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Ally Reeves' comic-strip story "Onward! For the Ephemeral" is set in an isolated communal village where everyone wears animal masks. "The masks gave us new freedoms!," says the narrator. "We forgot who people were before ... and masks are fun!"

 

 

"Our masks," concludes the narrator, "were part of a utopia we wanted to create."

 

The engagingly drawn parable concludes bittersweetly, with one character leaving the misfits and refugees for the wider world. "Onward!" feels like an anchor for Unicorn Mountain Volume 2, the new book and CD from the Pittsburgh-based multimedia art collective. Reeves' story depicts not only the transformative power of imagination, but also the warmth of chosen (and invented) communities that kindle alongside yearnings to explore.

 

There's a metaphor in there for life as an artist in Pittsburgh. Unicorn Mountain was formed in 2004 in response to young artists who felt they had to leave town to succeed. Collaborators including writer Curt Gettman and his friends Shahrzad Samadzadeh, Joe DeFerrari and Tim Brown decided to stop the bitching and start a publication ... one that would give area visual artists, writers and musicians a reason to stick around.

 

Vol. 1, released last August, was an impressive collection of comics edgy and compelling, plus visual art, short nonfiction pieces and a 22-song compilation CD. Vol. 2 grows the scale from, say, the Alleghenies to the Rockies: It's 216 pages, up from 129, and the book launch is the start of a push for national distribution.

 

"We wanted to show promise with the first one and wow people with the second one," says Gettman. "Maybe it'll be as big as the Donnelly Directory by the fourth one."

 

Vol. 2 opens with the lacily gothic drawings and poetic text of Beth Steidel, but also includes: "Stoney's is Better," a comic-strip narrative by Alan Dubinsky and Jodee Ferrari about dreams of flight from the Rust Belt; Ben Kehoe's "Constant Star," a dark-humored strip about a medieval knight; "Sppeech," a series of jokes and doodles on scrap paper, by Dave Bernabo and Lindsey Clark; "Mr. Jitters," a deadpan short story by David V. Matthews; and "Like Lace," an expressionistic strip about high-school horrors by JULIACKS.

 

A highlight is the poignant "Starfire II," written by editor and publisher Gettman himself and illustrated by Beano. It opens at the 2005 Pittsburgh Comic Convention but segues to downstate Illinois in the early 1980s, as Gettman continues the autobiographical story he began in Vol. 1.

The 19-song CD includes exclusive tracks from local bands including Zombi, Centipede E'st, Modey Lemon, Vale and Year, Dirty Faces and HTML, plus nationally known out-of-towners including Oneida and Elf Power.

 

Vol. 1 has sold 800 copies. The Vol. 2 press run is 1,200, and with marketing plans that include a booth at the Museum of Comic and Cartooning Art's June 10 comic show, in New York City, Gettman sounds tuned to the business possibilities.

 

Yet as the collective's name suggests, Unicorn Mountain is about more than moving units. On the MySpace profile Gettman wrote, "Unicorn Mountain" says it would like to meet "[c]reators who approach the world and their work with a sense of optimism and child-like wonder" and "people who love where they're from (especially if it's Pittsburgh)."

 

Gettman, 36, a UPMC program administrator, spurns the cynicism that can pass for hipness in underground-art circles. "Everybody involved with this book loves Pittsburgh," he says. "Most of the people involved are huge Steeler fans" who play pickup games on Saturdays, and on autumn Sundays huddle to watch games.

 

 "We're enthused about what we do and where we're doing it," he says. "There's a lot to celebrate about Pittsburgh."

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