Photograph Courtesy of Seth Kushner
The person we wanted to be when we were 12 years old is usually a far cry from who we wind up as. The firefighters, princesses and astronauts of our childhood dreams give way to practicality, and at some point we wind up as doctors, lawyers, or, God forbid, writers. For Dean Haspiel, this was not the case. Comics have been part of his world since childhood, and his aspiration to become a comic book artist long predates his successful career in the industry. With a thriving web-comic platform, ACTIVATEcomix.com; an expanding media salon, Trip City; an Emmy for his work on the HBO series Bored to Death; and an illustrator credit in the upcoming 50th anniversary issue of The Amazing Spider-Man already under his belt, we imagine Haspiel’s energy level must mirror that of his 12-year-old self, only with heaps of focus.
A born and raised New Yorker, Haspiel has profound charisma and is inspired by a hodgepodge of work ranging from Jack Kirby’s illustrations during the Silver Age of comics to the Preston Sturges films of the 1940s. His comic book work, particularly the Billy Dogma series, is emotional and raw, often with a hint of autobiographical inspiration. As if his current endeavors weren’t enough, the ambitious Haspiel is dipping his toes into new territory: writing and performing his own prose, attending the month-long YADDO retreat for writing and the arts, and debuting the Trip City live salon on May 30th in Brooklyn.
Ironically, when I call Dean for our interview on an early Thursday morning, I’m sitting in the same space where my old comic books once lay, my childhood play place, the backseat of my mother’s car (Trust me, it isn’t nearly as sad as it sounds). Already, the day isn’t going my way, but my morning foibles quickly give way to an engaging conversation about tent-pole films, a relation to Shelly Winters, and the future of Trip City.
I read this morning that you’re going to be illustrating part of the 50th Anniversary issue of The Amazing Spider-Man.
I drew and wrote this a year ago and I’ve been waiting for it to come out. In a way, I’m glad it took that long because when I was first tasked to write and draw it, I wasn’t even thinking that it could be the 50th anniversary issue, which is such a coup. It’s such an honor to have my little eight-page story put into a place like that, such an honorable moment in comic book history. In fact, it kind of works with the story I wrote. Basically, if you know anything about Spider-Man history, there were a lot of famous covers and famous stories, but issue number 50 of Spider-Man is the famous cover in which Peter Parker is walking away from his famous costume, which he’s thrown into the garbage. So the editor [Steve Wacker] asked me, ‘What happened to that costume that night?’ And that’s my story.
That must have been a lot of fun to draw.
It was a lot of fun to figure out and then to draw. Usually when I do superhero comics I draw in more of a Silver Age style, which is the age of Steve Ditko’s and Jack Kirby’s—the 1960s early 1970s superhero comics that I love so much.
As a comic book artist, are you a big fan of the tent-pole comic films we’ve seen coming out in the last 5 or 10 years?
Absolutely. You know, every time I see these movies that come out, especially in the last decade, I’m always sitting there going ‘Oh my God, what would Jack Kirby have thought of this?’ And not so much in terms of criticism, more that what he did two-dimensionally and what they are able to do three-dimensionally is unbelievable. I’m not comparing what Jack did and what the movies do, because what Jack did in the 1960s and 1970s was the same as what the movies of today do, just on paper. In all honesty, that’s why [we] bought those comic books, because they were doing the same thing that the movies of today do. It’s just a more passive experience now.
When did you decide you wanted to be a comic book artist?
I remember consciously making the decision at age 12 that I was going to be a comic book artist one day. Basically, I became unemployable right then because I knew what I had to do and there was no way that I could get a regular job. If I had to think about what events brought me to decide that by age 12, I’m sure it was a combination of a lot of things. I’ve always loved the escapism of comics; that you could go to a newsstand and for 25 or 35 cents pick up an entire story, back when you could get a whole story in 22 pages. You would get an adventure and then you could re-read them and project yourself into those characters.
What about your family? Did they have an influence?
I grew up in a family of great storytellers. My mother was the deputy director for the New York State Council of the Arts, so she had a lot of access to art. My father, James Haspiel, told great stories about knowing Marilyn Monroe and other actors, and he was just a great storyteller. My godmother was Shelly Winters, and when she would come around she would tell us all great stories. I mean, I was surrounded by stories. I would be around people who spoke with verve and energy and then I could go to a newsstand and get some comic books and dive into these escapist fantasies where you can be super heroic.
