Q&A with Dean Haspiel

By nature, comics is home to fun-loving writers and artists, some of the strangest and most interesting folks in the entertainment industry. So, it’s saying something when I call Dean Haspiel one of the most unique creators I’ve ever talked to. The guy’s stories always spin archetypes in some bizarre directions and his art is very clean and high in contrast while always tossing out some weird elements or unpredictable perspectives. The New York-based Haspiel has eschewed the standard route of artists into the comics industry and instead carved a niche with ACT-I-VATE, an online comix anthology, and worked with Harvey Pekar, among others. Haspiel’s also been known to use the phrase “cool beans” and signs his art “Dino!” To learn much, much more about the guy, keep on reading.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketJean-Claude Van Doom: First, can you fill me in a bit on your background, how you got into art, where you studied, how you ended up in New York?

Dean Haspiel: I was born in New York Hospital on May 31, 1967. I grew up a middle-class kid with my brother, Mike, in the melting pot of the Upper West Side under the parental guidance of my mother, Barbara, who was the Deputy Director of The NY State Council of the Arts, and my father, James, who is a writer and world renowned authority on Marilyn Monroe. Manhattan is where I made life-long friends of all colors and creeds in public schools, including Music & Art cum La Guardia High School, where I got the chance to hone my comix chops in retaliation to the fine arts my teachers were bugging me with.

I took a few years off working odd-jobs before going to SUNY Purchase where I studied film, broke my heart, and broke my legs. I split college when I didn’t have the funds nor the desire to graduate and moved to Soho with my buddies, Drew and Larry, where I waited tables for 4-years while writing never-produced screenplays. Later on, I moved to Alphabet City with my [then] girlfriend, Linda, and worked part-time gigs and returned to the indie/alt comix fold. It was SHAZAM and THE FANTASTIC FOUR that got me reading comix when I was 12 years old and YUMMY FUR, and AMERICAN SPLENDOR, that made me think I could create my own characters and write about myself without having to tackle BATMAN. EIGHTBALL and SIN CITY pushed me over the edge to spark KEYHOLE, a two-man comix anthology with my good buddy, Josh Neufeld, where I invented “the last romantic anti-hero,” BILLY DOGMA. Ten years ago, I moved to Brooklyn, went full-time freelance, and I haven’t looked back since.

Having travelled a little bit around America throughout the years, it’s not hard to wonder why I’ve made NYC my home. Not to bash the USA, but NYC is unlike any city I’ve ever visited and my ghetto ingrained coda has never embraced farm life. Dub me a comfort slut. However, last year, my girlfriend bought a beautiful house in the Catskills [near where my mother lives now] and I’ve started to acclimate towards mountain life. In a few years, I’d like to give a European city a shot for a year and see what that experience yields in my heart and art.

JCVD: In Immortal you’re doing some epic stuff. Do you want to head that direction (you’ve done a little with Marvel or DC before, right?), or are you more interested in working on truer to life stuff like American Splendor, etc.? Or do you see an entirely different direction? Maybe a better way to phrase it would be, in the universe of comics creators, where do you see your place?

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketDH: As evidenced by my BILLY DOGMA revamp at ACT-I-VATE, I love a wide range of genres and I will always have super-psychedelic, semi-autobio romance stories for my avatar to tell. With that in mind, my goal is to continue collaborations with some of my favorite writers, develop new ideas and establish my older ones, and, if so desired, rock my versions of franchise characters like how Frank Miller, Paul Pope, and Jeff Smith, have done with their careers.

I’m near 40 years old and I feel that I’ve finally taken my influences and caramelized their impact into a unique sensibility. Now is the time for me to express myself or pack my bags and call it quits. And, I ain’t gonna let that happen. Eventually, I’d like to see my more successful stories adapted into more lucrative mediums for maximum exposure so I can retire off my receipts and take my girl, Sarah, around the world.

JCVD: Speaking of American Splendor, what is it like to work with Mr. Pekar? Is there a pressure to coming into a narrative that has been previously handled by many of the biggest names in indie comics (not to say that your name isn’t up there)?

DH: Pekar is precise in his details yet cavalier in his leeway to let the artist interpret his tales. Drawing slice-of-life comix is challenging when it comes to the mundane and quotidian and Pekar knows that. There is no cosmic negative zone or monster robot to lean on when the banal gets dramatic. So, Pekar’s scripts forces the artist to seek the poetry of life and excavate representative yet meaningful graphics. My relationship with drawing Pekar stories comes with many conversations with the man himself. Just today we were talking about the genius of Beatrice Arthur. There’s not many folks I can wax MAUDE with.

JCVD: I reviewed The Quitter when it first came out and was very impressed by the art. It seemed to have a different feel from a lot of previous Splendor stories, more clean. With the story being a little different from the typical Pekar, was it intended to vary the art as well? And, last question about that book, was it hard to keep a good flow of action when a lot of the narrative was just people going through everyday life?

