If you're a fan of HBO's mystery comedy Bored to Death, you're already familiar with the work of New York cartoonist Dean Haspiel— he designed the show's opening credits (which he won an Emmy for) and supplies the drawings of Zach Galifianakis' character, superhero cartoonist Ray Hueston.
Since 2006, Haspiel has helmed ACT-I-VATE, one of the internet's most prolific and acclaimed webcomics collectives. On the fifth anniversary of ACT-I-VATE, Haspiel told io9 about the collective's history and mission. We also spoke with ACT-I-VATE author Chris Miskiewicz about his new scifi webcomic Everywhere, which is about spontaneous (and deadly) stampedes of sundry fauna.
What's the origin of ACT-I-VATE?
Dean Haspiel: ACT-I-VATE was basically born out of frustration. When you score a gig at a comic company or get freelance work, you tend to work behind closed doors [on the project]. During these times, I had been keeping a blog was posting art as sneak peeks and getting good responses. This was around 2005 — I had been working on The Quitter with Harvey Pekar for Vertigo. What happens with [the comics industry] is a book comes out, it gets some attention, and everyone's attention is then focused on the next cool thing that comes out next week. I had been getting attention for my work online in bits and pieces, so I figured why not draw a graphic novel online every week and let that escalate?
At first there a lot of naysayers to the approach — people were like, "Why are you giving this away for free?" I consider the work at ACT-I-VATE to be the DNA works of the authors, a beta version. They get responses and can tweak it for the "director's cut" — in comics, the print version. The fifth anniversary of ACT-I-VATE is about looking at that — you want to try making money with this stuff. There's a psychology that if you give something away for free, it's inferior. What we're trying to do now is monetize this.
How did you get involved with Bored to Death?
Dean: Jonathan Ames is one of my best friends. We had already done one graphic novel together, The Alcoholic for Vertigo, and he needed to fill out the show with [his fictional self's] friends, so he created a character loosely based on me. Ray [Zach Galifianakis' character] is a cartoonist, and his background story is kind of mine, but not any of the characterization necessarily. We are very loyal to each other. He asked me to do some drawings of Zach Galifianakis in a superhero outfit, which to be frank, is an homage to The Incredibles and Superman.
One of your most idiosyncratic characters is Billy Dogma, the love-crazed superhuman who appears in a number of ACT-I-VATE titles: Immortal, Fear My Dear, and Sex Planet. [Editor's note: You can watch the Sex Planet cartoon to the left, video NSFW] What's the story behind Billy?
Dean: He's a cross between Jack Kirby and Frank Miller with maybe a hint of Will Eisner. I love strong author voices and graphics that really correspond with that voice. That's what I'm trying to do with Billy Dogma — it's my love letter to the insanity of love. I feel like this comic is truer to who am I, even though it's abstracted. I've done a few major stories with him on ACT-I-VATE, but there's a new Billy Dogma story coming called "The Last Romantic Antihero." It's a jumping-off point for new readers. I'm also finishing up the art on a Cyclops one-shot for Marvel in March, and I'm drawing an eight-page Spider-Man story as a back-up for Amazing Spider-Man. I also have a short story for Tor.com coming up with Tim Hall.
How did you come up with the concept for Everywhere?
Chris Miskiewicz: [Laughs] Me and Andrew Wendell, who is the artist for Everywhere, happened to be very drunk one night and were having a conversation about how you can do anything in comics as opposed to other media, and it sort of organically came out of it — you could have animals...everywhere! A week later, I had number of scripts ready, so that's how it started: bourbon. Dean really helped out with this — he said, "We don't have an anthology comic for ACT-I-VATE."
Dean: Everywhere is an example of just having a parlay with a pal. It's very high concept, B-movie, like old EC Comics. I trusted Chris to bring the noise with all of the animal events happening everywhere. My one directive is, "Never answer why."
How is the series structured?
Chris: You won't be seeing the same characters throughout each episode. They're all unrelated tales except for the animal apocalypse. There's different animals illustrated by different artists all over the world. The only recurring character is someone we refer to as "Running Guy," who's just this one dude who's in every episode screaming, "Run for your lives! There are [INSERT ANIMAL HERE]!" There will be 18 episodes, but it may be extended.
Chris, any other comics you're working on?
Chris: I have a project with photographer Seth Kushner called Complex that's coming out later this year. It's a photocomic novella using actors and photographs and tweaking the images. Haspiel's editing it and Seth is co-writing it with me.
You can read the first episode of Everywhere — featuring a spontaneous stampede of horses — at ACT-I-VATE. Everywhere is updated the first of every month. You can also read ACT-I-VATE's entire comics roster here. Top art from The Immortal. Special thanks to Jeff Newelt.