Describe a Dean Haspiel comic.
It’s so hard, especially because we live in an age where you’re supposed to reduce everything to a few lines. It’s almost like we’re living in the age of the elevator pitch, where you’re supposed to talk about yourself in one sentence, that’s really hard. I’d say my comics border on romance, science fiction, crimes of the heart; they’re very earnest and invoke empathy. You know, we live in a cynical world right now where a lot of our TV shows and our movies are a lot darker than they used to be and as I get older I’ve discovered that I’m more interested in movies like the ones by Preston Sturges from the 1940s or noir because not only were there a lot more basic truths that were being told artistically back then, but also there was a sense of hope and I feel like a lot of today's stories lack that. What I try to do is take the bombastic parts of what I love between you know kung-fu, horror, hip-hop, and electronica and I try to mix that up and I’m kind of DJ’ing those stories into my own work. It’s the only way I can describe it.
I guess that is a little difficult, let’s talk about a specific comic, Billy Dogma for example?
Billy Dogma is my love letter to the insanity of love. In a way, when I did my latest story [for the Billy Dogma series], The Last Romantic Antihero, there was a combination of things that I was going for. I was trying to write and draw a new Billy Dogma story for the new reader, and also to identify that we’re sort of living in an apocalypse because of society’s indifference and apathy. We live in this technological age where it’s all about me, me, me and I feel like that’s our modern apocalypse. I wanted to tell that story in this Billy Dogma tale and then also re-introduce you to these characters Jane Legit and Billy Dogma and what their life is about. Then I threw in a bit of parallel time travel a la Lost where I basically hit the reset button on their story.
You, Seth Kushner, Chris Miskiewicz, and Jeffrey Burandt started the Brooklyn-filtered art salon Trip City in 2011, how did that come about?
I started Trip City in November 2011. What happened was, I had created and launched a webcomics collective called ACT-I-VATE in 2006 that was started as a response to not really getting the kind of work I wanted to get drawing comic book heroes for Marvel and DC and whatnot and kind of encouraging myself to continue exploring an alternative comic path of writing and illustrating my own stories. After I started ACT-I-VATE, I really felt like I had a home where I could do anything I wanted. It also helped lift the veil between creator, creation and fan response and really allowed for community, which became the key to any of the success I had up to this point. So, after 5 or 6 years of curating ACT-I-VATE I realized that a lot of my other passions and loves like writing prose, essays, doing short films, taking things on the road and performing them were not being met. I tried to do it with ACT-I-VATE but there’s only so much you can do with a handful of cartoonists that would rather be at their desks drawing. Trip City was devised to do comics but also everything else I want to do. In a way it’s the sister to ACT-I-VATE but it also includes multimedia. I took what I loved about doing ACT-I-VATE and just expanded it.
How do you choose who you want to showcase on Trip City?
I think it happens by accident. We don’t sit and think about what we need, we don’t know what we need, but we know what we like. And luckily I’m old enough to know a lot of cool people and because some of them don’t even know how to blog or put something together that looks cool and put it online, me and all of my partners [Seth Kushner, Chris Miskiewicz, and Jeffrey Burandt] can do that for them. We can figure that out and curate it, even if it gets lost in the deluge, we can repost it again later. It’s always going to be new for someone.
What is Trip City doing currently?
We’re doing a live event, I kind of did a teaser of it in Washington DC. We’re going to be doing a full-fledged Trip City Salon on May 30th at Fornino Park Slope in Brooklyn and it’s going to incorporate the front-liners of Trip City with comedians, music, food, drinks, and special performances.
Do you like the idea of a live event better than web-based content?
I’d rather be out in front of a crowd telling my stories than sitting behind a screen. What we’re trying to do is experiment with Trip City to get it out and put it on the road as well. When you go online, there’s more hate going on where people tell you what they don’t like rather than what they do like, and I’d rather you tell me something you do like.
You think people on the Internet are more negative than people in person?
