NYCC: Spotlight on Dean Haspiel

Christopher Irving, writer/editor at Graphic NYC, moderated the "Spotlight on Dean Haspiel" panel on mid-afternoon Saturday at New York Comic Con. He explained to the expectant audience of fans that the forthcoming biography, "Graphic NYC Presents: Dean Haspiel, the Early Years" would provide the framework to the panel, including a diverse range of guests to recount stories of Haspiel's past. Rather than a simple retrospective talk, it became more like a roast of Haspiel, or as Walt Simonson would later say, "The unofficial title of this panel is "Dean Haspiel: TMI", which would make more sense as the panel continued.

Haspiel, the creator of comics including "Billy Dogma," the upcoming "Street Code" from DC Digital and a regular collaborator of the late Harvey Pekar on "American Splendor" was joined by a number of friends at his panel. These included: author and "Bored to Death" creator Jonathan Ames, DC editor Joan Hilty, legendary comic creator Walter Simonson, cartoonist Mike Cavallaro and Mike Hueston, an attorney and childhood friend and collaborator.

Irving began his presentation with a photo of a very young Dean Haspiel. In the early '80s, when Haspiel was around ten years old, he and his childhood friends made up their own comic book company which they called "Paradox Productions."

Haspiel reminisced, "In high school I would go down to Upstart Studios." These were the studios where luminaries like Walter Simonson, Howard Chaykin, Jim Starlin, Bill Sienkiewicz, Denys Cowan and Michael Davis all worked. Haspiel's friend Mike Hueston added, "Dean's specialty is that he would appropriate other people's ideas and make them better... My favorite one he created was 'Ingywomba!' What was his power?" he mischievously asked. Haspiel described it as "a six inch night crawler" as the two old friends chuckled at the idea. "We were all making up team books, but I never could," said Haspiel, who could never make it work for him.

When his friend, Josh Neufeld, went away to college, Hapspiel found his first opportunity to work on a truly collaborative comic book. Haspiel and Neufeld took their main solo characters and used them to write a story in letters back and forth to each other.

"Me and Larry O'Neil would come to [Simonson's studio] six days a week and draw," said Haspiel. When they initially began writing regular letters to each other, Neufeld sent them back at some point, with red pen correcting Haspiel's spelling and grammatical mistakes. Rather than continuing this frustrating letter writing process, they instead began to draw a story of battling super beings, taking turns beating up each other's characters. The story would progress each week as they each wrote an alternating chapter. Haspiel described it as "a cross-country exquisite corpse."

Then it was Walter Simonson's turn to tell a story from Haspiel's childhood. As he described it, Dean Haspiel and Larry O'Neil each worked on a drawing board in the studio, facing the wall. Haspiel was a huge fan of "Prince" at the time, but since it wasn't his studio (or as Simonson put it, they were "all a bunch of old guys") they liked to play things like Van Morrison, but Haspiel always had a vinyl single of Prince's "Little Red Corvette" with him. "All right, we'll let him play it." said Simonson. He played it often enough that it became something of an issue.

"So finally, I couldn't take it anymore. I went in one day, and Dean put the [Prince] single on. In the middle of the record I picked it up off the turntable..." At this point the projector showed a drawing of Simonson crushing the record [the illustration appeared in Haspiel's "Opposable Thumbs" collection]. Simonson clarified, "I wasn't actually able to break the record... but I was able to fold it. I'm screaming and yelling at Dean to turn around. Dean was drawing against the wall, with his back to me."

"He got very David Mamet with me," Haspiel added. "I'd never seen anyone so angry."

"I was channeling my inner Howard Chaykin," Simonson joked. "So just as he can't take it anymore, I pulled the 12" [of "Little Red Corvette"] out of my bag and handed it to him. If we hadn't thought the world of Dean at the time, it wouldn't have been worth making fun of him." Haspiel added that it was at this moment that he knew he had made it.

Some time later, Haspiel's first published work, "Billy Dogma," appeared in "The NY Hangover," an East Village newspaper. "Sin City had happened. I was responding to the fact that I had declared that at twelve I wanted to pencil the 'Fantastic Four,'" Haspiel explained. "I stumbled across 'American Splendor', but also 'Yummy Fur,' and I realized that comics could be about anything. I was encouraged by some of my favorite artists to create an avatar for myself." It was this line of thought led to the creation of "Billy Dogma."

In 2006 Haspiel created "Immortal" for publication online at Acti-i-vate. When Act-i-vate came along, Haspiel saw it as a true free comic book collective, a place to publish our "'DNA comics', the stuff that we do without permission, with no editorial and no oversight."

"I hadn't done a "Billy Dogma" story in a while and I think Chris Staros was hesitant about it because it contained a serial killer - Ed Gein. I wrote the whole thing and then realized that something was wrong with it..." said Haspiel, the audience laughing at his understatement. "I put it to the side to think about it and once I did that, I got some work at Marvel and DC, and was able to work full-time on comics... So three or four years went by when I wasn't working on my own stuff."

