Haspiel's "The Red Hook" Creates Its Own Superhero Ecosystem in Brooklyn

After a career that includes an Emmy Award for the opening titles to HBO's "Bored to Death," co-writing and illustrating "The Fox" for Archie's Dark Circle imprint and working on everything from "Batman '66" to "Fantastic Four" and original creations like Billy Dogma, Dean Haspiel has certainly established himself as prolific. He's also been at the forefront of digital comics, founding the act-i-vate webcomics collective and serving as a mentor to a number of creators over the years. Despite his vast resume, his new project appears to be his most ambitious to date.

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"The Red Hook" is a weekly scroll comic appearing on LINE webtoon that tells the story of a super thief and his girlfriend -- also a thief -- stealing art, dealing with gangsters like Benson Hurst and coming to terms with how Brooklyn has changed. It's also a fast-paced action-adventure story that doesn't skimp on fun and stands apart from today's superhero landscape, considering the main character's reluctant transformation into a hero.

CBR News: "The Red Hook" is a story about thieves, but it's a lot more than that. How would you describe it to someone who wants to check it out?

Dean Haspiel: It's about a super thief that becomes a super hero -- against his will. He's a bad guy, but he's not an evil guy. He's a thief who was only thinking about himself. Basically if he doesn't save people, he will die. He's a little pissed at that. It's not "Breaking Bad," it's "Breaking Good," however corny that sounds.

Where did The Red Hook originally come from? People might remember that you drew a short comic about The Red Hook a few years ago.

I challenged myself by thinking, what if Jack Kirby and Alex Toth got together and gave birth to a new character? Alex Toth impacted me in the '80s with two issues he did of "The Fox," a backup feature in "The Black Hood." I never forgot that. I liked the pulpy nature of it. I liked that it was about a superhero that had no super powers. From Jack Kirby I was going to add some cosmic infusion into that idea. I came up with this character called The Red Hook which was kind of a cross between The Fox, Daredevil and Wildcat.

I did that short story and I put it on the shelf. Vito Delsante alerted me to the fact that Archie/Red Circle were bringing back their superheroes. He had written a Black Hood story and I said, "I've got to do the Fox." I wooed the editor Paul Kaminsky, who's now working at DC Comics. I showed him my Red Hook story and he said, "Pitch me a six-page Fox story." I pitched him the idea and drew it and then he came back to me and said, now pitch me a five-issue miniseries. I'd been trying to not just be an artist in comics. I like to collaborate. I think it's important. I think you learn a lot from collaborations. As an artist you are an author because in comics, image is text. But I knew that what would help sell the book is if I worked with a writer and so I asked Mark Waid. I came up with the story and I would draw it and then he would write the dialogue on top of it. It worked so well that we did another five issues for Dark Circle which was changing its slant in terms of the kinds of superhero comics it wanted to do.

The Red Hook is a thief, and I'm hesitant to call the book light-hearted, but there is a sense of fun to the comic and its take on the genre. What inspired that?

I wanted to give him the attitude of a Burt Reynolds, Charles Bronson and Buster Keaton. I don't know why, but that was my basic characterization of The Red Hook. Like I said, I drew this thing and did other work for a few years, but in the back of my mind I had been thinking about what to do with The Red Hook. Back then my studio mate Seth Kushner -- when he was still alive -- came up with a character called The Brooklynite. Seth found an artist, Shamus Beyale, who is drawing it and also expanding the story. He's running it by Seth's wife and me to make sure it's honoring what Seth's vision was, but expanding it and bringing it into the New Brooklyn universe. He sent me the first chapter yesterday and it's amazing. It'll knock everyone out.

I started thinking about Seth's comic and I started thinking about another character that I had co-created with Vito Delsante called The Purple Heart. I thought, "What's going to be the link between the three comics? What is it that I want to say not just about the Red Hook character, but about Brooklyn?"

From the beginning, were you thinking about how Brooklyn would be more than just a setting, but also a character?

