INTERVIEW: "Batgirl and the Birds of Prey" Hunt Rebirth's Oracle
This has been a year of ups and downs for Dean Haspiel.
He’s riding high after last week’s win at the Creative Arts Emmy Awards. He, along with the crew of the HBO series Bored To Death, won for outstanding main title design, and Haspiel returned to his native New York City to continue the promotional blitz for his upcoming graphic novel Cuba: My Revolution with artist and family friend Inverna Lockpez. He just had a short feature published in Marvel’s Deadpool #1000 and has more work on the way for the House of Ideas. But this was also the year his friend and longtime collaborator Harvey Pekar passed away.
Throughout it all, Haspiel has become one of the strongest independent voices of comics (or “comix,” as he would say). His years of networking and socializing in the New York City comics scene came to fruition in 2006 with the inception of the ACT-I-VATE collective, resulting in several series making the jump from web to print in IDW Publishing’s ACT-I-VATE Primer. He continues to be a driving force in webcomics, with the third installment of his semi-autobiographical series Street Code just out from Zuda‘s newly transplanted home on Apple’s mobile-phone platform.
Today, he has a girlfriend, a studio full of friends dubbed DEEP6, a Sept. 15 signing at Midtown Comics, and new work appearing later this month in the second season of Bored To Death. On a recent morning, I talked to Dean by phone before he rode his bike to his nearby studio.
Chris Arrant: Let’s start with an easy one, Dean – What are you working on today?
Dean Haspiel: Today I’m going to the studio to work on the final page of Street Code. It’s a semi-auto-bio comic about the transition of moving between Manhattan and Brooklyn. While it takes place during a certain era in my life – around when I turned 30 to recent events – the latitude of semi-auto-bio allows me to crunch time and tell certain kinds of stories. The themes of Street Code are about my avatar, Jack, and how he interacts with his new neighbors, and how they interact wit him. I use stories that have happened to me. Street Code recently transitioned from being a Zuda webcomic to being on the ComiXology and the DC Digital app.
The particular story I’m working on now is called “Beef with Tomato,” which is my love letter to New York City and a slight homage to Charles Bukowski’s Ham On Rye. This will end up being the sixth “issue” of Street Code on the digital app but, fingers crossed, if the transition to digital is popular for Street Code then it’s possible it could yield more stories in the future.
Then what I’m working on next is a backup feature to Marvel’s upcoming Spider-Girl #1 – written by Paul Tobin, who’s writing the regular series as well. And it features a young version of Spider-Girl before she became Spider-Girl; her father was a reporter, and she goes with him on a visit to the Baxter Building to interview Sue Storm. It gives me a chance to draw the lumpy version of the Thing. It’s a wink at the old Stan Lee/Jack Kirby stories. It’s probably why I got hired, because Marvel is paying attention to how much I love Kirby and old Marvel comics.
It’s not too retro … It’s not me getting my Mad Men on and drawing Sue Storm as January Jones, but it will be a lot of fun.
Arrant: Are you doing just the first issue, or is this an ongoing backup?
Haspiel: This is just for the first issue; who knows if I’ll get another gig. It’s possible that, by the end of the year, I’ll have scored another long-form gig.
And coming in December we’ll finally see the release of the Woodgod story I did for Marvel in Strange Tales #3. My Woodgod story is my Marvel Two-in-One homage; it features the Celestials and the Thing.
I finished my art for the original graphic novel Cuba: My Revolution last December, and I reunited with Jonathan Ames to do some things for the second season of Bored To Death, which starts Sept. 26. It was a lot of work. Jonathan and I cobbled together some of the artwork for Season 2 and designed a Super-Ray minicomic to promote the show at the current comic cons. At San Diego, they hired people to dress up as Zack’s Super-Ray character to pass out the minicomic. I was also passing them out at my table at last weekend’s con in Baltimore, and I’ll also have them at SPX and the New York Comic-Con.
Arrant: That’s a lot, but like you said you’re wrapping up – or have already wrapped up – most of these. What’s your big project in the future you’d like to work on?
