Haspiel Visits "Cuba, My Revolution"

Dean Haspiel is an Eisner Award nominated cartoonist whose many works include his own "Billy Dogma" and "Street Code" as well as acclaimed collaborations with Harvey Pekar on numerous "American Splendor" stories and the graphic novel "The Quitter." Haspiel recently won an Emmy Award for designing the credit sequence for the HBO series "Bored to Death," a show created by Jonathan Ames, who Haspiel also worked with as the artist on the original graphic novel, "The Alcoholic."

Haspiel's new book, his third graphic novel with Vertigo, is a collaboration with visual artist Inverna Lockpez. "Cuba, My Revolution" tells the story of Lockpez's youth in Cuba where she championed Castro's revolution and set aside her dreams of art to become a doctor. Since emigrating to the United States in the late 1960s, Lockpez has been a major force in the art world, taking part in major shows like "X12," "The Flag Show" and more. Many books of her artwork have been published, but this is the first she's written and, as Haspiel points out, may very likely be her only narrative book. The artists spoke with us about this new, very personal book as well as his other current projects.

CBR News: Dean, can you tell us how you came to know Inverna Lockpez and how the book, "Cuba, My Revolution," came about?

Dean Haspiel: I've known Inverna for about twenty-five years. She became an extended family member through my mother and became a second mother to me, in a way. Throughout the years, Inverna would divulge little aspects of what had happened to her in Cuba. As a teenager growing up, into my college years and becoming a storyteller myself, I was infatuated by the mystery of Inverna Lockpez. Once in a while I would ask her another question about what had happened to her in Cuba and why had she escaped, and she would tell another anecdotal story. After a while, I started to knit together in my own head a story.

After doing a few memoirs and semi-autobiographical stories, between Harvey Pekar and Jonathan Ames, then dabbling in my own memoirs - the stuff I did in "Keyhole" that then got collected into "Opposable Thumbs" and currently with "Street Code" - a combination of things happened. I was fascinated by her story and wanted to encourage her to tell it, possibly co-authored with my art. One of things I believe is that art is text in comics, and when you collaborate, you're co-authors. She understood that and respected that and really admired the stuff that I did by taking the daunting task of having to transpose real life into comics and the literary rewards of that.

I encouraged her to tell her story, and she went off to Florida for a couple weeks and had this purge. When she came back, she had this huge document that she had written. Basically, she had vomited the past onto paper. She's a painter. In challenging herself to write this story, she had to use new tools to express herself. She had to dive back into the past and really confront some of this stuff that she had struggled with. She championed the Castro regime right from the very beginning. It was an exciting time. A lawyer went up into the hills with a few revolutionaries and came back down and took over, and that's awesome. But slowly but surely, things started to diminish and corrupt and the ideology shifted. That's what this story is about. It is a story about a teenage girl who believes in one thing and comes to believe another because of what happens to her. The irony is that she's the last person, even after all the evidence and after all her family and friends telling her you have to leave and they leave, she's the last one to leave. She left, not because of having been betrayed and tortured and the diminishment of the lifestyle over there. She left because she wasn't allowed to express herself freely. She had to go to America to be able to tell this story.

You mentioned that it is her truth, and it certainly feels like that, but the book is an autobiographical fiction, or, I'm not sure what the precise word is - to what degree is the story fiction?

It's mostly autobiography. When you change a name it becomes "semi-autobiographical" or "fiction." You're protecting the innocent and, to be honest, publishers are in the game of not getting sued to tell compelling stories. That's why there is a dance in memoir that publishers do with the author, I believe. What is fiction and what is real. I understand that for some people who read stories, they have to believe it's real or not. I'm not talking about "Fantastic Four" - we're talking about a Cuban woman who put aside her dream of being an artist to become a surgeon in Castro's regime and went to the Bay of Pigs, so there has to be accountability for that story. Again, I'm not a publisher. I don't understand the legalities of what makes something "based on a true story." I know that this is largely all true. You condense a story to make entertainment out of it, as it were. There are several years that this story encompasses, so it's not like a Harvey Pekar story where we delve into the mundane. It is a chronological story that tells what happened, from the influence of Castro coming down that mountain and the impact it made on this girl cum woman, what it took for her to finally be the last one in her family and friends to leave and all the stuff that happens in between. All that stuff. I'm not going to get into it, but there is stuff that we left out that was shocking but I felt like in a way it would be too much to believe. You have to balance, as a seesaw, believability.

Inverna tells the story through a character, Sonya, who may or may not be her. Did having the distance provided by a fictionalized character allow her to tell her tale easier or more effectively?

