Barrelhouse lucked into our cover this time around, when our good friend and amazing writer/poet Sandra Beasley introduced us to comic artist Dean Haspiel and the rest of the talented crew at Trip City. Dean is the creator of Billy Dogma, and balances high profile comic gigs (collaborating with Harvey Pekar, contributing to the Amazing Spider Man, winning a freakin’ Emmy) with his work curating, writing, and drawing poignant and bombastic stuff at Trip City.
Thanks to Sandra and Dean for this fascinating conversation about comics, life, art, and everything in between!
What is your earliest memory of drawing a signature character or creating a comic? Who was your first teacher/mentor in the art world?
I remember drawing clowns when I was young. But, clowns terrified me (and still do to this day), even though I had a clown for a “teddy bear.” Which, may be why I’m so fascinated with horror movies and the psychology of terror. I also liked to draw armies at war. I used to have those little green plastic army men and G.I. Joe , Action Jackson, and Planet of the Apes dolls. My brother Mike and I would war with our action figures. I remember drawing armies and tanks and battleships and giant squids and sharks in combat. My very first creation of superheroes was a team called “The Revengers.” I don’t remember any of the individual character names or what they did and looked like. I’m sure the first franchise “signature” characters I drew were crude versions of my favorite comic book characters that I would pick up every week at the local newsstand and read. Superheroes like Spider-man, The Fantastic Four, Iron Man, Hulk, Thor, Captain America, and Shazam!
The first solo character I remember consciously creating and world building was a mysterious hero-for-hire named “The Mercenary.” Not a very original name but he was dressed all in black except for white boots and gloves, a white mohawk, and he carried an electric broad sword. He also wore a white skirt like a knight. Kinda like a black ops version of Jack Kirby’s OMAC [One Man Army Corp]. Then I created an Aquaman-type character named “Vapor,” who’s costume resembled Green Lantern. I also created a 6-inch tall, ninja-like imp named “Night Stalker” (a wink to the TV show “Kolchak” starring Darren McGavin?) who had a power-staff and could teleport like Nightcrawler from The X-men. I used to draw my friend Eric Waldman’s character “Quasar,” who looked like a cross-between Wolverine and Colossus from The X-men but with Iron Man powers on a cosmic level. I also drew Eric’s “Rogue Star,” a team of space adventurers but I quit after he drew mustaches all over the faces of the character’s on my original art. We had a knock down drag out fight in the school lunch room and were suspended from school for 3-days.
The first character I co-created and sold for publication was The Verdict, with writer Martin Powell; a pulpy cross-between Batman and Boba Fett (my favorite character from Star Wars). Later on, I would create new character’s like Tommy Rocket, Billy Dogma & Jane Legit, A-Okay Cool, and, recently, The Red Hook.
As for who was my first teacher and mentor in the art world? My first grade teacher, Ms. Friend, once advised my parents that I not take private art lessons when they identified I had a knack for drawing. Ms. Friend felt I would just learn to copy what the artist showed me and, instead, I should learn to draw raw. Curiously, I’ve rejected art classes throughout my life and I’m sure it was Ms. Friend who instilled that in me. In my senior year of high school, I assisted some of my favorite comic book creators, Bill Sienkiewicz, Howard Chaykin, and Walter Simonson (in studios shared by Jim Sherman, Denys Cowan, and Michael Davis + others) who taught me more about picture making and visual storytelling than anything I ever learned in traditional art class.
“The Last Romantic Antihero” is a sophisticated post-apocalyptic story that garnered a lot of attention when published late last year, including review on the LA Times’ “Hero Complex” blog. Can you point to a few of the visual elements–use of color, line, positioning of dialogue–and help us understand your inspirations? [In other words, annotate a panel or two; I know there's love for Jack Kirby evident, but I don't know how to articulate it.]
My inspirations for “The Last Romantic Antihero” were equal measures Sergio Leone “spaghetti western” vistas coupled with Pompeii and Brooklyn, NY. The torrid Marlon Brando love affair and noir of Elia Kazan’s “On The Waterfront.” The twisty timetables of “The Planet of the Apes” and Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone. The anything goes imagination of Jack Kirby’s OMAC [One Man Army Corp]. And, the raw feelings from the first time I fell in love with a girl in junior high school and the crippling heartbreak from the one that got away, sung to the tune of Throbbing Gristle’s “Almost A Kiss.”