A couple years ago, one day on the Brooklyn Bridge, the American flags were replaced with white flags. It freaked a lot of people out. It was a couple of German artists who were pulling some prank. I don't know what it was exactly about, but that week I thought, oh shit, Brooklyn gave up. It started making me think, why would Brooklyn give up and what does that mean? Of course I'm injecting it with my own ideas. It's because technology has gone off the rails. People are ruder to each other than ever before. It's where you publish a picture of your lunch and that makes you a superstar. I thought about Manhattan quarantined like in "Escape From New York" where it becomes a prison and then I thought, what if Brooklyn physically literally seceded? What if it became its own country? What would that look like?

Could Brooklyn sustain itself? Does it have farms? There are so many struggling artists here, so what if you started bartering art for food or services? It's a romantic notion, and I'm not going to figure out how it would really work, but it let me play with the idea that there's a New Brooklyn. I was talking with Seth about that and then I roped in Vito. We developed The Purple Heart to be Brooklyn's Silver Surfer, in a way. If Brooklyn pulled itself away, is it alive and what happened? Its heart got broken. Why did its heart get broken? Well, we're not answering that right now. Its heart got broken and it decided, I'm not a part of this anymore, we're our own thing. What it does creates its own ecosystem of superheroes and super villains.

This feels like something a little different for you, the next stage of your career.

I feel like I've never been ready for prime time. I don't know what that means anymore in a DIY world, but there used to be a line that was drawn way back in the day because we didn't have a lot of channels. Working at Archie and Dark Circle, there was writing on the wall that "The Fox" probably wouldn't move forward and that's when I put a lot of my eggs into the Red Hook basket. Simply put, I wanted more autonomy. With the passing of Seth and knowing that he'll never be able to see the Brooklynite, that's sad. I get to see my character come alive and see people react to it -- for better or for worse. I'm trying to do a comic book that I really care about and that really means something to me.

True, but from the outside, I look at a lot of the collaborations you were doing for years, and recently you seem to be moving towards more control and autonomy.

I've always basically curated my own career because no one was knocking on my door. Thankfully after you do a lot, people start knocking on your door because they know you can deliver. This is what act-i-vate was about. You disappear for a year when you're doing a graphic novel and nobody's knows what you're doing so then I was working on a webcomic once a week.

The focus for the past few years of my career has been more autonomy, and to hopefully get to full autonomy. I don't mean that in a diva sense -- I actively write/draw/develop all kinds of stuff that you've never seen because I'm an artist -- that's what I do. I've written feature-length screenplays. I've developed a pilot for a TV show that's being looked at right now. I've written a novel. I am a storyteller. I can work in a bunch of mediums, as long as I yield to their virtues. Movies and TV and comics all use pictures to tell a story. I have stories to tell. Not to diminish really good artists that draw stories, but I don't just draw other people's stories.

We're friendly, so I know that last year you found that this building your studio is in is being sold. This is something a lot of people in New York and elsewhere can relate to, being priced out and having to move. Did that play a role in your thinking about New Brooklyn?

Absolutely. Even when I'm not fully conscious [of it], whatever is happening in my life finds its way into my comics. Part of the romantic notion of a New Brooklyn is that it honors its artists at a time when New York City is not honoring its artists. It's honoring banks and CVS stores. I used to be really concerned, does New York City care about when all the artists move out because they can't afford to be here? New York City doesn't care. Maybe that's another reason I made Brooklyn sentient, because I get to inject a certain sensibility into a place that I care about. At the end of the day, developers or landlords just want money. Once in a while, you'll find an altruistic landlord who's willing to give space to a certain type of thing, and that's beautiful. My landlord has tried to champion artists, which is why he made this building an artist studio, but at the same time you have to take a bold look at your own career sometimes. If you're not making any money after many years, then maybe your career is a hobby. I hate to say it that way, but you do have to look at your own life sometimes and go what am I doing and can I continue doing this? You can't stop doing what you love, but you do have to figure out a way to live.

