Dean Haspiel is one of the most visible creators working in comics today, and his style is equally recognizable, whether he is creating superhero comics or his own Billy Dogma stories at ACT-I-VATE, the webcomics site he co-founded in 2006.
Even when he’s working on someone else’s property, Haspiel has a way of making it his own, and this is particularly true of his revival of The Fox for Archie Comics’s Red Circle imprint. One of the earliest superheroes in comics, The Fox made his debut in 1940, back when the publisher was still called MLJ Comics, and has resurfaced several times since then; a new version of the character appeared in the 1980s in Blue Ribbon Comics and Mighty Crusaders.
In Haspiel’s hands, The Fox is a reluctant superhero, a “freak magnet” who can’t avoid getting into trouble but won’t run away from a fight. The third issue of the series, scripted by Mark Waid, arrives Jan. 8; Haspiel will be doing a signing that day at Forbidden Planet in New York City. We talked to Haspiel about his version of The Fox, and Archie sent along some art from Issue 3 to go with it.
Brigid Alverson: Who is The Fox, and what interests you about him?
Dean Haspiel: Part of what inspired me was to tell a classic pulp story, but the consequences would be kind of inspired by Apocalypse Now and The Island of Lost Souls, aka The Island of Dr. Moreau. When we meet The Fox, he is kind of iffy about being The Fox. What we posited here is he is quitting. He wants to focus on his family and have a nice domestic life and focus on some of the issues of being a father and husband and having a day job. And then the kind of job he has, photojournalist—what does that mean in 2013? If we have a chance to do a second series, that is something we will deal with.
He seems sort of timeless, or rather old and new at the same time — he uses a film camera, for instance.
I wrote that in the first issue in the backup feature. He prefers to use film. He likes to take and develop pictures.
I have been trying to ape the feeling I got when I saw Raiders of the Lost Ark for the first time. The first 10 minutes of Raiders is the last 10 minutes of another story. That’s how we get introduced to this character, Indiana Jones, and I remember I was so blown away as a kid by that last 10 minutes, and when it ended I got up to leave because I was so wowed by it, and my dad pulled me by the shirt and said “There’s more.”
I have been trying to capture that sensibility, arrive to the story late but with just enough information that cascades as you go along that you know what happens. In fact, the second issue of The Fox was what I intended to be the first issue, but it was the sensibility of the editor to pull me back and say “We have to have more,” and that’s how I got to play with Madame Satan and have a silly story and say the impending apocalypse will happen through social networking. Which I believe is true.
The chapters are short — you really pack a lot in there.
Doing these in 18-page chapters is a challenge, but I think I give enough information, I have read enough comic books to be able to pull it off. Part of the trick is to make it feel breezy. You have to cut a lot of fat, but if the reader has a question you have to insert an answer. In the first issue, you have one page of The Fox at home and you have to address a lot of stuff. Thank God for Mark Waid, he brilliantly pulled it off with the conversation, so you get the sense that he is a guy who still wears his costume under his shirt, he has a wife and a son and an estranged daughter, and he is starting a job as a photojournalist at The Gazette after being away in Japan.
I love stories where there is some physical action happening and the protagonist says “How did we get here?” and there is a flashback.
The Fox is unusual because he is a reluctant superhero. Was that part of the original concept, or did you add it in?
That’s something I believe I brought to the story. I remember Alex Toth’s Fox was very pulpy, but there was no way I was going to try to ape that or even pay homage. I can’t fool myself into thinking I could even do something like that. If anyone is familiar with The Fox, they would think I am going to do pulp gangster type of stuff. I intuit that in the first issue but quickly push away — as much as I admire noir, it is not really my wheelhouse in terms of story-making.
In terms of my resources and the history of The Fox, there wasn’t much I could find. I know there are a lot of little Fox stories out there. I think at one point he was more of a ladies man; he wore the costume to try to get chicks at times. But he is a family man now.
You have some really remarkable layouts in these comics. How do you come up with them?
I think about the shape of the page. The hardest part of the job for me is not even coming up with the story, it’s how does it look on the page. I probably spend more labor time trying to figure out the thumbnail layout than making the actual page. It’s like a control freak symphony. Everything has a purpose.
I almost wish I had more latitude to allow breathing room, but I also pay homage to the comics I grew up reading, where you could read one issue of a comic book and there is a story. Now that issue turns into six issues. I’m not saying [the Fox stories] are heavy and deep, but I think I have given enough, even in 18 pages. It is a 24-page comic — the backup story does matter. I built that into the pitch to have the Shield backup done by another team for a very specific reason, which will reveal itself at the end of Ossue 4.
Every issue has something new in it while carrying the football, as it were. I’ll introduce a character, and you will only get a few panels of who they are, but it’s through action and behavior that you learn what people are. I don’t care what you say, at the end of the day it’s what you do that speaks to who you are.