“The Last Romantic Antihero” features two love titans named Billy Dogma and Jane Legit, and boasts a color schema to denote the landmarks of their history as a beacon of new resolve commissioned from the future collapses time and space to reboot their post-apocalyptic romance. Like a cosmic dead sea scroll coupled with scorched earth hieroglyphics, I digitally enhanced my pencil art to express a brute naivete that recommends the imperfection of true love.
Each installment of Billy Dogma and Jane Legit engages what we know of them from before, but it doesn’t feel like a strictly chronological sequence. Do you see them as characters with backstories and ongoing lives, or as archetypes that you invoke to examine different aspects of love and sacrifice? What sparks writing a new episode in the Billy Dogma series?
Good question. When I created Billy Dogma in 1995, it was a mere gag strip for The NY Hangover, an alternative east village newspaper co-edited by author, Tim Hall. See, in the late 1980s’ I had fun doing a strip called Tommy Rocket for my college newspaper at SUNY Purchase, and I wanted to try my hand at something new. Billy Dogma quickly transitioned from gag strip into short comic book stories in Keyhole, a two-man anthology I co-created with high school pal/cartoonist, Josh Neufeld. I also published three issues of a Billy Dogma comic book. Both series were published by Modern Comics, an imprint of Millennium Publications. When Modern went under, I published a Billy Dogma collection called Daydream Lullabies, and then two one-shots called Boy In My Pocket and Aim To Dazzle, with Top Shelf and Alternative Comics. And, then I scored some freelance gigs with Marvel and DC Comics and put Billy Dogma on hiatus until 2006 when I launched a webcomics collective called ACT-I-VATE, where I revamped Billy Dogma for the digital age. At ACT-I-VATE, I drew “Immortal,” and “Fear My Dear,” two parts of a proposed Billy Dogma trilogy with the third part, “As Big As Earth,” written but yet to be drawn. Meanwhile, I came to a fork in the road and concocted a third wave of Billy Dogma stories; “Sex Planet,” “Bring Me The Heart Of Billy Dogma,” and, recently, “The Last Romantic Antihero,” which can be seen and read at TripCity.net. Most of the pre-ACT-I-VATE Billy Dogma comix were collected in Dean Haspiel: The Early Years, by me and Chris Irving, and published by Desperado/IDW.
Billy Dogma and Jane Legit are my avatars to comment on love, loyalty, and life. They are very clear in my head. I just have to plop them into the right conflict and they tell me what to write. I have chronicled a constellation of stories but I recently hit the reset button as a kind of post-apocalyptic caveat so I don’t have to necessarily adhere to anything I’ve written before. It keeps my characters fresh and emotionally true to who I am.
You’ve interpreted your comic “The Angel” through Seth Kushner’s CulturePOP photography series and as a motion comic. How did your understanding of the material change as you moved it across mediums? How does hybridizing traditional comics with animation and other multimedia elements enhance (or stunt) the form?
Iteration is tradition and a national past time. Kinda like when you play air guitar to your favorite songs or act out your favorite scenes from a play or TV show. You’re inserting yourself into something that preexists while putting a unique spin on it. Some hybrids work better than others. Sanctioned remixes of my original comic “The Angel,” by Seth Kushner in his CulturePOP Photocomix series and, later on, Daniel Kramer’s motion comic with original music by Moby, were experimental and a way for me to see if my little story could transcend mediums well.
“Dub” was an invention made popular by Reggae music in the 1960s where deejays and singers would take a popular song and copy, manipulate, and make their version. Movies adapt books all the time and some are better than others (I loved David Fincher’s version of Chuck Palahniuk’s “Fight Club”) while corporations try to milk their franchises from every cross-medium opportunity made available (a promotional Harvey Pekar bobble head was produced when the great American Splendor movie came out, based on the now legendary comic book series). As long as you’re aware of or have access to the source material, I think remixes can be quite interesting and successful and bring new eyes to stories that are already cool and have the legs to be interpreted and added to. I feel the same way about franchises like The Fantastic Four or James Bond. Even though the new stories are lore, they’re basically remixes and extensions of the original mythology.
In addition to your own work, you’ve contributed both stories and art to iconic series such as Amazing Spider-man, Godzilla: Legends, even this year’s holiday issue of Mars Attacks. What attracts you to these projects? Any favorite stories of how you got a gig, or how you balance between your vision and that of a supervising brand/company?