The DC work led him to editor Joan Hilty. "I was at Vertigo and they asked me to handle the kids' books. Heidi [MacDonald] was running me through everyone I was going to work with," said Hilty. "She had this 'Johnny Bravo' job lined up with Dean and said, 'What you need to know is that Dean is Johnny.'"

As the audience roared, Haspiel protested, "C'mon, I'm not really like that."

"What I realized, working on 'Billy Dogma,' was I could create my own ideas, or I could create my own stories out of continuity. I realized I wanted to write AND draw," Haspiel continued on the subject of creator-owned characters. "[When you do this, you are creating a sensibility of sorts. Before facebook, before twitter, I wanted to create a hub, where once a week you create something for free. You give away the free web comics so when you sell them, maybe you've created a fan."

Mike Cavallaro continued by explaining the root of the 4"x5" one-panel comics they began to create at this time. "I'm not sure that I started it. I was reading Milton Caniff's 'Terry and the Pirates' and a couple of things hit me in regards to what we had been doing on Act-i-vate," said Cavallaro. "At first I always intended to move it to print, so it was portrait, but it really annoyed me to have to read three quarters of a page and then have to scroll for just that extra inch because monitors aren't shaped that way... Milton Caniff's series [collected by IDW] from the mid 1930s is a perfect web comic.

"Not only is it shaped like a monitor, but Caniff is able to remind you what happened last time, move the story forward and tease the next episode in a shorter time than most people are able to do in a comic book these days. It dictated the format from then on. 'Terry and the Pirates...' That landscape thing really works for web comics," said Cavallaro.

It was at this point in Haspiel's career Harvey Pekar played a pivotal role. His teenage rival Josh Neufeld was doing a lot of work with Pekar on 'American Splendor,' which irked Haspiel. "It was just a fact that I was the better artist, but he was getting work from people who wouldn't even blink at me... We decided to do a two man anthology called 'Keyhole', and in 'Keyhole' we drew a story called 'American Dilemma' about Harvey not responding to me," said Haspiel. "It got published, I mailed it to Harvey... Nothing. And I'm like, 'The guy hates me.'"

"About two years go by, and a guy who says he's Pekar calls me up to offer me a two page gig and I didn't believe him. We went back and forth, but I knew that this guy was lying to me. He got really mad, told me to fuck off, and eventually he hung up on me. I thought, 'Wait, that's not really funny, that's not a prank, that got real.' I called up Josh and told him the story and he said 'That was Harvey.' I got [Pekar's] number and called him back and he said, 'What do I have to do to convince you that I'm really me?' and I said, 'Would you let me draw that story?' and he did. That's the beginning of our relationship," continued Haspiel.

"I only did four or five short stories on his Dark Horse series of 'American Splendor' when I was working with producer Ted Hope and it occurred to me that Harvey would make a good movie," said Haspiel of the genesis for the 2003 film, "American Splendor." "Harvey didn't really believe in good fortune. He never really believed it was going to fly. But a year and a half later there was a movie which won a Sundance Award. As a kind of thank you to me, he asked what we could do. Long story short, we were able to sell 'The Quitter' to Vertigo."

Haspiel described working with Pekar, since his layouts were generally just two stick figures talking, occasionally at a table or sitting on chairs: "Some of the success of a Pekar script was the artist. The challenge was to try and draw the other stuff that he wasn't showing. I'd never even look at the stick figures because it was always the same... Normally with a writer, there's panel description and some dialogue, but not with Harvey. I don't think Harvey really cared for the visual medium that much."

It was around this point in his career that Haspiel broke his nose. "I met Dean on my birthday, 33 years ago. I'm a lawyer, he's doing comics. I'm totally envious, whatever... I'm in Brooklyn, drinking whisky with Dean and we're really, really drunk. We're walking, it's snowing, we're cold, it's december. And then Dean sees that there's a fight," Mike Hueston began.

"There's like, ten guys beating each other up outside a bar, breaking the glass in, all this crazy stuff is happening. I always feel like this is my house, my block and this is my neighborhood, and I'm not going to let these things fly," added Haspiel.

"Dean was looking at the fight, and for some reason both warring parties stopped and noticed him," continued Hueston. He then went on to describe how they asked Dean "what the fuck are you looking at?" to which he simply replied, "A fight." They took this as a challenge, and told him, "Don't look at the fucking fight." Haspiel fired back, "I can look at the fight."

Hueston described how, at this point, they all stopped fighting and converged on Haspiel. Jonathan Ames joked that "they ought to send Dean to Israel." Things took a slight turn for the worse in the fight when one guy decided to take Haspiel's observation of his fight as a challenge and punched him in the face, directly in the nose.

"We got out of it using our brains. Dean just took it, his nose was on the side of his face, blood was everywhere, but he just stood there, said Hueston. "I took out my attorney ID and showed it to them. That gave us enough time for the police and the ambulance to arrive."