Haspiel: I’m always trying to pitch my next big book. I’m used to working on one major project throughout the year, and then fitting in smaller projects, like things on ACT-I-VATE or the Deadpool story I just did for Marvel. I love those challenges, but I also like the security of having a 120- to 140-page graphic novel to work on throughout the year while taking these small jobs. But I don’t have that large job right now. I’ve been pitching some long-form stories, and collaborating with different writers I like to work with. The trajectory I’m aiming for is to be able to write more. I hope that’ll happen at some point.
Arrant: After all the work you’ve done at Vertigo with other writers while also writing your own stories in a smaller clip, the next step for you is your own graphic novel there writing and drawing.
Haspiel: Yeah, I have my ideas. I made my hay doing memoirs and semi-auto-bio comix, but my passion is doing superheroes, psychedelic romance and science-fiction noir.
Arrant: I know we’re jumping around here, but how was your first day back at work after winning an Emmy for the title design on Bored To Death?
Haspiel: I got in at 1 a.m. off the flight back from California, placed my Emmy on my dresser, caught about six hours sleep then had to finish a gig inking a cover of an upcoming series at Marvel. I went right back to work.
Arrant: So no rest, huh?
Haspiel: Not much, but this is the kind of work I’ve been itching to do. Right now I’m doing what I can do the best I can so editors will shine a light on me and see where I stand at Marvel. This is what I think: There are segments of the superhero books that are “blockbuster” comics; the regular titles are ones where I wouldn’t necessarily fit with in terms of the ideology or the look or feel of it. But there are also titles, like the ones Nathan Cosby edits, and the ones Paul Tobin writes, that are more cartoony and allow for a Silver Age feel. As long as they keep producing those comics, I’ll have a potential place there professionally.
But at the same time, you don’t need to be working at Marvel or DC to make a living in comics. For me, it’s a choice and a desire to work on franchise comics because that’s what I grew up reading.
Arrant: I understand what you’re saying about those “blockbuster” comics, the top-tier books. I’d hate to see you try to alter your style to fit into that mold.
Haspiel: Don’t take me wrong, I don’t think there’s a house style, per se, but there’s a perception amongst editors of what the audience wants. There seems to be a polarization between the comics I grew up with, the comics I draw and like, and then the comics today that are the neo-realistic Hollywood blockbusters of comics.
I will tell you this, though – one guy I really admire because he dances between cartoony and stylized is Stuart Immonen.
Arrant: Yeah, I’m interviewing him later this week for Robot 6.
Haspiel: He’s great. I wish I had half his talent. That guy really creates a great balance; I see him as an artist at the crossroads, acknowledging the tradition of Marvel Comics in the older style, while also standing shoulder-to-shoulder with what’s currently being published in the franchise.
Arrant: Did you see the recent book he and Kathryn [Immonen] did at Top Shelf, Moving Pictures?
Haspiel: It’s beautiful. He’s a master storyteller and draftsman. He gets it.
Arrant: Jumping back to Bored to Death before we descend into more comics, what exactly did you do for the new season? Did you do new title credits?
Haspiel: The title credits are the same. This time I did more artwork for the Ray Hueston character played by Zack Galifianakis. In Season 2 we get to see more of his life, his studio and art table – and that’s my artwork he’s doing. And a particular comic book he draws in the show, we see some of that. The season is going to be eight episodes, and in the season finale it culminates in a comic convention in which I make a cameo, as well as other Brooklynite cartoonists.
Arrant: Has that been filmed yet?
Haspiel: Yeah, it’s already been shot, but I don’t know what’s going to make it out of the editing room and into the final scene. It was shot at the Brooklyn Lyceum where King Con is held.
Arrant: From King Con to Cuba, your next big release is Cuba: My Revolution from Vertigo. I just received a press copy, and although I haven’t read it yet, I keep coming back to your artwork and José’s [Villarrubia] colors. How do you normally handle things with a colorist?
