Spotlight Interview with Dean Haspiel

One of the earlier interviews that we had in this series on Pop Culture Squad was with cartoonist and auteur Dean Haspiel. He was talking last year about his collected edition of The Red Hook for Image Comics. This year his second volume in that universe, War Cry, is about to hit stores October 9th.

War Cry is the continuing adventures of Sam Brosia and the characters created in The Red Hook. We have seen the story on Line Webtoon, but we have also seen a preview of the collected print edition, and it is fabulous.

We were able to have a conversation with Dean, and, as usual, it went far afield into storytelling techniques, comic making process, the anatomy of a sentient city, and his mom.

Below is a transcript of the majority of our interview.

Bob Harrison: Thanks for sending me the pdf version of the collected trade for War Cry.

Dean Haspiel: Yeah. I wanted you to see it because you’ve seen the Webtoon version? Right?

BH: Yes!

DH: So, that is a vertical scroll, because at Line Webtoon, the way you view it is like a long roll of toilet paper. I think we talked about that the last time we spoke.

BH: Yes. I am looking at these pages while we are speaking, and I am loving it. The panel construction and overlaps that you introduce make it look more authentic.

DH: It looks more like a traditional comic book, right? That is how I produced the material originally was what you are looking at right now.

A Little About Process

BH: Well, that leads me to one of my questions for you. In the past, you have sent me scans that are blue pencil on paper. Do you create on paper and then scan to digital, and then ink and color digitally? How do you do it?

DH: I work in a more old school process. You know. Pencil and ink. I used to letter pages, and I’ve never colored my work until I got a digital tools, but my coloring skills aren’t that great.

BH: So, are you coloring the most recent stuff?

DH: I am doing it all. I am doing everything. You know. Over the years, I was an assistant to Howard Chaykin, Walter Simonson, and Bill Sienkiewicz. Three different artists who taught me the ropes. In 1985, my senior year in High School, the only comic school was probably SVA [School of Visual Arts]. But I was doing comics since Junior High. So, there was no real school for it, and the art classes that I could take even at specialized schools like the School of Music and Art, which turned into LaGuardia High School, and I attended, nobody was teaching comics. In fact, it was almost shunned. There wasn’t anybody teaching anything about narrative either. So, a lot of my training happened on the job.

My takeaways were paper, pencil, ink. It’s just been a carry over. Even though we live in this digital world right now where you can abandon paper and ink and literally just walk around with a tablet and an electric pen, it’s just the way that I know how to produce comics. You could probably produce a comic on your phone, but you can do that music and movies as well. I still like that tactile process of scratching pencil on paper and discovering the drawing in that way.

I came to start using blue pencil, as you mentioned, because the thing that’s cool about that is that you can do a lot of under drawing, and you don’t have to erase it when you scan it. So you can see some hints of blue in my original art work.

More importantly for this particular project, The Red Hook at Line Webtoons, and subsequently War Cry and StarCross, I have to think in terms of a vertical scroll while laying out the comic as a traditional comic, because my aim and goal was to put this stuff in print after it debuted exclusively at Line Webtoons. That is also how I exploit the 10″ X 15″ traditional comics format that I draw on.

BH: So, you make a 10′ X 15″ page and then cut it up?

DH: I start out with a thumbnail to give the page some narrative clarity. I’ve had to abandon certain things that I like to use in my usual print comic work, like insets, wide panels, landscape panels, for more portrait and tall panels. As you are flipping through War Cry, the printed version, you’ll notice there are probably a lot of tall panels. I cut it up in certain ways for maximum vertical benefit. A splash page on a phone is just a panel, and you lose some of the gravitas of a splash page.

What I discovered works best in a Line Webtoon type comic are head shots and more closeup type stuff. Also, if you create a long tall panel where maybe something is falling in mid-air, that looks really cool on your phone.

BH: Absolutely.

DH: When I was laying these comics out for print versus vertical scroll, I kind of had to lose some of the magic that I like to employ in my regular narrative.