Yeah. I think the Internet allows for a sort of ‘assholia.’ I think you’re more inclined to tell people you had a bad day rather than when you have a good day [on the Internet]. People go online and they complain all day, and after a while that gets boring. I do believe that when you hang out with people in person, they’d rather try to have a good day or a good time with you.
I know you won an Emmy for your work on HBO’s Bored to Death, how did you get involved with that project?
[Creator] Jonathan Ames is someone I met about a decade ago and I had been a fan of his early essay collections. I walked into a café and I recognized him, so I introduced myself and our friendship started from there. Eventually, I bugged him enough, after becoming friends with him, that we did collaborate on a graphic novel called The Alcoholic, which we brought to DC Comic’s imprint Vertigo. I think he enjoyed that and our experience together so much that when he was asked to take his short story, “Bored To Death,” and and expand the cast for the HBO show of the same name, he elected to design a buddy who drew comics that was loosely based on me. When [the show] got green-lit by HBO it was a no brainer to ask me to draw the comics that the character [Ray Hueston, played by Zach Galifianakis] would be drawing.
How did you come up with the illustrations for the show?
I have my avatar, Billy Dogma, so Jonathan Ames created Ray Hueston's avatar, Super Ray. We had fun, I drew things I would never draw on my own. Warping ginormous penises and stuff like that. That was Jonathan’s sense of humor, and I was lucky enough to have fun with that and get paid for that and get some play out of it. As much as I love comics, most comics can’t even compare to a TV pilot in the amount of attention you can get from them. I also designed the key characters for the opening sequence, which got me the Emmy.
That opening sequence was really something.
You know when they told me about the concept I was like there is no way you are going to pull this off. They showed me early versions of it and I felt it was going to be a complete failure and then they made it rock and roll! It was unbelievable what they did with that.
Of all the characters you’ve created over the years, which is your favorite and why?
I think it’s obvious that it’s Billy Dogma. I’ve done a lot of semi-autobiographical stuff and I think with that kind of work you can only be a voyeur. I have to be accountable to time and reality and what really happened and that’s what I’m chronicling. With Billy Dogma, I have 20/20 hindsight and I can be more emotionally true in a way because I can use metaphor and allow for fiction to become fact. So, Billy Dogma is more true to who I am because I get to put on a different set of glasses and tell the stories that mean the most to me.
What’s been the most difficult aspect of your career thus far?
I’m not a commercial, mainstream artist so I deal with the hustle and bustle and the struggle of securing new work as a freelancer. Even though I may have an Emmy or you could Google my name and find a plethora of things that I’ve done, it doesn’t equal making money while I sleep. I don’t do this for the money, but the reality is you need money to survive. So I’m always trying to figure out my next gig and because of that I hopscotch around a lot. Recently, I did a Godzilla comic, then I did a six page comic on The Doors for an official Doors App, and then The Amazing Spider-Man, I do Billy Dogma, I write for Trip City, I’m currently drawing a webcomic called the Five-Dimensional Adventures of Dirk Davies with writer Ben McCool for a company called ShiftyLook, just those few examples alone show how much hopscotching I have to do to keep my work-flow at a steady pace. Luckily, I’m pretty versatile.
What’s next for you?
I recently got invited into this really cool writer’s retreat in Saratoga Springs, NY called YADDO, it’s like a famous place where a lot of authors and artists have been and I’ll be going there in August to write a novel or a screenplay for a month. I’ve also decided to teach a little bit, so in October I’ll be teaching a Master Comics course as part of an Artist in Residency Program at the Atlantic Center for the Arts in Florida. I’m stretching my rubber band and seeing what works and what doesn’t.
Are you planning on expanding Trip City as you explore all of this new stuff?
I’m starting to wonder if I should start looking at my projects as albums and singles, maybe Trip City is a project. If it continues to do well I will continue doing it and if people stop responding I will stop. You have to learn from these things. I mean, I never learned anything from someone saying ‘Hey man, I really like your work.’ I mean, that’s awesome, I’m glad, but I learn more when I get criticized. Trip City is something that I hope to bring along with me for the next few years and I hope that it will become something that is more salon-oriented. We call it a Brooklyn–filtered literary arts salon and people get confused because they think it’s a bunch of people from Brooklyn, but no. Basically, it’s coming through us who live in Brooklyn, but we’re international in who we use and who we promote. But who knows what is going to happen next.