For the occasionally unwilling hero The Fox of Archie Comics’ Red Circle imprint, his latest miniseries has often been a mix of madcap style and unexpected guest stars. And the same could be said of cartoonist Dean Haspiel’s work on the series.
Across five issues, the artist found himself collaborating with two top flight superhero scribes in Mark Waid and JM DeMatteis across multiple styles of comics storytelling. With the finale arriving today in issue #5, the Fox’s life as a freak magnet takes one last wild turn with a time-traveling team up. Written by DeMatteis, the final story of the series folds Haspiel’s Fox into the 1940s adventure that has been The Shield back-up.
Before the everyman hero backflips off into the sunset, CBR News spoke with Haspiel about the journey to date. Below, the cartoonist explains how the time-jumping, feature-folding finale came to be, what personal touches he’s brought to the Fox’s adventures, how collaborating with two writers has changed his own storytelling style and why he’ll be back for another Fox series in the not so distant future.
CBR News: “The Fox” #5 ends a long, winding journey for both Paul Patton and you by folding the hero’s journey in with The Shield backup JM DeMatteis has been writing for a big, whiz bang finale. How did those two stories ultimately end up growing together to take the series to its finish?
Dean Haspiel: I came up with enough story to fill up four-issues of “The Fox” when my editor said we needed five. It occurred to me that, due to the “Freak Magnet” nature of my story, it could easily lend itself to mashing up with another story in the final act and I thought about which Red Circle hero would compliment The Fox in a back-up feature, giving double-bang for your buck, and we settled on The Shield. After I asked and confirmed writer J.M. DeMatteis (who is the only writer I wanted for The Shield), we knocked brain-pans and concocted a way to tether the two stories into the final act. My pal/Shield artist, Mike Cavallaro has a studio down the hall from me, and we coordinated our art to match visual aspects of what was going to happen for a seamless transition. Thank god for cosmic explosions, artifacts and mind-melds. The fifth issue of “The Fox” changes tone dramatically and almost becomes another comic book series altogether in one epic issue.
I get the sense that this is also the fulfillment of your personal comic quest to find a superhero project you could really put your own imprint on, and I feel maybe the strongest thread of that idea has been the Fox’s quest to get back home to his wife and “normal” life. How does the finale wrap that journey for you as a creator?
The finale to “Freak Magnet” gets The Fox back to where he needs to be, but even though it ends with a big bang and a cheer, it doesn’t mean he wants to be a superhero. In fact, the next Fox series further explores the desire to hang up his ears and he discovers how impossible that becomes. In a way, The Fox is an extension of some of the things I touch upon in my “Billy Dogma” comix. The reluctant hero is a classic trope and my independent comix informed my franchise comics work as industry lines continue to blur between what is mainstream and what is alternative. Red Circle has given me a long leash to skip rope with.
Of course, you’ve not been doing this alone. DeMatteis has scripted issue #5 and Mark Waid was riding dialogue shotgun to this point. What’s that flexible collaborative aspect done for you through the series? Anything you learned about how you like to tackle superheroes from teaming up with two guys who’ve had some extensive experience there?
Because I wrote the story for the first four-issues, I knew what The Fox was basically thinking but I didn’t “hear” his voice until Mark Waid lent his considerable talents. Suddenly, James Garner’s “Rockford Files” sarcasm was littering each page but with the earnestness of an extraordinary guy who painfully desires a normal life. Waid took my character kernel and expanded it into a living, breathing person. Plus, The Queen of Diamonds’ backwards-banter was a wonderful twist on Bizarro-speak while Waid’s cryptic candor for The Marvel was chilling. What I learned from Mark was that you can make necessary exposition near invisible and a joy to read when giving it the right personality.
J.M. DeMatteis made the story more serious with his beautiful message for world peace, the very thing I was hoping he could make work without being too preachy while carrying the Golden Age comics torch we were referencing and paying homage to in this psychedelic pulp series. I’ll admit, the shift between laying out my story for the first four-issues to laying out another writer’s (JMD) in the fifth issue took some readjustment, but the challenge, as always, pushes me to convey and pace things in a way I never would have considered and that always adds new tools to my narrative box. I’m just amazed how much story JMD was able to pack in, just like the comics I used to read when I was a kid! Nowadays, some publishers would have spread his one issue into a whole other miniseries. I’m lucky to have collaborated with two of the finest writers in comics.
Speaking of team-ups, the finale brings the Fox together with the Shield, though thanks to the particulars of the story it isn’t any Fox this ’40s Shield has ever met and vice versa. What did you and J.M. find most exciting about playing with that comic trope of the time-traveling team-up?
SPOILER ALERT!!! The key was to not only surprise The Fox but to surprise the reader in the time-travel twist while the Shield tried to make sense of his sudden appearance. See, the Shield hadn’t met The Fox yet during World War II. And The Fox has all this future information, but all that could go out the window if The Druid has his way. So, it’s up to The Fox to convince a younger, angrier Shield and his Japanese and German counterparts to ally, which is against everything they know in order to defeat the potential of a worse outcome. It’s akin to a guy from the future telling Barack Obama to quickly make pals with Osama bin Laden and Vladimir Putin or the world will explode. It’s a tough conceit to pull off and I believe DeMatteis pulled it off in spades!
A secondary theme I’ve seen winding its way through the series for you has been reinvention. From rebuilding the series’ big bad The Druid as a cosmic god to dusting off Red Circle characters like The Marvel and the Queen of Diamonds whom even the most diehard fans may not be familiar with, you’ve had a lot of fun recreating pieces of Archie’s toybox. What ultimately linked all those random bits of pulpiness for you creatively?
My original concept was more of a “What If?” story. What if John Carter, Conan, Tarzan, Flash Gordon, Doc Savage, Green Hornet and The Shadow teamed-up and fought Ming the Merciless? So, I recast those popular pulp heroes with Archie’s Red Circle heroes. It was educational to rifle through the Red Circle roster which is rife with so much potential. I can’t believe these characters have only been intermittently used since the 1940s. They’re just as iconic and cool as any Marvel and DC characters. Anyway, some characters tend to get revamped for modern play and sometimes get pushed too far away from their original conceit but, honestly, most of these Red Circle superheroes barely needed dusting off at all.
When all is said and done, what do you hope readers take away from this series, both as a fun superhero comic in its own right and as a Dean Haspiel jam in particular?
I hope fans of my “Billy Dogma” and semi-autobio comix will get a kick out of my Fox comics because there are similarities in terms of the reluctant hero and how important love truly is. Both issues #4 and #5 heavily rely on love and understanding to help resolve conflict. I know that real life is much more cynical and bittersweet but I turn to my comix to express the kinds of stories I want to help heal the world with. Dub me sentimental, but that’s what I think about those late nights I’m chained to the art table, sacrificing a social life for creating something that means something from me to you.
And of course, the big question at the end of a series always becomes: what’s next? After this experience, are you looking to find more superhero opportunities to ply your trade with? Are there any other Red Circle characters you’d like a crack at?
I’ve already submitted a proposal for a “Fox” sequel loosely based on a few ideas my editors had. I originally wanted to go in another direction but this new direction makes much more sense for a second series before we take it somewhere else. I tend to jump the gun sometimes and editor Paul Kaminski hurls speed-logic at me every so often to keep me grounded. The good news is that we’re doing a “Fox” sequel. The exciting news is that Red Circle wants me to bring more of my indie-style, a la “Billy Dogma,” to the foreground. Basically, they want me to go full-frontal Dino, and I’m happy to oblige.
“The Fox” #5 is on sale now from Archie/Red Circle Comics.