It's a Wednesday night in June, and LeVack Block on Ossington is packed.
The cheap drinks don't hurt. There's a DJ spinning tunes. Cookies frosted with bright pink cartoon faces are being passed around. And on a big projection screen at the back of the bar, primary-coloured comic strips play on a loop. There goes Elmo's court date. There go two file cabinets making love. And there goes Vincent Van Gogh's Starry Night, recreated in bananas and speed lines.
This is the scene at the official launch party for Bitstrips, a user-generated W eb comics community that launched in beta earlier this year.
Bitstrips members use a Flash-based character and cartoon strip generator to make fast, colourful cartoons that they share with the Bitstrips community, in addition to sharing in e-mails and on websites. Already, the community has posted over 75,000 cartoons in their first four months of beta testing.
Bitstrips was created by Toronto-based start-up company Core Matrix, one of whose producers, Jesse Brown, is playing host this evening. In his alternate life he's a CBC Radio broadcaster on online culture program Search Engine.
Midway through the night, Brown climbs up on a chair by the screen. It's a rowdy crowd, so it's hard to settle them down. He gives it a shot.
"Most Bitstrips are terrible!" he says. He's greeted with laughter. "But some of them are good, and a few are great, and from those we're going to be announcing the winners, the best of Bitstrips so far."
What follows is what might be the world's fastest award show; within five minutes of cheering, groaning and hollering the whole thing's wrapped up. Awards fly by, including best caricature, a snappy Barack Obama created by a user named Gdbus, while best author and character design (for Bananaman) go to a user using the moniker Uzi Bazooka.The actual presentations are read by Jacob "Ba" Blackstock, Bitstrips' founder and cartooning powerhouse. He's as surprised as anybody at the goods on display tonight.
"We designed this as kind of a creativity bomb, and now we're in the midst of the explosion. It's continuing to explode in an accelerating manner."
Blackstock explains, "In terms of what we put into the system, it's limited by our time. So we have a very finite list of props and scenes in the library. But people haven't accepted that as a limitation on their own creativity. They've been building their own things out of whatever's at hand.
"We've seen machine guns made out of beer bottles and potted plants, and space ships made out of lampposts and coffee tables. That's been one of the most surprising things about it."
But it's not just people's ability to flex their creative muscles within the cartoon engine that sets Bitstrips apart. What's key is its social aspect. Or perhaps I should say "antisocial," since it's one of the easiest ways imaginable to make fun of your friends.
The occasion of my introduction to the site was a cartoon of me made by Jesse Brown in which I was ignoring Barack Obama while nerding out over video games. Of course, I had to hit him back.
"We've kind of built the ultimate insult engine. And it's definitely intended," says Blackstock. "If someone sends you a comic insulting you, it's like a challenge, because who knows what their next comic will be?"
The character you create in Bitstrips becomes an avatar, a version of you to interact online with your friends. Most avatars are, well, ugly, which is part of the point - this is a humour site, after all.
There are many avatar systems out there, like Nintendo Wii's Mii character or the virtual characters in Second Life. For Blackstock, though, Bitstrips offers much more. As he explains it, "Here's a chance to take that avatar and tell a story. And this is the only place where you can do that."
It's very cool when you think about it: the possibility of creating a shared world with your friends and a larger community, one you can come back to, modify and retool as you like. Bitstrips' next step is to connect up where people are already engaging with social media, such as Facebook.
"Our mission, our manifesto, is to turn the entire world into cartoons," Brown says. "I want to see the first Bitstrips political cartoon make it into the news cycle. And with the upcoming election, who knows? Now anybody can make blistering political satire."
Ian Daffern's sci-fi/horror comic Shock Effect is in competition during the month of August in DC Comics' Zuda.com, a monthly webcomics competition. Check it out to vote at http://www.zudacomics.com.