“An Evening with Dean Haspiel”, held at the Cinema Arts Center, in Huntington Long Island on October 4th, was as much a tour of the last twenty years of comics history as a look at Haspiel’s long and varied career thus far. His immense oeuvre presented plenty of fodder for discussion, as well as the various fascinating characters he’s met along the way. This was the first comics-related event hosted by the Cinema Arts Center under current proprietor Dylan Skolnick, though the CAC has a long tradition of in-person events with notable film directors and actors. Haspiel was interviewed about his life in comics by Matthew Berkowitz of Rough Hewn Entertainment, a documentary filmmaker and producer.
The evening kicked off with a dramatic reading of two of Haspiel’s comics projected onto a cinema screen, with audience members encouraged to provide the sound effects to both “Beef with Tomato” from Haspiel’s STREET CODE and THE LAST ROMANTIC ANTI-HERO from Haspiel’s long-running and varied BILLY DOGMA series. It was a reminder of the ever-changing role of comics in the digital age from the high-tech aspects of their incarnations on Comixology and TRIP CITY to the face-to-face interaction of this live performance.
A guided tour through Haspiel’s comics career followed, starting with his early days aspiring to work as an artist for DC. Slides of his work emphasized changes in style and focus over the years and helped to explain just how he’s become an icon as an independent comics creator who takes the bull by the horns, particularly in founding the successful web comics platform ACT-I-VATE and more recently, the experimental multi-arts website TRIP CITY. The vicissitudes of his career emphasized the maxim he penned in “Beef with Tomato”, “Expect the unexpected in the Big Apple”. Haspiel’s childhood, characterized by “gregarious” parents, introduced him to film stars and celebrities on a daily basis from Robert de Niro to Al Pacino and a busy social life set the tone for his later work. He was never one to relish working alone in a private studio. He realized early on that he wanted to “play” and “be around other people” who shared a similar “passion” for comics. This, in part, motivated him to use the internet as a “tool” for communication, reaching out to fans and other creators and building a “community” in a desire to be “part of something”.
A catastrophic accident at college, falling off the roof of a college library while drinking with friends, sidetracked this ambition to pencil for DC Comics and nearly destroyed his artistic career. After several months of recovery from two broken legs, a damaged spine and torn ligaments in his hands, Haspiel found that his own art style had “changed” despite reclaiming his ability to draw. He shifted into autobiographical comics using a more personal style discussing “crazy stories” from his more than eventful life. Haspiel continued to dip in and out of mainstream work alongside his independent work, penciling for Marvel and experimenting with new styles, but crossing paths with Harvey Pekar, a hero from his youth, may have impacted the direction of his work the most. Haspiel was the first to propose that Pekar’s AMERICAN SPLENDOR film be made, and his involvement in the film’s production eventually led to his dream-fulfilling collaboration with Harvey on THE QUITTER, he explained. ACT-I-VATE came along later as an impulse to create an “office mate” for himself, a way to create a comics blogging platform where he could scan and post “sneak peeks” of what he was working on that created unforeseen levels of interest and interaction with other creators and fans.
Since exposing his work to the world online was drawing in more much-needed work for Haspiel, it occurred to him that other creators might benefit from using the same format. Despite the material on ACT-I-VATE being published for “free” online, publishers rightly saw the monetary potential in published copies. Haspiel’s friendship with writer Jonathan Ames also led him even deeper into experimental territory, first through drawing Ames’ story THE ALCOHOLIC, then through involvement with Ames’ HBO series BORED TO DEATH. One of the most fascinating narratives of the evening was the process whereby Haspiel designed the cover for THE ALCOHOLIC, drafting dozens of potential covers before returning to a simple line drawing on a scrap of paper depicting a figure whose shadow is drinking. Doing the artwork and sketches for BORED TO DEATH, as well as the Emmy Award-winning opening animated sequence, boosted Haspiel’s notoriety and reinforced his early connections to film as a form of visual storytelling. Meanwhile Haspiel worked on a very personal project published, like THE QUITTER, by Vertigo, the story of family friend Inverna Lockpez’s experiences, CUBA: MY REVOLUTION. Recent projects have led him back in and out of mainstream work, from GODZILLA to designing motion comics for the Syfy Channel’s WAREHOUSE 13 and for purely digital comics like Shiftylook’s THE FIVE DIMENSIONAL ADVENTURES OF DIRK DAVIES.
Haspiel’s career has always demonstrated his versatility, but never so pointedly as in the past couple of years as he forays into the unknown zones between comics and other forms of visual art. A “deluge of self-hype” has proved effective in marketing digital comics for ACT-I-VATE and the same model is being applied to TRIP CITY where both comics and other literary arts find a home. Haspiel gave a final hint about where all this digital work may be headed: a personalized app for viewing his comics on portable devices, combining both sales elements and a wide array of access to his digital work. The evening’s presentation made it clear that Haspiel’s work has been consistently characterized by change and innovation as he’s developed into a fully-fledged “storyteller” rather than solely a comics artist, and that he’s spread the lessons he’s learned along the way to an up and coming generation working in comics. But he’s not content with the ground he’s covered already. This unique event in Long Island, presenting comics in a cinematic context proves that. While the evening’s entertainment took the long view of Haspiel’s career and its often startling place in comics history, he made it clear that his career is not so much about where he’s been as where he is going, delving even further into the evolving possibilities of visual storytelling.
Hannah Means-Shannon writes and blogs about comics for TRIP CITY and Sequart.org and is currently working on books about Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore for Sequart. She is @hannahmenzies on Twitter and hannahmenziesblog on WordPress.