an old movie serial or a newspaper strip. It’s a great discipline and forces you to be really rigorous and unsentimental with your storytelling.
JD: You’d have to ask Hyeondo Park how it affects him (on SAM & LILAH), but when it comes to writing, it means that I try to have each update of two or three pages be a meaningful story beat or narrative chunk. So I’m not just writing for the overall scene or story arc, but for something that makes a least a little bit of sense to read in installments, but that hopefully won’t seem weird when read in a collected form.
[SAM&LILAH by Jim Dougan and Hyeondo Park]
ND: Deadlines. Style and methods? Who cares…I’m so happy to get comics DONE.
GK: As a first-timer in comics, the whole thing has been a learning process. I have nothing to compare it to, but as far as illustration it’s a refreshing change from the world of print (see my other answers!)
CO: Having to publish pages every week gives me a structure to follow where I have to calculate how many pages I need to create every month to be able to keep a buffer between publishing and production.
[THE GOLDEN CAMPAIGN by Cristian Ortiz]
HM-S: What do you think the benefits are of creating on a web platform? Do you find it intersects more with social media than print format?
SF: I think people are more likely to casually stumble across the work, which is part of my plan. I want to build an audience that’s a little wider than the 2000AD readers, who (despite being collectively a very discerning and attractive bunch of people) are a very niche, localized market.
[FlyGirl art by Simon Fraser]
JD: The benefits are the immediate feedback and the ability to have multiple opportunities to interact and communicate on a regular basis. That might also be the case with creators who are on monthly books, but that’s not usually the case for indie creators, so this is what we’ve got.
ND: The benefits for me are entirely logistical. I.E. moving panels or characters, the undo button, and some subtle computer fx (ie motion blur or glow) make the work flow in a different way than on paper. Not better, just different. Yes, creating on the web makes for a smoother transition to social media. There are less formatting steps to deal with.
[EASY PIECES by Neil Dvorak]
GK: Again, this is my first real foray into comics so I don’t have much to compare it to, but the social media aspect has been very helpful as far as spreading the word and getting feedback. Being able to click on a link and see the work is much more immediate than having to remember the title when you’re in a comics shop. The downside obviously is that no one is paying you for your work, but hey what else is new?
[WHATZIT by Gideon Kendall]
CO: The benefits of online comics to me is that are easily accessible to many sorts of readers all over the web that print format can’t reach, also making it easier to share and spread, making the amount of exposure increase to a different level.
HM-S: What impact does it have on you as a creator to be part of a collective?
SF: It helps me immensely, both in getting the work done and in keeping me honest. I know I’ll get called on anything I post that is sub-par. Also knowing that people are expecting me to do the work is a huge motivator. I have the advantage that I do tend to interact with everyone on the collective as I am kind of in the middle of it. I’d like to make more situations where we can all get to hang out together more often. It’s difficult when we all have such busy lives and are so geographically dispersed.
JD: I enjoy the shared sense of purpose and camaraderie that comes from being a part of ACTIVATE. Even if I don’t have much in common with other ACTIVATErs, we have ACTIVATE in common. That support really helps considering comics is something that’s done in isolation.
ND: It’s nice to have some pressure to keep the work up to snuff and get it done on time. There are so many amazing creators on that site who are turning out world-class comics every week.
[EASY PIECES by Neil Dvorak]
GK: It gives me a sense of pride. As a newcomer to comics it’s amazing to instantly feel like a “real” comic artist. It also is great motivation to keep getting the work done. If I was on my own, it would be a lot easier to lose the focus and the ambition that it takes to see a story through. Plus, there’s not wanting to be embarrassed in the company of such accomplished pros.
CO: It gives you a sense of belonging and makes you feel like you are part of a big family who are passionate about making comics. I want to keep on improving my craft and the quality of my work to do my part for the collective.
[THE GOLDEN CAMPAIGN by Cristian Ortiz and Daniel Martin]
HM-S: Does it make a difference to you to know that readers can access your comics so soon after production? Have readers played any part in shaping the direction of your work?
SF: Absolutely. I’ve made the analogy to live Jazz many times. You can feel the response to the storyline and working with that expectation, or against it, can be very exciting.
JD: It absolutely makes a difference, and I always look forward to reading comments from our readers. We have a couple of SAM & LILAH readers in particular who pay attention so closely that they keep me on my toes as to what’s going on and being communicated, and they like to speculate as to what will happen next, so I’m mindful of that going forward. I’m not sure they’ve influenced the direction of the story specifically, but certainly knowing someone out there is following it so closely makes you want to do your best to be very clear in your intent. Or be very -unclear- if that’s your intent.
ND: My stuff has always been web-based first. So that immediacy isn’t novel for me. The fact that a couple people have come out of the woodwork to email me to tell me my work helped them through a tough time really threw me for a loop. It’s an interesting thing to continue creating when you know your work might be therapeutic for someone out there; it always is for me, but you don’t expect that. Now that seed is in my head as I create, and it makes me want to be as honest a creator as I can be.
GK: As someone who primarily does illustration for print, where it can be months or even a year before the work is published, its really exciting to get it out there and get feedback right away. The encouraging comments definitely help me find the energy to keep going and I also had at least one instance where a critical comment led me to refine and improve a certain aspect of the story.
CO: It’s great when you publish pages and you can get instant feedback from readers making you feel inspired to carry on working on more pages and volumes. There are parts of my work that have developed and adapted to improve issues in narrative mentioned by readers and fellow creators alike.
HM-S: What projects have you produced on ACTIVATEcomix and what projects are you currently working on?