The magic of being able to work with Mark Waid — this is going to be moving this way, but let’s fill in some of the holes and the gaps — that’s where the virtues of writing and art get married and exploit each other.
At the end of the first comic, you write about how you and Mark work together — it sounds like you start with the pictures and Mark adds the dialogue. Can you explain a bit about how that works?
I could have written the dialogue. I couldn’t have written it the way Mark Waid wrote it. He has a snappy panache that I don’t have. And he brought a cool sensibility about the way The Fox has to think and operate out of a situation out of his head. I was thinking in a physical way, but it was really after having a conversation with Mark that I realized that The Fox is distracted. He is actually very good at what he does. He is a quick thinker. He is resourceful for a guy who has no superpowers dealing with supervillains — he has strength, he knows parkour, there is something inside him that makes him be a superhero even though he has regrets. He gets his ass kicked all the time. He eventually saves the day, but it is always at a price, he is sacrificing a night out at dinner with his wife to deal with the villainy of the world. Also, he is putting himself out there to be attracted, a freak magnet. That’s not something he put on himself, but he is available to it.
I am interested in playing with a scene in a future story where he sees trouble and walks away because he doesn’t want to get involved. I just saw a video where a man walks up to another man on a bus and puts a gun to his head, and the other man puts up his hand quickly and walks away. A couple of people tackled the guy, and everyone else was nodding their head and saying they were going to get away. That’s the difference: He is the guy who goes toward trouble.
A lot of superhero comics have similar detail and value in the foreground and the background, so it’s hard to separate figure from ground. Your art doesn’t suffer from that. Is it something you think about much?
I am more interested in composition, which is why layout takes me the longest. I’m trying to achieve clarity, almost to where when you see the final page you say “That’s easy.” It’s not easy, but I make it look easy. So when you are reading it you almost feel like you are being cheated — where is all the detail? Some of it is economics. I’m not being paid that much, and even if I was getting paid $5,000 a page, it’s still only going to take you three seconds to read it. The art of cartooning is boiling it down to its essentials, it’s creating a handful of shortcuts. It’s not writing and art any more, it is story, it is a symbiotic thing.
It’s simple looking but it wasn’t simplicity that it arrived at it.
The story in the second comic is really dreamlike, almost hallucinatory. Where did that come from?
My pitch was I wanted to draw a psychedelic comic, but with a Silver Age spin. I wanted to play with four-color — we could push it in one way, but I didn’t want to employ the spectrum. Comics used to use a 64-color spectrum, and I love that look. I love the limitations of that. Now it’s unlimited, and I can’t look at a comic because there are too many colors or it’s too bleak or brown.
I said to the editor, I do want it to look kind of like a new old comic, and I know that maybe that’s not the way to market it, but also I don’t want to compete with a DC comic, I don’t want to compete with a Marvel comic. As much as I love a bunch of those comics, I want to make this stick out a bit differently by writing a story that has a dreamlike quality to it — the Diamond Realm, what is that? It has a pink river, a red sky from Apocalypse Now, it’s dark, this Druid guy came and messed it up, it used to be like Oz and now things are going sideways. The Fox is like the last gasp, he’s this guy with no powers who is going to have to use his wit and will to get through this stuff to help this woman who has recruited him. We went through a lot of talks, me and the colorist, about how to make this work, and I think it looks beautiful. It has a certain animation quality to it, and it serves the story. It’s not just there because it’s cool, it’s there because it presents a certain tone and ambience.
I’m also a big fan of electronica, and there is sort of a visual Daft Punk-ness to it.
Who are you writing for — superhero fans, Archie reads or some totally new audience?
I’m writing for me. Someone said you can write for maybe one person other than yourself, but if you write for the masses you’re done for. These are $3 comics, but I want them to mean something to me. I don’t have my Dark Knight or my Sin City. I hopscotch all over the place.
Your art always has a really solid feel to it. Do you do a lot of figure drawing from life?
I wish I did. Sometimes I get an idea in my head and look for a reference. I also sometimes cast characters. One of the people I have cast for The Fox is Buster Keaton. Not with his mask off, but with his mask on. A little bit of kung fu. But I’m more about the absurdity and the fun of what the figure could do.
I don’t draw the figure first and then draw the page around it. I think that’s what a lot of artists do is draw a really cool figure or face. I draw the page and then try to fit a really cool figure into it.
The comics I like the best are from between the late 1960s and the 1980s. That was my era of comics. That’s what I’m writing and drawing. I understand that’s not 2013, I maybe can write 2013 but I can’t draw 2013. Maybe this will help creak the door open to allow people who dig that style to continue that.
I am going back to the roots, and yet I’m not pulling any tricks. I know it’s absurd and silly; I know that you know that we’re in it together. It’s like when I go watch a B movie and we all know it’s a B movie. I have no qualms of my comic being a B-movie comic. It’s like a drive-in theater comic. It’s fun. Is there consequence? Will there be a sense of meaning at the end? There actually will, at the end. But it’s fun. Comics can be fun.