BH: I have to tell you as I look at this version of War Cry and compare it to my memory of when I read it originally on Line Webtoons, this new production seems a lot more “complete” if that is the right word.

DH: It’s a different reading experience. That is for sure.

BH: One of the things that I enjoy about your digital work on Line Webtoons is the headshots. It gives a good idea of the acting and emotions of the characters. In this format, it definitely gives a different experience. I don’t mean to say one is better than the other.

DH: I prefer the experience that you are looking at, because I like books, and I like comics. Online, it is broken up into twenty-six chapters. So, for a 132-page graphic novel, it is about five pages a chapter. But there are no real chapter breaks in the book. It just keeps flowing.

I also had to consider that in writing the story. I had to come up with twenty-five mini cliffhangers, which is a lot of work. There are not that many cliffhangers in a normal story. Most graphic novel collections are maybe five or six issues. So, you only have to come up with five cliffhangers. I have to come up with a lot more. Even if it is a question, and it gets answered in the next chapter.

BH: Well you are definitely good at that. As a reader, your episodes do leave you wanting more.

DH: Thank you. I hope it’s not forced. It is something I learned doing a weekly webcomic when I did Billy Dogma at ACT-I-VATE years ago. The trick that I used there is that I didn’t know what was going to happen next week. It kept it loose yet exciting, but I had to figure out what the hell was going to happen. I found out years later that it’s a trick that Mark Waid uses. He kind of writes himself into a corner, and then tries to figure it out in the next issue. This way the reader and the writer feel this same kind of menace from the cliffhanger.

But I am glad you are able to see it as a book. It is a different pace. Also, on the phone, you see it one panel at a time. When you open up a comic book, you are usually seeing two pages worth of narrative at a time. Then, you have this omniscient understanding of the story as it moves along, and that is just a function of normal regular comic books.

BH: I am looking forward to this coming out. I binged The Red Hook on Line Webtoon before we talked last time, and I read War Cry as it was coming out and the same with StarCross. It is a different experience when you binge something or you read it on a weekly basis.

DH: I feel like I am more of a binge reader. I understand the appeal and function of a weekly webcomic, and hell, there are people who do daily webcomics, but I don’t have the time. Even when it’s free and it takes a minute and a half. Even my girlfriend has a tough time keeping up on it. It only takes a couple of minutes to indulge the thing, but I think you get more out of it when you can get a bigger chunk at a time.

BH: How many episodes is Star Cross scheduled?

DH: Each season, thus far, has been twenty-six episodes. That equals about 130 pages of comic content.

BH: That is what other similar styled webcomics that I follow fall into lengthwise.

DH: It’s a good size. When I think about my future in comics, I realize that I am not a “Wednesday Warrior” kind of guy. I’ve done it. I did two five-issue mini-series of The Fox for Archie Comics. Those are examples of monthly comic series that I have done, but usually what I do are graphic novels or webcomics.

I have hopscotched all over the place, but I don’t have four years of a monthly title under my belt, and at this age, frankly, it’s not going to happen. There is no way I could produce something like that even if I was just the penciler. Coming up with twenty-two to twenty-four pages of comics in, what, five weeks? There is no way. Even though I have done a ton of comics and I have a reduced silver-age indie style, there’s no way I could do that.

What I have been thinking about in terms of the future of comics that I produce is the forty-eight- or sixty-four-page graphic novella.

BH: That is definitely out there. People are looking at that. AfterShock Comics has been trying that format.

DH: That is right. So, a lot of my stuff debuts online, and then gets collected. Stuff that I did as Street Code for Zuda Comics and got collected as Beef with Tomato. Then there was my Billy Dogma stuff that got collected into Fear, My Dear, and I do plan to collect and create more Billy Dogma material. Then, The Red Hook stuff, I am in my third season, and fingers crossed. I will get a fourth one.

When I think about if I wanted to produce something that is printed first, it doesn’t have to be 200 pages. I understand that there are certain formats that sell well that people are used to, but for me, I think that my style and sensibility would look really good as a little bit of an oversized graphic album like the European books. If I could do two of those a year, that would be great, but I am also writing plays. I am doing other kinds of prose. I do other stuff besides comics.