Given the opportunity I enjoy the challenge of adding my sensibility to icons. Jobs like those allows me to artistically react and expand my ability to get inside another head space. It’s sometimes really hard to do and I always learn from playing with other people’s toys. Hardly anyone is going to advise me on a characterization on something I created. But, when you write characters that have been around for 60-75 years and have a diehard fanbase, you better know what you’re doing before you start breaking them or you’re going to be shown the door. I guess it comes down to thesis. When you understand and respect the core tenets of a classic concept, only then can you throw a curve ball. And, the more you create, the better you discover your trends and get to the root of writing something that means something. Comic book writers like Mark Waid and Warren Ellis are great examples of people who play with other people’s toys well while firmly adding their footprint to the mix.
There are a lot of naive lovers of comics (myself included) who appreciate the end result but don’t fully understand the division of labor between writers, artists, inkers, colorists, and letterers, not to mention publishers. What is one thing you wish more lay-readers knew about the process of putting a comic into the world today?
For a long time, franchise comics were produced via assembly line: writer, penciler, letterer, inker, colorist, and production assist. An editor glued it all together and kept the books shipping to the newsstands on time and the publisher paid the talent, staff, printers and distributors while keeping their finger on the cultural pulse. This was the fastest way to produce a monthly comic book before print started to wither and digital came into fruition. These days, inkers are competing with technology and losing their jobs because you can digitally draw and/or finesse the original line art to be faithfully reproduced sans the aid of ink, unless the project stylistically requires a certain brush and/or pen and ink line. Also, these days, digital lettering gives the writer and/or editor the latitude to make last minute script revisions. What bothers me is the fact that comic book writers tend to get more credit than the artists when, truth be told, the writer and artist are co-authors of any and all stories they originate together. Comic books are a visual medium where image is text, too, and I feel that artists should get equal billing. After all, an image is worth a thousand words.
What are your latest and/or upcoming projects?
Besides curating and creating free content for TripCity.net, I’m currently drawing a CREEPY story for Dark Horse Comics written by Josh Simmons. I recently drew a post-coital pin-up for Bob Fingerman’s upcoming MAXIMUM MINIMUM WAGE, and an exclusive cover for FIONNA & CAKE #1 (an Adventure Time comic published by Boom! in conjunction with Marc Nathan’s Comics, Cards and Collectibles). I also wrote & drew a new story for THE MARIJUANA CHRONICLES, edited by Jonathan Santlofer, published by Akashic Books, and I’m working on various other projects, including an unannounced original graphic novel with Douglas Rushkoff and, possibly, a Kickstarter project.
If you could go back and meet your 18-year-old self, what advice would you give in terms of pursuing your art?
If my 45 year old self to talk to my 18 year old self I’d say: “Dean, you never got to become the regular, monthly penciler of your favorite comic book series, THE FANTASTIC FOUR or SHAZAM!, because, a few years later, you discovered Chester Brown’s YUMMY FUR and Harvey Pekar’s AMERICAN SPLENDOR, which is okay because those comic books proved that you could create your own heroes, villains, and monsters, and you could even write and draw about your own life. In fact, you collaborated with Harvey Pekar many times and it put you on the map. You still got to draw some superheroes but your love of C.C. Beck and Jack Kirby and the “Silver Age” of Marvel Comics dated your style even though you made hay in memoir, alternative comics, and webcomics. In fact, you became too independent for the mainstream and too mainstream for the independent. Isn’t that something? Your desires to become a working cartoonist was a tough one to manifest and you will experience the ebb and flow and ups and downs of being a freelance artist but you’ll earn every dime you make and that will push you to develop and curate content that is near and dear to your heart. Your proclivities towards community-driven projects will sometimes bite you in the ass but that’s because you’re biggest blind spot is your ability to forgive most people for their repeated indiscretions towards you. You take the hits because you don’t like to hit back. Remember that it’s still okay to encourage rookies into becoming veterans despite the fact that you work in an industry that boasts too much pride and too little professionalism. You’ll give up the tenets of a normal lifestyle; one that consists of three square meals per day, a family, exercise, health insurance, vacations, financial and emotional security, and sound sleep for a life of small, albeit precious, rewards and lots of anxiety. However, like most normal people, you will enjoy great heart-ache and pain but the good news is you will meet an angel. If I could ask you to change one thing, Dean, it would be to slow down and spend a little more time with the ones you love and know that staring at the sea or a mountain or a tree or a sunset is as important as anything you can experience and impart artistically. Besides, there’s no where to go to when you’re already there.”