Haspiel: Well, the major works I’ve done have been in black & white — The Quitter and The Alcoholic. For those toned works, I trusted Lee Loughridge to know what to do. I see pages as they come in and give notes on a few alterations, but basically it’s just a matter of adding a couple greytones to help shape some of the pages. With José and Cuba: My Revolution, he’s a master artist and painter himself. I handpicked him because I love what he does. He comes from outside of comics, and teaches art in Baltimore. So with him on board, so much more has been added to this project. Plus I wanted someone Spanish to help me realize this view of Cuba. Although he’s from Madrid, Spain, and not Cuba proper, he adds that Spanish flavor to the book.
I knew going in I wanted a limited color palette because I love the simple two-color treatment like I did on Billy Dogma, which I felt was needed for this. I don’t like to use color as color but as a tone. I knew that if I could get José on-board to color it as adding tones, and get him to bring his A-game, explore and experiment with the limited gamut, then this would look great. Our aim was to evoke an era from the late 50s and early 60s; I wanted this to look like a cross between a Preston Sturges film and I Love Lucy, even though the content of the book is very severe and dramatic. Most of the book is black and white with gray tones, but the introduction of the passionate color of red gives you a multitude of variations: pink, salmon, blood, communism, romance and revolution. I knew that when we settled on this color scheme I was excited what José was going to do with it.
Arrant: So how would the coloring process work?
Haspiel: José would do a first pass on a page, then me, the writer, Inverna Lockpez, and editor, Joan Hilty, would make notes and send it back to José to finally arrive at what is published. With a limited palette, you may not believe it but it’s harder to decide what to assign colors to. Orchestrating the color palette, choosing the paper stock, as well as the design of the book, all came together into something I’m very proud of. I’ve described the book as something you might find if you dug a shovel into the sand of Cuba; when you pull out that dirt, you’ll find Cuba: My Revolution. That dirt gives you a sense of time and place you couldn’t otherwise document.
Arrant: Did you go, or at least think about, trying to make it in to Cuba for research on the book?
Haspiel: I would have loved to go to Cuba during the making of the book, but I never figured out a way to do it. I would like for it to be translated into Spanish; that was one of my first notes towards the publisher. I’m excited to see what the reaction will be to Cubans, but also a little scared. If you’ve ever met a Cuban who has lived in Castro’s Cuba, the ideology there polarizes people. It’s a very black-and-white subject for Cubans from Cuba, and while some people believe in Castro’s ideology and fight for it, others are vehemently against it. I know you haven’t read the book yet, but the majority of it is in support of Castro’s Cuba from the eyes of the protagonist because she buys into the ideas at an early age, joins the militia and becomes a surgeon. But slowly, with evidence from family and friends beginning to leave, she herself is betrayed by the regime and is tortured by sharing the ideology. With most of her friends and family gone, she’s the last one to break and leave. It’s about the story of Sonya, this woman who, when she finally emerges as an artist, can’t express herself freely in her own home and country and has to leave and come to America to tell her story. It took Inverna a long while to tell her story – a good fifty years.
Arrant: And this project came about from you knowing Inverna and pitching it to Vertigo. I’ve always known you as one of those people who knows everyone. You gave a film producer the idea to do a movie based on Harvey Pekar’s work, you created the personal webcomics collective ACT-I-VATE.com, wrangled your Gowanus, Brooklyn, studio DEEP6, and you’ve been close with Jonathan Ames in comics and now with the HBO show. I know working on comics can be a solitary experience sometimes, but how does the socializing part of things affect you?
Haspiel: For Harvey’s American Splendor film, it all started when I was an assistant to Ted Hope. While I was working at his house, I uncovered a script for American Splendor written years and years ago, as well as – believe this – a script for “Ed the Happy Clown” from Chester Brown’s Yummy Fur. I told Ted, “Wow man, I didn’t realize you had these things!” I had just finished a comic with Harvey and I told Ted how cool an American Splendor film would be. Ted liked the idea, so I talked to Harvey about it. Harvey was initially hesitant about it because he’d heard this kind of story before and how it backfired, but Harvey said he’d talk to Ted. So Ted and Harvey talked, and a year and a half later this amazing movie came out. It was an award-winning, incredibly innovative film.
