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Columbia Spectator Staff

To the uninitiated, the world of comic books may seem a grim and unsavory place, populated by pimply-faced, superhero-obsessed 12-year-olds and equally fanatic middle-aged collectors with far too much time on their hands. And I mean no offense to either group—one was my past, and the other will, quite possibly, be my future. But a quick visit to www.act-i-vate.com, the digital home of a dynamic collective of mainly New York-based writers and illustrators exploring their ideas in comic form, will be sure to shatter any neophyte's delusions.

With original pieces ranging from the autobiographical to the scatological to the surreal, each rendered in its own distinctive montage of text and image, the works published and available for free on ACT-I-VATE's Web site are surely not your father's comic books. In "Fut Miso," creator Michel Fiffe threads dreamlike illustrations with a narrative stream that is at once ironic and heartbreaking. Jennifer Hayden, who is currently producing a graphic novel relating her battle with breast cancer, combines the tender and the cynical in her depiction of life as a "politically incorrect mother of two" in "Underwire."

Conceived by illustrator Dean Haspiel, ACT-I-VATE debuted in 2006 as a way for a likeminded set of independent creators to display their projects and ideas freely, both with each other and with the public, without submitting to the copious editing and distribution procedure that physical publication entails. "If you're an unknown, the whole comics production process can be nearly impossible," said cartoonist Mike Cavallaro, author of the Eisner-nominated story "Parade," at this year's Brooklyn Book Festival. "ACT-I-VATE makes it so much easier to get your voice heard and your art seen."

But ACT-I-VATE does more than just empower the creator—by providing a platform for artists to display their unedited work live and for free, the collective alters the dynamic of artistic creation. It allows illustrators to improvise and hone their work in front of a reactive audience. "A lot of the schooling occurs in the comment section beneath the strips," said Cavallaro. "It's a space for us to compliment each other, diss each other Why read an interview when you can hear and talk to the author in the comment section?"
Comments range from expressions of admiration to intensely personal remarks by fans on the importance a particular story holds for them, and they add yet another layer to the stories (just like notes scrawled on the margins of an old book).

"The ACT-I-VATE Primer," a print anthology of 16 of the stories, will debut at the Baltimore Comic-Con on Oct. 10. But the Web site expands every day, as the artists continue to try out new ideas and push the limits of their form.

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