INTERVIEW: Dean Haspiel Shares His NYC Love in "Beef With Tomato"

There's something indelibly "New York City" about comic books. The form was invented in NYC, and for most of the medium's history, its major publishers and creators were all based in the city. And perhaps that's why Dean Haspiel seems so perfectly suited to this world. A born and bred New Yorker who bleeds comic book ink, Haspiel has collaborated with creative luminaries Harvey Pekar, Jonathan Ames, Mark Waid and Jonathan Lethem, and he's won an Emmy for his artwork in HBO's "Bored to Death."

In September, Haspiel returns to his comic book roots with a new autobiographical collection from Alternative Press titled "Beef With Tomato." In it, Haspiel shares his 9-11 experiences, chronicles the dangers of bicycling in New York, illustrates the never-ending hustle for freelance work, and delves into his complicated relationship foibles. Even the one great constant in his life, New York City itself, changes radically as the strips progress, with Haspiel relocating from Manhattan to Brooklyn as gentrification reinvents the neighborhoods of his youth.

CBR News: As you were assembling "Beef With Tomato," did an over-arching theme come through in these stories? Did that theme impact which stories were or were not included?

Dean Haspiel: When I surveyed the stories in "Beef With Tomato," I discovered that a lot of my comix were more about what happens when you step out of your comfort zone and mingle with strangers. Which is one of my favorite things to do. It's also about a New York that no longer exists for me, the struggles of trying to make ends meet as an artist in the most expensive city in the world, how neurotic I can get (for good reasons) and heartbreak. I left out a comic that was too sad a reminder to include. And, because we only had 96 pages, I excluded a lot of prose that I may collect into another book, later. I seem to be writing a lot more than drawing these days. I've written the first part of a novel which is speculative memoir about a modern American apocalypse and I have a bunch of screenplays collecting dust.

How far back do some of these stories go? Several of them pre-date September 11, 2001.

The chronology in "Beef With Tomato" loosely documents my escape from my native Manhattan to my adopted Brooklyn, roughly covering the time when I made the leap across the Hudson River in 1997 until I attended my second artists' residency as a writer at Yaddo in Saratoga Springs, NY, in 2013. However, the book only hints at my life, probably because career-wise I was making a concerted effort to abandon memoir after collaborating and illustrating a few profound yet highly satisfying semi-autobiographical graphic novels: Harvey Pekar's "The Quitter," Jonathan Ames' "The Alcoholic," and Inverna Lockpez' "Cuba: My Revolution." Plus, a bunch of "American Splendor" comix and a brief collaboration with author Jonathan Lethem.

I think I became allergic to making "slice-of-life" comix for a while and, instead, wanted to draw superheroes humping each other's legs and punching each other in the mouth while nosediving into the emotional truths of things like "the last romantic antihero" via my creator-owned character, Billy Dogma. But, after a long break, I'm happy to return to my semi-autobiograhical roots with the publication of "Beef With Tomato," coming out the same time as Seth Kushner's "Schmuck" and Jennifer Hayden's "The Story of My Tits."

Some stories -- like seeing a couple hooking up on a bench outside your window -- seem to fall into your lap, but do you ever go into a situation thinking it may make a noteworthy comic down the road?

There was a brief time when I was convinced that I was a bonafide freak magnet (which I would later use as a theme for my spin on Archie Comics' "The Fox"). Every time I went outside the confines of my apartment, something bizarre or tragic would happen. Every single time. It was weird. My late night evening's were often devoted to scribbling notes, recording what I witnessed or partook in. I was mortified. Jotting it down was a kind of coping mechanism.

There was a particularly ghoulish month in the early 1990s where people were dying around me. I remember walking down a street in Soho and hearing a loud crash but couldn't immediately identify where the noise came from or what it was. Suddenly, a hubcap came rolling down the block and hit me in the shin. I followed the path of the hubcap trail backwards only to find a car wrapped around a light post. Dead people twisted about in the metal carnage.

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There was another night where I was drunk, walking home in Alphabet City, when a car almost ran over me as I dove across the street within inches of being crushed. That night, a man jumped to his death from a rooftop and landed in the very spot I dodged death. Other crazy stuff happened, and it became the basis for a screenplay I wrote about a spectre of death called "Die! Die, Again!!" I've written four or five different screenplays since, and half of one was produced last year into a play called "Switch To Kill," wonderfully directed by Ian W. Hill. One of these days I aim to either illustrate my unproduced screenplays or publish them as a collection.

But, to answer your question, I often write down the poignant and/or extraordinary things that happen to me so that I have the latitude to potentially illustrate them later.

You've done fairly well as an illustrator, working for essentially every comics publisher, winning an Emmy Award for your art on HBO's "Bored to Death." You could probably make a fairly comfortable living just doing that, yet you still find time to turn your own adventures and observations into comics. Is it hard to find time for stories that are purely yours?

Thanks for the sincere cheer, but winning an Emmy didn't upgrade my stance in the comic book industry. It didn't get me more comix work or a better page rate. If anything, it sparked a fallacy among the ignorant that I was rich and carefree, which is not true. I'm proud of the acknowledgement, and the Emmy looks good on my resume, but I work just as hard as any other struggling freelancer trying to score fair work. With the exception of co-producing ten issues of "The Fox" in two years, I have never worked on a regular series. I have never drawn or written anything that made a significant impact on the cultural zeitgeist, much less shown up on the annual Top Ten list. I don't have anything that makes me money while I sleep.