I also just saw a rough cut of James Gunn’s upcoming film Super, produced by Ted Hope, starring Rainn Wilson, Kevin Bacon and Liv Tyler; that’s another low-budget film coming out to watch for. The only way I can describe it is that it’s like a cross between Taxi Driver and Dan Clowes.
For ACT-I-VATE, it all started out by just talking to people. It seemed to scratch a certain itch that I couldn’t find elsewhere. That kind of thing sometimes gets me in trouble, in terms of not making my own work because I’m matching people up and helping getting balls rolling. Plus there’s the fact that since we live in a world of artists, writers and creators, we spend 50 percent of the day branding ourselves with social networking and such. Today, you can’t rely on a publisher to market you; it’s actually gotten harder to market because of the Internet. I spend at least 50 percent of my day hyping, and cobbling together things for other people. Maybe these concentrated efforts will yield me a position as an editor or organizer of a publishing imprint. I only have so many stories in me that I want to show and tell in comics, and my attention gets distracted by working with other truly talented people who create wonderful content, perpetuating the comics form, and doing other kinds of storytelling.
Haspiel: Absolutely. Of course. I know people who can’t or won’t do it, and that’s fine. Maybe it’s a focus issue or they can’t deal with distraction; I respect that. But I can’t move a pencil eight hours in a row; I’m getting older. Drawing is my least-favorite part of making comics. I enjoy doing layouts, conjuring ideas and working on dialogue. It’s the actual execution and craft of comics that’s the doldrums for me. To make it fun, I work around like-minded people like the crew at DEEP6. Sure there’ll be lulls and the ebbs and flows, fights and such –- it has its pros and cons like any office environment. Then you remind yourself you’re sitting among a bunch of folks doing what you love, and although we sure can complain like the best of them, it’s a fantastic thing to be able to spend each day writing and drawing comics. That’s what I like to do, and that’s what we do. I’ve become unemployable otherwise.
But, in this day and age, I wouldn’t know how to get a job outside of the comics and film industries. Sure, I sit at my art table eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich a lot more than I’d like to. I work until midnight most nights, six days a week, and there’s an irony to that. Sometimes I look out the window and wish I was at the beach, or could stop and watch a movie and eat dinner with my girlfriend. I guess I let my ego get in the way, because I think I’m creating a testament to my life here. I draw other people’s stories, too, because I believe I’m a good collaborator and I like working with people, but I would also like to experience life more, outside of my work, so, when I do write and draw, I can report my life and allow for hindsight to be expressed like how I do with my work on Street Code and Billy Dogma, both very emotional auto-bio comix.
Arrant: What’s it like having these avatars of you floating around: Billy in Billy Dogma, Jack in Street Code and Ray in Bored to Death?
Haspiel: The character in Bored to Death is only very loosely based on me; I don’t consider it to be me at all. There are some background story elements we share to help fill out the character – but Zack and Jonathan have fully realized the Ray Hueston character on their own.
But on the subject of avatars, I think that if you buy into the concept of “write what you know,” then I can’t help but include variations of myself. I think my personal works are like variations on those Russian dolls where they are different-sized versions of the exact same thing.
Arrant: Does it ever sneak into your non-auto-bio comix?
Haspiel: I just wrote and drew a story for Deadpool #1000, and I put a version of myself, a conflict I know very well, in that job. In the Woodgod tale for Strange Tales v2 #3, that’s all me. It’s rare that I get to write franchise characters but, ultimately, I write what I know. In Cuba: My Revolution, I cast myself as one of Sonya’s torturers. The writer, Inverna, was having emotional trouble embracing her story as visualized, as it dug up buried memories. So, in a weird and bizarre solution to help counteract her troubles, I elected to cast myself as one of the torturers to be there for her. In a twisted way I was protecting her. Comforting her.
Arrant: Do you find yourself drawn to franchise characters like the Thing and Woodgod because you see yourself in there somewhere?