The photo of Haspiel, with his broken nose, appears in "The Quitter" and Hueston pointed out that ever since then, Haspiel often includes a character who has a bandage like that.

"Hey, I write what I know," Dean responded.

Jonathan Ames then took his turn at describing how he met Dean Haspiel after playing basketball in Carroll Street Park, sitting in a cafe alone. "A guy comes up to me and says 'I'm Dean Haspiel, I like your work, you should know my work,' said Ames. Haspiel then shook his hand and the two exchanged email addresses. "I think for a long time he courted me. He'd ask me to come out and I'd say no, 'cause I didn't know him and I was shy, but I'd thank him for thinking of me. Then there was a guy in the [Bob] Fingerman comics that was Dean, and that's how I got to know him."

"I was familiar with Jonathan's work from the 'New York Press.' So when I bumped into you, I had a lot of stories in my head and I was really excited to see you and find out that you were local," said Dean of his side of the story.

"I don't know if this is off-color, but Dean and I actually met six years before we met. I was dating a woman in Soho. We'd make love with the curtains open, because she liked the guy across the street to watch," said Ames. "That guy was Dean." As the audience howled with appalled laugther, Simonson interjected that the name of the panel was actually "Dean Haspiel: TMI."

Haspiel quickly added that it wasn't that outrageous, explaining, "This story is actually online [in 'Street Code.']. Actually she borrowed a pair of scissors from me and used to trim herself in the window," Haspiel elaborated, at which point the whole panel begged him to stop sharing.

"About 'The Alcoholic,'" Haspiel continued "I felt that Jonathan was one of our great modern writers, we had a lot of things in common. It was a great collaboration." The two would later collaborate again, this time on the animated title sequence for HBO's "Bored to Death" - which won an Emmy for Haspiel. Ames also based the character of Ray Hueston, played by Zach Galafinakis, on Haspiel.

"The character has a lot of authenticity. They're both artists and I kind of stole a few things from Dean's life," said Ames. "He had a very difficult relationship, so I had the character say to his girlfriend, 'You call this monogamy, I call this celibacy,' and she says to him, 'Those are big words for you, did you read them in one of your comic books?' and he says, 'No, I read them in my diary.' Dean's got this kind of articulate, sensitive whining. He's known for his bravado and taking his shirt off, but he's really a sensitive guy and that's why he works well with other people and that's why his art speaks to a lot of people."

Mike Cavallaro, Haspiel's studio mate at Brooklyn-based Deep 6 Studios elaborated on how he came to work with Haspiel. "One of the perks [of the Brooklyn comic scene] was that I met all these artists. Artists would congregate and say 'we're getting a studio together' and you feel safe saying 'I'll be part of a shared studio' knowing it will never happen, said Cavallaro. "But something happened one day, and we signed a lease in ten minutes and I was like 'Oh my God! What did I do?' We were thrown into this very small room together and what I like about Deep Six is that it's ours. It's really unique today to say 'I work in my town and I make something with my hands. We make something, in the town that [we] live in."

"I came over to work with him. It was hard, he was on the ledge, and I came over to just sit by the drawing table and just talk him down. It was hard, like breaking in a horse," Ames reminisced about visiting the studio while Dean was working on the titles for "Bored to Death." "He took all my comments and it was coming out good. We would show it to Mike [Cavallaro] and he would reassure us. It's a real collaborative effort. You're there to support each other."

Mike thanked Jonathan, adding, "Yes, we're always talking each other in off the ledge. Cartooning is very insular, you're working on your own thing and you get a lot of doubts, there's a lot of pressure. We support each other."

"That's all you need. The point is, anybody can make comics. You don't need much space," Haspiel explained about the studio. "At Deep Six, six of a share a space, and that's all you need - the vibe, the energy and support."

Haspiel's latest Vertigo project, "Cuba: My Revolution," was edited by Joan Hilty who described it to the audience. "The book is a collaboration between Dean and Inverna Lockpez, who was a young art and med student in Fidel's Cuba in the 1960s. She's an old friend of Dean's, who encouraged her to tell her story," Hilty explained. "It is fiction, but it is very close to her story. It is an extraordinary book, and one of the things that make it different is that it is an artistic departure for Dean. He's working entirely in pencils [with two-tone colors by Jose Villarubia], so every three or four weeks he'd call and say, 'This looks like crap, this is terrible, can I ink this? I want to ink this.' [He did this] again and again, but the end result looks extraordinary."

Hilty ended by complimenting Haspiel on his accomplishments, saying, "There are a lot of people in comics who are fantastic artists, there are a lot of people who are fantastic collaborators, there are fantastic, active problem solvers in that relationship. Dean is all three at a very high pitch."

With that, moderator Chris Irving closed the panel by thanking Haspiel and his friends for their lively participation and noted that "Dean Haspiel, the Early Years" will be out in November.

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