Thanks God, right now, I am in this really cool autonomous space. For the last three years, I have been creating comics that I own and that I get paid for, which is insane. I am like, “How did that happen?” I thank Tom Akel, my former editor at Line Webtoon, for believing in me, and pushing for me to do the kind of stuff that I do. Not a lot of people would take a risk on me like that. I am not the hotshot writer or artist. I have a peculiar sensibility.

What Is New Brooklyn About?

BH: I have a couple of questions that I want to get to about War Cry and the process you went through. How do you describe what people are going to see in War Cry?

DH: It is definitely a continuation of the first story, The Red Hook. At the end of the first story, the Possum, Ava Blume, is dead, and is left with a cliffhanger of her opening her eyes. I knew I wanted to do more with her, but instead of doing more traditional, “Is she a zombie?”, she gets summoned and resurrected into the body of a teenage boy who had befriended all the superheroes.

At the beginning of War Cry there is a massive superhero versus alien battle that occurs off screen that results in the heroes getting killed, but the heroes, through a process, imbue this boy with powers that transform him into the resurrected body of Possum as War Cry, a human of mass destruction. So, the boy and the woman are a combined being that together become this extraordinary thing.

BH: It’s a great story.

DH: What I was playing with is my love for Shazam. Billy Batson shouts the word “Shazam” and becomes this adult superhero god. It is also kind of like Firestorm where it is two personas becoming one as a superhero. It also plays with the idea of Hawk and Dove where there is a peaceful person that shares a body with an entity that is ready to throw down and fight at any moment. There is also some element of OMAC who is blasted from the robot Eye in the Sky that turns him into a modern-day Ares. So, it is kind of a mashup of all the things that I love put together into War Cry, which is this duality between a young boy and a resurrected super-thief.

It, also, becomes kind of like a love story. A lot of my stories are surrounded by romance, because the key to any good story is romance. Actually, in StarCross, it is about how love will save the world, which is corny and sentimental, but hell, I’d rather put my energy into something that is a positive message than something negative.

It can have negative aspects to it, because you have to deal with conflict. A lot of what comics do well is comment on the world and current events. All this happens while trying to deal with the sentient New Brooklyn gone rogue.

BH: Since we are talking about that, what does New Brooklyn mean to you? You have created this universe with all these vibrant characters. What does that universe mean to what you are trying to say?

DH: It’s my “Hail Mary” to being a born and bred native New Yorker who can no longer afford live in the home and place that he grew up, where art is increasingly more difficult to sell. We have Patreon and we have Kickstarters, all these social network tools to parade, celebrate, hype, and brand ourselves. It becomes more synonymous with free content as opposed to something that you’re willing to pay for. It is getting harder and harder to make a living.

Thankfully, right now, my work is underwritten by a South Korean publisher online. I have gone out of country to make a living. But luckily, I have a relationship with Image Comics who is taking a risk on publishing the print version. That starts another conversation in that it is already online for free.

Why would people need to buy it? As you are witnessing by looking at the book, it is a different experience. Also, I prefer to read books in my hand versus reading online. After a while, your eyes get tired, and your attention is just stolen all day long by anything and everything that is happening on your phone or the internet. How do you sit and truly indulge anything substantial? New Brooklyn to me is a wish, in a lot of ways. Ironically, we hear people talking about going green and being socialist. It is in a way a socialist fantasy.

BH: I get that. It definitely comes through.

DH: I don’t know if that would actually work, but it creates a discussion. Not only for the reader, but for me as well. I am only dipping my toe in New Brooklyn. I am not trying to explain it, because again, I am not that smart. I do have complicated feelings, though, and a lot of my writing comes from an emotional response to what is happening.

I share studio space which normally would have been for three or four people, but there are twelve desks and fourteen people sharing this space. That is because of how expensive and how hard it is to rent space to create.

BH: My experience with New Brooklyn is this. Sam’s voice seems to be your voice. He is questioning the status quo constantly and the direction the world is going. It feels that Sam’s voice is Dean talking to us.