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketDH: My collaborations with Harvey Pekar is the equivalent of a collaboration between Raymond Carver and Jack Kirby. You couldn’t get more polar opposite sensibilities in a room working together on the same story if you tried and that’s when the good stuff starts to happen. And, I think that’s what made THE QUITTER an interesting project. Converting Pekar’s hieroglyphic rants into comix was a daunting challenge for me and it begged me to devise new narrative solutions while serving the base of his story. Between working with Pekar and recently adapting an established kids novel into comix form has given me new storytelling powers.

JCVD: Looking back, 2006 was a pretty great year for comics, with lots of sales growth and a really huge variety of books hitting shelves, and lots of smaller publishers having surprise hits. Having been in the industry a little while, do you see these successes continuing?

DH: Now that THE NEW YORKER and The NY TIMES has given their mighty nod to comix *cough-cough* I mean “graphic novels” and Hollywood and TV has made billions of dollars off the medium, I think it’s safe to say comix are finally here to stay so us industry folks can enjoy the cyclical gluts and parodies that all exploitable mediums enjoy. Other, more easily available and passive mediums may license and poach from comix for the long haul [and they have been on the sly for many countless years] but it’ll never replace the experience of holding and reading a comic book in your hands. And, this is coming from a guy who champions the new wave of digital comix. My two favorite print comix to debut in 2006 were Alison Bechdel’s FUN HOME and Grant Morrison & Frank Quitely’s ALL-STAR SUPERMAN. Not to mention the continuing series of Y – THE LAST MAN, EX MACHINA, B.P.R.D., PLANETARY, THE EXTERMINATORS, DAREDEVIL, THE WALKING DEAD, TESTAMENT, ASTONISHING X-MEN, GIRLS, DMZ, and the plethora of original stories at ACT-I-VATE. You can’t get more diverse and cool than that.

JCVD: With all the attention and money infused into the industry, are indie creators (sorry, I’m sure that’s not a great label, but it’ll have to do) like yourself seeing benefit from it? Are you finding more interest, more opportunities?

DH: I’ve been around long enough for my name to become synonymous with comix and with the graphic novel boom. I’m getting a lot more calls from traditional book publishers and start ups offering me big jobs. And, for the first time since I started working in this racket, I’m turning those big jobs down. However, never one to let a good thing slide, I get to play the altruistic agent and hook many of my comix pals up with those big jobs and it’s gives me a good feeling to know the industry is expanding horizons and becoming less insular, every day.

JCVD: Part of the comic book boom lies in the Internet. It makes things more accessible and allows for wider promotion for less cost. How much have you gotten out of myspace and blogs? How do you use it? Connections, promotions, etc.?

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketDH: The internet makes for a great yet scrutinizing testing ground for new comix. Ultimately, the success and popularity of any substantial effort will enjoy the fruits of cross platform publications and merchandising opportunities. The internet’s infinite landscape invigorates experimental narratives. And, because the comix community is so insular, it’s easy to get readers to try out your comix with the press of one mouse click. Once some genius figures out the best way to make monetary compensation work, the print “single” will go the way of the dinosaur and trade collections, anthologies, and original graphic novels, will dominate your local convention, expo, and bookstore before the digital viewer “monolith” reigns supreme.

JCVD: How much of your art goes to the web? What do you see as the pros and cons of putting a lot of effort into a web project?

DH: On top of my regular deadlines, I create/produce the equivalent of two pages of comix per week for the internet — for free. It had been several years since I’d illustrated a comic that I wrote and I was itching to publish a solo effort. Rather than go through the dreaded process of selling a pitch to a publisher in hopes to get my stories in print, I decided to reverse the development process and test my stuff at a comix friendly Blog community where I could receive instantaneous responses while grooming a fanbase. And, because I know many great cartoonists who felt the same way, I decided to launch Act-i-vate as a virtual studio that delivers free daily comix. So far, the experiment has worked quite well. We’ve gotten crazy hype and buzz and *gulp* some of us have garnered book deals.

JCVD: What stuff are you working on now?

DH: I continue collaborations with Harvey Pekar on Vertigo’s relaunch of AMERICAN SPLENDOR and the first mini-series collection, AMERICAN SPLENDOR: ANOTHER DAY, recently came out. July should see the release of my adaptation of R. L. Stein’s GOOSEBUMPS: “Revenge of the Lawn Gnomes” in SCARY SUMMER, a graphic novel anthology from Scholastic Graphix. And, I’m currently drawing my weekly web-comic FEAR, MY DEAR, while drawing, THE ALCOHOLIC, an original graphic novel with author/pal, Jonathan Ames, for Vertigo due Spring 2008.