I can answer this as someone who writes his own semi-autobiographical comics. The problem I have with the memoir proper is that it makes the reader a voyeur into a real person's life. Then, what the artist is doing is a version of reportage. I have a character called Billy Dogma that's sensational, psychedelic and hyperbolic. What that does for me, having an avatar, is allow me to access the more emotional truths and actually tell autobiographical stories through the lens of fantasy and science fiction. I believe that my Billy Dogma stories are more true than my memoirs because of the emotional narrative that I'm allowed to give it. When you're doing memoir, you're constantly worried about being accountable so that people will "believe" it. I believe the true stories come out in the avatars and the art ,so in a way, I believe Inverna, possibly as a therapy, as a coping mechanism, was able to tell more of the truth through her avatar.

Inverna is obviously a very accomplished artist in her own right. Did you have pressure as far as how the graphic novel should look or her expectations.

Listen, I write and draw my own stuff. I collaborate, and I feel like I'm a pretty good collaborator, but when I'm collaborating I have to be two things. One, I have to be hella interested, because I'm going to live with this for a while. Number two, it's my job as the co-author and the artist to serve the story. So am I worried that the author won't like my interpretation or that we might battle over some of my narrative solutions? Yeah. But that's the dance that you do in collaboration. Luckily, we had a great editor in Joan Hilty. Joan is a cartoonist and she was able to help shape this story with Inverna and I and make sure that it rings true.

I knew that I was only going to pencil this, because I wanted to try something new. I wanted it to be different and I wanted to almost invoke the idea that one would dig a shovel into the dirt of Cuba and bring up, as it were, this document. I believe my line looks better with a limited color palette. That's more of a challenge because you have less colors to play with to bring out the story. Luckily, we were invoking an era from the past and we've been taught and trained from our movies that the past is in black and white. I thought early on when I was going to do this story, that I wanted to be a cross between a Preston Sturges movie and "I Love Lucy," but with a darker lens.

I always wanted to have a two color palette. Joan Hilty was into that and so was Inverna. I told [colorist] Jose [Villarubia] about it and he was into it. Then we had to discover what those two colors were. Originally, Joan said black and red. I said that might be too harsh. Jose experimented with other colors, like green and orange and other things, and after many experiments, we reverted back to Joan Hilty's initial instinct to go black and red. Red stands for blood and sex and violence and communism and revolution and the black could yield gray. It's also printed on a cream color, so we actually have a third palette in there by having the eggshell background. Jose and Joan talked about the production values of this book and the paper, and again, created this feeling of a document which I'm really proud of.

One of Inverna's dedications in the book was to Jose "for making me love pink again."

[Laughs] I thought that was funny.

The abstract art in the chapter breaks, is that you interpreting the artwork that Inverna was creating in that period?

That's Inverna's art from Cuba. When she left, she was not allowed to really bring anything, because they would suspect that you were escaping Cuba. She was able to smuggle out very few pieces, and some of those were the three chapter breaks. I tried my best to do a version of them in the book because of the art exhibits that happen and the stuff that she's drawing back then, but that's her artwork.

This is your third major book to come out through Vertigo. What is it about them as a publisher that has drawn you back to them again and again?

They've trusted me in handling semi-autobiographical stories. I have to be honest, I never thought I would be doing memoirs or drawing other people's stories for the majority of my career. I grew up with the desire to pencil "Fantastic Four" one day. It wasn't until I actually read "American Splendor" and Chester Brown's "Yummy Fur" that I could consider the concept of writing and drawing not just my own creations, but my own life stories. That was a huge paradigm shift: reading superhero stories to writing my own superhero and telling a story that happened to me on the street. That was encouraged by other artists that bucked the system and saw the virtues of the medium, that they could tell any kind of story.

Little did I know that I was going to be best known probably for working with people who write and tell their stories. I really didn't know that was going to happen. I still am fighting tooth and nail to draw another The Thing story or a superhero. That's a desperate desire of mine. I work hard at that, and in a way I get to balance that out with my Billy Dogma stuff. To answer your question about Vertigo, Vertigo has been very good for me and I hope I've been very good to Vertigo. The fact that Vertigo is now focusing more on graphic novels and less genre oriented graphic novels, it's exciting. I'd like to think that maybe the success of my collaborations that Vertigo has published has helped that paradigm shift in some way.

Meanwhile, I do champion the fun, crazy, wonky stories that I grew up reading. Will I do a fourth book [for Vertigo]? Who knows? I do want to take a break from memoir. I do want to draw people flying in the air and punching each other out. I want to draw romance. I want to draw the grander ideas because, again, I believe you can access more of the universal truths through these hyperbolic narratives. That's just me.