Haspiel: Definitely. I love the Thing. He’s a tragic monster. Not that I’m walking around like Ben Grimm, but there’s also a bit of romance in his depiction that I respond to. Even though he’s sold as “the ever-loving blue-eyed Thing,” I understand his main story to be that of a tragic, creature romance comic. We all hurt, feel pain, and that’s one of the universal things we can latch onto – our vulnerability. One of the reasons Jonathan Ames has been so successful is that he understands you have to be vulnerable to tell a powerful story; it’s about showing that you’re vulnerable, or you become vulnerable. There’s nothing you can do when you’re standing before a knight in shining armor; the heroes I like to tackle are the flawed ones, the one who have problems, who make mistakes and learn. We all make mistakes, and we’re always learning.
Arrant: Do you mind if we talk about Harvey and his passing?
Haspiel: Sure, it’s okay.
Arrant: Now that some time has passed since Harvey Pekar’s death, are you at peace with it? Do you ever forget he’s gone and want to give him a call, or expect a phone call from him?
I don’t even know how to answer. I hope he’s at peace. Not that he lived an especially hard life, but he lived a small life, a common life, and was somehow able to exploit that artistically, which was great; not many people can do that. Yet, if you want to learn about Harvey Pekar, it’s all out there in his comics. You know, I think maybe his death was poetic. Sometimes people will die and it seems like they were taken away far too soon. Yeah, seventy is a young age to die at, but I think it’s okay. And it’s a shame he didn’t get to tell his last story – you don’t get to do that with autobiography. That’s his wife’s job, or maybe his many collaborators.
Harvey Pekar was a consistent, like a smoke signal, observing what was around him and reporting on it. Because of the storytelling medium he worked in, the oracle of Harvey Pekar will always be around for us to read and ponder.
And it’s encouraging to me that his stories encourage you to tell your own story. It was Harvey Pekar’s work that I read as a teenager that showed me that comics didn’t have to be just superheroes or genre-oriented work. He convinced me of that.
Arrant: Where do you see yourself in five years, Dean?
Haspiel: Well, there’s the cynical part of me that sees it one way and then there’s where I hope I’ll be. Where I hope to see myself in five years is writing and drawing my own stories, my own comic books, and also working in television and movies. I’d like to create a show, and write and possibly direct it. That’s what I’d like to do. In my early years, I went to SUNY Purchase to study filmmaking. I love music, and sound. I don’t get to do that in comics, and I’m not satisfied by animation except for PIXAR. I think what they do is brilliant, but I’m not interested in working in that medium. For me, its either static images like comics or working with live actors in film.
Arrant: Have you taken any steps towards these film ambitions?
Haspiel: I’m working up a couple of screenplays I wrote years ago, dusting them off and pitching them as graphic novels. But I’d love for them to go their original intended direction and become films. I’ve always thought in terms of movies; a ninety-minute/two-hour story, but because I’ve been working with Jonathan Ames on Bored to Death I’m rethinking that. There are some great shows out there – Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Lost, Battlestar Galactica, Deadwood, 30 Rock. I’m really looking forward to The Walking Dead TV series. I think television has become a great way to tell a story. With movies you tell one story and it’s finished, but with television it’s episodic and you’re given the latitude to advance characters and situations and story arcs. You’d think that I’d have a good grasp with episodic storytelling since I work in comics, but with television the minute you start dealing with real money it’s a whole new ballgame. The great thing about comics is that you can truly experiment with new ideas on a page, and because there’s no budget on what you can draw on a page, it can do pretty much anything. It doesn’t cost that much to produce and print a comic – but that’s kind of a crime, because in comics there are many creators out there coming up with fantastic ideas and trying out new things, to only get poached by other more expensive mediums that pay better. And you know, it’s tough to make a buck in comics even when you’re at your most successful.
Look at me, I won an Emmy and I have a book coming out that people are excited about that could entice the literary crowd and be made into a movie. It might also tickle the fancy of superhero readers – you never know – because fans are hungry for a wide range of stories. But with all that, I don’t have health insurance; I eat cheap; I live small. It’s not to say I’m a great storyteller that deserves more because there are a lot of great storytellers out there in my same situation. Jack Kirby alone came up with half the ideas being done today in our culture. Comics have become some kind of IP farm for savvier businessmen to reap.