DH: It is also his and my point of view. There is no way that I could write a young gay black teenager authentically. There is no way I will fully understand how to write a woman. So, a lot of it is his point of view of what is happening, but I have tried my best to create fully fleshed out characters.

BH: Oh yeah. I am not saying that he is not. What I am saying is that they are all fully developed characters whether its Rajak or Ava. There is, however, a theme that Sam either is not understanding what is going on around him, or he is the one who has figured something out and everyone needs to follow that lead.

DH: I think I once said that the questions are more important than the answers. So, Sam, the lead of the story, is going to be asking a lot of questions when weird stuff is happening. What do you do with that? How does it impact your life? He is trying to navigate through all of this, because he is a blue-collar kind of guy. Not that I am blue collar, but I respect blue collar thought.

My favorite superhero in the Marvel Universe is Ben Grimm, The Thing from The Fantastic Four, who is a pilot, but he comes from Yancy Street. He comes from being a blue-collar kind of guy. So, with The Red Hook, weird stuff has happened to this guy that has kind of had some bad breaks in his life, and he decided that he was going to steal to have a better quality of life. He’s not evil. You know; he is a little bad, and you can understand why he is bad. Then crazy stuff happens because Brooklyn woke up and decided to throw a wrench into everything. At first The Red Hook is forced to be a hero against his will and then he starts to own it.

BH: And you see that especially in War Cry that he begins to own that, and then once you get to StarCross, you can definitely see a big transformation from the beginning of the Red Hook to where we are in the current season.

DH: And it gets galactic with astral projections ala Dr. Strange.  He is going through this hero’s journey. I would argue that the first three seasons are actually the “Ava Blume Trilogy”. Even though we watch the events from Sam’s point of view, we are really telling her story, and that story is even more incredible than his.

I am waiting to find out if we are going to do a season four at Line Webtoon, and I have actually worked out a plot that I am really happy with that would be the next story. I actually had a different story that I was going to do, but now if we have a fifth season, I would probably do that for the fifth season story instead. So, this trilogy wraps up in StarCross but there are a lot more stories to tell. The Red Hook saga has taken on a life of its own.

Odds and Ends

BH: That’s what you want. So, what else are you up to.

DH: I am doing a podcast called Scene by Scene with Josh and Dean where we break down the movie American Splendor scene by scene and discuss our relationship with the late, great Harvey Pekar. I just finished a draft of a new play that we are going to do a reading of next week and hope to put up next year. In a couple of weeks, I am going to be going on a writer’s retreat at Yaddo. I’ll be there for most of September. I will be at New York Comic Con and my favorite show of the year, Baltimore Comic Con, which I will have War Cry at.

BH: Let’s finish up with this. Your mom is big part of your social media presence.

DH: I love my mom.

BH: How is she doing?

DH: She is great. I just spoke her about an hour ago.

BH: Let me tell you. Do NOT discourage her from coming on your Facebook page.

DH: Ha-ha. Oh, I know, but sometimes she kind of like scolds me.

BH: It’s fantastic. Do not discourage that!

DH: Ha-ha. One shouldn’t say that their mom is the best friend, but my mother is one of my best friends. But she is also my mom. She is my hero. She comes from Michigan. She came to New York and started off as a secretary at the New York State Council of the Arts and became Deputy Director. She went on to own and Antique Store in the Catskills, and became a volunteer firefighter in Florida. She has gotten into politics to try to get Florida to be a little bluer. Earlier, you were saying that you recognized Sam Brosia as being my voice, but in a lot of ways it’s my mother’s voice.

BH: That is awesome. Thanks a lot. This has been awesome.

DH: Thank you. I look forward to seeing you in Baltimore.

You can still pre-order War Cry from your Local Comic Shop. Here is the Previews solicitation.

If you don’t live near a Comic Shop, you can pre-order it on Amazon Here.

Dean’s current season, StarCross, can be found on Line Webtoon Here.



If you want to listen to our conversation, here is the audio for a special Pop Culture Squadcast episode.