I believe "Cuba" and "The Alcoholic" and "Street Code" and Harvey Pekar stories represent a time and space limited by time and space, if that makes sense. Castro is a real person. There's Inverna's avatar. There's family members and friends. There's Jonathan Ames and his parents. There's a best friend and an aunt and there are these women and the situations he goes through are real people and based on real situations. The same with Harvey Pekar. That's fair and fine, because these are testaments of life. The stories I'm personally more interested in, when I come to writing the stories that I draw, I want to write stuff that cross-platforms time and space and tells these universal truths.

Your previous Vertigo book was "The Alcoholic." Now, you've worked with it's writer Jonathan Ames since then, winning an Emmy for your work on Ames' HBO series "Bored to Death." You mentioned that this wasn't the career path you saw yourself having.

No. To do memoirs, semi-autobiographical, whatever you want to call it, was not my career path. Maybe I'm kind of good at it. Maybe that's why I get hired to do it. But when I wake up in the morning, it's not what I'm imagining doing. I'm not condemning it - I'm just saying it's surprising to me in a way

Why do you believe that this is the element of your work that's caught on?

It's almost like the industry is saying, "We like it when you do this Dean, don't do the other stuff," because they're not necessarily hiring me. I have to fight to get to do the stuff that's, honestly, more fun. It's hard to do memoir. There's a lot of conversation. A lot of talking heads. A lot of trying to make things capture the verisimilitude of reality and sometimes you want to just go off and not look at reference and not be a slave to what's outside our window or inside our room but instead what's inside my mind. That's the stuff that occupies my head, stuff that I'm making up. But the stuff you make up is always a response to what you're living through.

Sometimes you don't want to draw the torture of political prisoners, you want to draw The Thing punching people.

Yeah, because in a way, that's your reaction to the hard stuff in life. To create these heroes and villains that represent your fist and a wall.

That goes back to the superhero being this response to the thirties and forties and that period and those challenges.

Exactly. Why do you think Captain America is punching out Hitler? We need that expression, that sense of relief. Listen, life is hard. [Laughs] That's why we have our comic books and our movies and our TV shows. That's why, during times of war, war movies don't always do so well, because you want to escape that.

I'm curious, with that in mind, how "Cuba" will do. I believe if you read it you'll get your money's worth - enjoy it might not be the right word - but get a sense of something unique and compelling. At the same time, I can also understand someone saying, you know what, I'd rather just go read "X-Men." I don't know if the same audience will read "Cuba" and "X-Men." Who knows, these days. I can fully understand that picking this up is a real commitment to it, but it also tells a story of hope. It does end on hope.

And art is the key to the story and the source of that hope.

Art's the key to it all, isn't it?

What else are you in the midst of? You always seem to working on multiple projects at once.

I'm doing a ton of stuff. I'm wrapping up "Street Code," which will equal issue six of the digital download from Zuda. I'm wrapping that up and we'll see if there's any further "issues" as we see how this transition [to comiXology] goes. I obviously did work for "Bored to Death" Season 2, which launches September 26, so you'll see a bunch of my comics and whatnot on HBO.

I did a Woodgod story done in the vein of "Marvel 2-in-1" for "Strange Tales," which I believe is going to be in issue #3 coming out December. It's a four page epic. It's not been announced, but I'm going to be drawing the backup feature to "Spider-Girl" #1. I have a couple other irons in the fire at Marvel. Some superhero stuff I was whining about wanting to do.

Marvel characters are the toys that I grew up reading. That's the stuff that I loved. To be able to get the opportunity to add some of my sensibility to these characters is kind of a dream come true. I drew a four page Deadpool story for "Deadpool" #1000. I had never read Deadpool in my life, so it was a nice challenge for me, but I also had a lot of fun doing it and I realized, you know, contrasting doing real life stories to doing superhero is a good balance. For at least my head and my art.

I'm going to be writing a prose novel online at a new place, undiepress.com, which is kind of a literary act-i-vate, organized and created by author Tim Hall. That's going to start September 15th. The story is called "Post Disaster Adventure Chronicles" and it's about the day money stopped. I've got pitches out there all over the places. My trajectory is to write and draw the next substantial comic that I do. I love collaboration, but I also feel like I'm at a place where I've honed my story chops and I'm hoping to do more of that stuff that I draw.

Dean Haspiel will be doing a signing at Midtown Comics today, September 15th. For more information go to midtowncomics.com or the CBR Event Calendar.

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