I'm currently making efforts to own what I write and draw because I feel it's important to finally invest in my personal sensibilities. A paycheck is great and allows me to share a studio in Gowanus, Brooklyn, with other great artists, but most of the comic books I get involved in are just another blip in the perpetuating franchise machine. I believe in the concept of good and healthy publisher participation, and I cherish the opportunities to take a stab at certain characters I loved reading when I was a kid. I believe collaboration is an artform unto itself, and has been an important learning lesson for me. I have negotiated ideas and drawn things I would never have assigned myself. I have been challenged by every job I've ever taken. But, at the end of the day, I must invest in my own ideas or forever wonder, "What if?"

I recently said "No" to two high profile gigs because I wanted to honor a contract, even though I was basically told by the editor and publisher that it was okay to break the contract. In a way, I was being advised that my contract probably wouldn't be extended, but I elected to finish the job I set out to achieve because it was critical for me to honor the project. I care about most everything I do.

One constant in much of your work, especially your personal work, is the presence of New York as a character. Does that come from being a lifelong New Yorker? It seems almost unavoidable for some storytellers, that their surroundings are sometimes bigger than the characters themselves.

New York is what I know best and has been my world view all my life. I've claimed before that I don't really live in America because I live in New York, which could be a country unto itself. It's been a great "melting pot" of cultures but I don't know for how much longer, as pharmacies and condominiums and banks kidnap our streets and push away our artists. It's nearly impossible to make a living as freelancer here anymore, and I sometimes feel like it's time to raise the white flag. But my love of and loyalty to NYC is fierce and deep-rooted in my blood, no matter how abusive the relationship can get. I'm Stella to NYC's Stanley.

In addition to the comics tales, you included several very engaging and entertaining prose essays. Is there any rhyme or reason to why a tale is in one form or the other?

Many of my semi-autobio comix were originally test-driven as prose. I just converted certain essays into comix. A lot of the prose in "Beef With Tomato" were candidates for comix conversion, but my current aim is to showcase my prose writing style, Something I've kept hidden in plain site on my blog, a workspace I've used for a long time to express myself and experiment.

Many of your personal comics have been issued through small publishers like Alternative Press, though you have a working relationship with some larger publishers, such as Vertigo, where your comics might fit. It is just the creative freedom that keeps you with the small press?

Small press publishers tend to take more risks on memoir and the avante garde. They don't have 75-year old legacy characters and franchises to innovate and perpetuate monthly. And neither do I! Plus, the small press community more or less takes care of each other and encourages more experiments like the wordless comix my studio mate Gregory Benton produces, which is important to authors like me. In fact, me, Greg, Josh Neufeld and the late Seth Kushner launched an imprint called Hang Dai Editions in 2013, a publishing concern to produce our signature works.

How is your work on Archie Comics' "The Fox" coming along?v

I just got back from a month long retreat at Yaddo where I spent my first week there drawing the last five pages of "Fox Hunt." I'm proud of what I did and I hope I get the chance to write and draw more Fox stories. I handed in another 5-issue pitch to Dark Circle awhile ago. Fingers crossed they want me to do more because I adore those characters.

Working in comics for as long as you have, I imagine you're equally comfortable illustrating for another writer vs. working on your own comics, but have you found distinct advantages and disadvantages to collaboration in comparison to working solo? If you had to pick either or, could you?

I've started down a precarious road of autonomy that I wasn't confident travelling until recently. I almost prefer to collaborate because it lifts certain burdens while manifesting creations that couldn't otherwise exist. A good comix team is like a good band. But I'm also a one-stop shop and I like to mix up my collaborations with solo stints. A way to riff. Kinda like Jack Kirby doing "New Gods," "Kamandi," and "O.M.A.C." after quitting "The Fantastic Four" and "Thor." Or Frank Miller rocking "Ronin," "Sin City," and "300" post "Daredevil" and "Batman." "Reach for the brass ring, Dean!"

You've been very active in promoting and establishing online comics. Can you update us on the status of ACT-I-VATE and Trip City and your role in each?

Six years after I launched ACT-I-VATE, I handed the reins to Simon Fraser, who is the current steward of the webcomics collective. It became too unwieldy for me, and frankly, I was working more to help cartoonists help themselves than I was doing for myself. Trip City was a great place for me to flex different storytelling muscles in different mediums under one umbrella among a fellowship of fine content makers and curators who shared a similar mission to showcase the stuff we cared about, sans click-baits and advertisements. Alas, working for free took its toll and Trip City became unsustainable during the dawn of an A.D.D. culture. A recent discussion with Trip City co-founder Chris Miskiewicz (writer of hit BOOM! series "Thomas Alsop") made us rethink how to potentially resurrect Trip City in a way that educates and monetizes while being entertaining.

What's next in the pipeline for you?

While on recent retreat at Yaddo, I managed to write a graphic novel featuring a character I created the first time I was at Yaddo in 2011 called The Red Hook. It's a comix opera-of-sorts. An experiment of what would happen if Jack Kirby and Alex Toth knocked brain-waves and gave birth to a new Brooklyn superhero. It's part of an intended universe I've been developing with several other creators. I'm also drawing a Sunday-sized Billy Dogma comic for Marc Goldner's The Sunday Comics Kickstarter project, and I'm currently waiting for a "Batman '66" script to draw from writer extraordinaire Jeff Parker, featuring a semi-homage to my godmother Shelly Winters.

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