There are a lot of people who wish they could make art and decided not to so they could have a family or live a more normal lifestyle, whatever that is. To be an artist is sacrificial. There is no guarantee that anything you do will succeed, or even communicate to a stranger. What's that old adage about how there's only seven plots? The idea is that stories don't really change because it's about how you say it. I'm telling a superhero origin, do we necessarily need another superhero? No, but I'm telling the story a certain way and hopefully I can inject certain aspects about Brooklyn, about my life, about what I think heroes are, what villains are, why do we wake up in morning.

Looking at the pages and looking at the scroll comic, how did you work? Because it looks like you drew the page and then figured out how to convert it to scroll.

It took me a little while to figure it out. It's going to be a scroll where you just literally use one finger gesture to scroll down. What that means is that thin, long panels look great, but a splash page looks like a little panel. I'm still a fan of print and books and holding something in your hand and turning pages, so I knew that I was going to be boneheaded and draw this as a traditional comic book. But I had to be aware that I can't use insets, I can't have floating panels, I can't have two-page spreads. As I was designing the chapters visually, I took all that into consideration, but I was making two comics at the same time. I was creating the print version for a later date, but I had the honor the scroll method which is how it would be seen first. I'm still trying to navigate around how that works. It's two different reading experiences.

One aspect of the comic I love, and which really stands out, is the fact that it is fun and a little goofy.

I'm trying to deliver or celebrate a certain kind of vision that I've arrived at. For better or worse, this is where I'm at and I hope you are entertained by it. The most important thing is to be entertained by it, and if you can walk away having felt something, I'm trying to throw that in there as well. It's not just surface. I don't think we have enough romance in our comics, so I'm throwing some of that in that. There are some sacrifices. There are surprises.

Hopefully, by the time you get to the latter chapters of the story, you'll want to know those things. Right now, here's this character and here's what happened to Brooklyn. He's a thief and he's got a girlfriend who's a thief and they're dealing with some stuff and as they're coming to terms with New Brooklyn, maybe you can too in your head.

This feels more ambitious in a way, beyond just coordinating other people and other comics.

It is, and weirdly enough, I am less scared of it because maybe I'm a professional now? Maybe I know how to do some of this. I don't have anxiety about the debut at all. If I have any reservations, it's that I hope people will read a free webcomic online. I don't know how the mind works when you give them something free. I feel like people will say, "I'll get to that," versus, "I just paid for it, so I better watch it right now." This is something I've been developing for a while and adding to. If something happens to me today when I'm working on chapter 15, maybe that will find its way into chapter 15. I leave that kind of wiggle room open to this concept and then have fun with it.

We live in an ADD culture right now where everyone's attention span is being distracted and you have to deliver things quicker. I remember picking up "Marvel Two-in-One" and you'd get a full epic story in a comic book for forty cents or whatever. Then manga came in and they expanded that story into six issues and Marvel and DC adopted that kind of pacing. Now we're back to a culture of, tell me everything in 140 characters right now. I'm employing that sensibility in "The Red Hook."

I'm thinking about the sense of motion. It's fun. It's silly. It's intended to be goofy in a lot of ways but have serious consequences. I throw out the idea of New Brooklyn early on and then go away from it for a little while but I come back to it at the very end. "The Brooklynite" and "The Purple Heart" expand on those ideas. Especially in "The Purple Heart," because that's New Brooklyn's avatar and the person who speaks for Brooklyn. It's more in the background of The Red Hook because it's just not a concern for him. He's almost taking advantage of New Brooklyn and then he's struggling with these newfound powers. It's a roller coaster ride, and he doesn't get to catch his breath.

"The Red Hook" has launched and it will run for 26 straight weeks?

Twenty-six weeks in a row. It ends around New York Comic Con. Hopefully by summer I'll know if there's a Season 2 based on the metrics. I do have two stories developed, and regardless of whether or not they're done in webtoon, I still want to tackle those. I also have written a graphic novel-sized Billy Dogma story. Meanwhile I'm trying to write screenplays and novels and other stuff. And maybe "The Red Hook" comic will save Brooklyn. [Laughs]

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