SF: My main body of work has been LILLY MACKENZIE & THE MINES OF CHARYBDIS and there are a couple of shorter pieces too. Right now I’m gearing up to start working on the sequel to LILLY, though I keep hitting problems. That can be a benefit though as I’ve had a long time to work and rework the storyline and I think it has improved immeasurably. I should be back onto this very soon (as I’ve been saying for several months now).
Otherwise I’m doing several pitches for some very diverse projects. Some very much in line with what I’ve done before (one with my NIKOLAI DANTE collaborator Robbie Morrison) and some that are radically different. Also I’ve got a sci-fi tale that’s been written by Alex DeCampi and will be published through Dark Horse that I really need to get back to.
[LILLY MACKENZIE by Simon Fraser]
JD: SAM & LILAH has been, is, and will be my project at ACTIVATE for the foreseeable future. I’ve posted comics created elsewhere on the site, but the only comic I’ve done specifically for ACTIVATE is S&L, and it’s likely to remain that way for a while.
ND: EASY PIECES. EASY PIECES.
GK: As of right now (and for the foreseeable future, because it’s so freaking’ huge) my only ACTIVATE project is WHATZIT. I do a lot of illustration work and animation design, so one epic, unwieldy, and self-indulgent graphic novel is all my sanity can maintain.
CO: I’m currently publishing GOLDEN CAMPAIGN Volume 1. I’m also working on Volume 2 at the same time to be able to publish it right after. I want to publish some small stories at some point but I think my main priority at the moment is GOLDEN CAMPAIGN.
[THE GOLDEN CAMPAIGN by Cristian Ortiz and Daniel Martin]
HM-S: So, Simon and Jim, how does ACTIVATEcomix handle submissions? Can creators approach ACTIVATEcomix about joining the collective?
SF: They can send their proposal to me ( firstname.lastname@example.org ). If I like it then you’re in. We used to have a very democratic procedure for admissions, but it caused some problems so for the moment we’re a benevolent dictatorship. That could change, but nobody has gotten angry with me … yet.
JD: Basically, people reach out to Simon. (Sorry Si!) Unless it’s a no-brainer (like an Igor Kordey or David Klein or Ellen Lindner) he’ll send around the submission to a few of us to discuss and vote “yea” or “nay”. We are always looking for unique and compelling points of view and the comix stories that arise from them.
[SAM&LILAH by Jim Dougan and Hyeondo Park]
HM-S: What do you think ACTIVATEcomix’s biggest accomplishments are?
SF: I think we’re one of the longest lived webcomics collectives, certainly one of the biggest in terms of membership (over 50 this year) and quantity of work (nearly 100 strips). We’ve managed to maintain a really high level of quality too, not just as a webcomics group, but I think we can stand tall even among serious publishing houses.
We have published a book too, The ACT-I-VATE Primer is a beautiful thing. I’ve got a lot of books in print through 2000AD and others things, but I think I’m most proud of that one.
JD: First of all, surviving at all. While many other webcomics have been around as long if not longer than we have, not many webcomic –collectives- have been. I know this from experience, considering that The Chemistry Set (of which I was a co-founder) doesn’t exist anymore, not even as an online archive. But more importantly – and part and parcel of the survival – is providing an ongoing platform for personal work. If you look at the archive on the site (http://activatecomix.com/comix), there is a –staggering- amount of great comics there, from some very prestigious folks. Some of it has led to greater exposure or work or publishing deals for the creator(s), but even when it hasn’t that extensive, unorthodox, diverse, and ambitious body of work is under the ACTIVATE umbrella something to be proud of.
HM-S: What’s up and coming for ACTIVATEcomix at 7 years?
SF: Well the most pressing concern is the branding discussions we’ve been having for the past 8 months or so. That is leading on to a website rebuild, in the nearer future. We’re determined to take the time we need to get it right. I’d very much like to put ACTIVATEcomix in a position where it can expand and thrive for another 7 years.
JD: More great comics! For free! Simon is probably better positioned to discuss what’s in the pipeline, but the fact that we’ve got new LILY MACKENZIE coming is something to look forward to from my point of view, not to mention the return of Pedro Camargo, David Klein, and Ryan Roman to the ACTIVATE fold. Add to that Ellen Lindner coming aboard with her new book THE BLACK FEATHER FALLS, and newcomers like Cristian Ortiz’s THE GOLDEN CAMPAIGN and Neil Dvorak’s EASY PIECES…there is literally more good stuff happening than I can keep up with. And that doesn’t even include Igor Kordey and Darko Macan’s THE TEXAS KID, MY BRO, which is like my favorite comic right now. There is as much – if not more – good stuff happening, more good comics being posted on a regular basis right now than there has been at any time in ACTIVATE’s seven-year history. And that’s a very exciting thing! So give us a look – there’ something for everyone.
HM-S: Hearing from these ACTIVATE members has reminded me again of the working paradox that seems to exist at the heart of this collective project, a paradox between the depth of personal experiences that creators bring to the platform which renders their works so distinctive, and the respect for the medium that creates a single entity out of so many perspectives. Looking back at seven years of ACTIVATE, it’s a vast and varied panorama, and we certainly hope that as ACTIVATE grows and changes, it continues to be a touch-stone for what collective comics projects can accomplish. Thanks very much to Simon, Joe, Neil, Gideon, and Cristian, for sharing their thoughts with The Beat!
Hannah Means-Shannon writes and blogs about comics for TRIP CITY and Sequart.org and is currently working on books about Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore for Sequart. She is @hannahmenzies on Twitter and hannahmenziesblog on WordPress.