It’s been a busy San Diego Comic Con for Dean Haspiel. Besides being hosted on a bevy of panels, the restless writer and creator was here in sunny Southern California to promote the first volume of his superhero saga The Red Hook as well as the tenth-anniversary edition of the new classic The Alcoholic, his book with writer Jonathan Ames. As we sat in the shade and looking out on the bay, Dean and I had a meaningful conversation that meditated on the metaphysical power of comics to express the depths of the soul. But we also talked about more worldly aspects of the industry, including the legacy of Karen Burger, the freedom of webcomics, and what is next in store for the ever-growing saga of the RED HOOK.
AJ FROST: Hi Dean! It’s so nice to chat with you today. So, I believe from what you told me before we started taping was that this is your first Comic Con in twelve years. Can you talk about the differences you see now that you did not see more than a decade ago?
DEAN HASPIEL: Well, twelve years ago it was 2006. I remember walking through the front doors and I looked to the left of me and I didn’t see any end in sight. I looked to the right of me and I noticed that the earth was curving. I thought to myself: “What is going on here? They expanded out more of the space and Comic Con was just taking over San Diego. And I thought well that’s really cool. But… I started to feel overwhelmed. Now everyone knows how difficult it is to walk through this space; everyone’s waddling like a penguin half the time. But back then, that hadn’t happened yet. Plus, it felt like Hollywood was taking over, being more committed to and exploring IP with television and movies. It started not to feel like a comic con.
It’s expensive to do the show. You come here, you get overwhelmed, it’s physically draining, it’s emotional. Everyone’s trying to make ends meet and now you’re competing with Halle Berry, you know? Now, I love Halle Berry, but this was our place for our people to be Halle Berry. And I think that there was a backlash and a lot of criticism about that. And little by small, Comic Con expanded out and became the same thing that San Diego has become. So I think ultimately what happened is I’ve come back because I’ve embraced the fact that Hollywood is here to stay and it is part of the function of comics in certain ways, especially the franchises.
I still look for the golden gems, the diamonds in the rough, the stuff that is purely comics and can only be comics. I can find that stuff at Baltimore Comic Con, SPX, MoCCA, and these smaller shows, but yet you still can find them here. San Diego Comic Con is like the Times Square of comics where everything is blown up and ginormous and hyperbolic, which is funny because that’s what superhero comics are right. So I guess the Con just took the one genre the comics knows how to do best (even though comics can be about anything) and was able to do that and just exponentially blow it up.
FROST: Has there been anything this time around that really took you by surprise?
HASPIEL: No, because in a way I was prepared for it. What took me by surprise that was that it actually felt easier than the last time I was here.
FROST: Why do you think that is?
HASPIEL: Twelve years of mental preparation. Twelve years of seeing San Diego Comic Con delivered to me on my laptop, or my phone, or via all these great comics websites. There is this idea that you don’t have to be there to be there. But, I also think that nothing beats real life, face-to-face confrontation with this kind of stuff. I’m still a fan. As much as I’ve become a professional and dedicated my life to comics, I’m still a fan and I still love to see my heroes and shake hands and say thank you. Nothing beats saying thank you. I think one of my greatest regrets in my life is never having met Jack Kirby—one of my biggest influences—and shaking his hand and saying thank you. I make sure that I try to do that to the other folks that impress me and inspire me.
FROST: This year you’re promoting two different projects. You have The Red Hook Vol. 1 and the tenth-anniversary edition of The Alcoholic, a book you made in collaboration with Jonathan Ames. Can you talk about those two books and what they meant during the stages of your artistic and professional development?
HASPIEL: Well, it’s funny because The Alcoholic was ten years ago and then the Red Hook is where I’m at now. It’s also one of the other major reasons why I showed up because if I’m going to be making these things, and especially if I’m doing another superhero right now, the Cinematic Universes of DC and Marvel are taking over the world, I’m kind of stupid and an idiot to even dare attempt to introduce another superhero from an indie point of view. But I think that’s why it’s interesting. Because it is from an independent point of view. I mean look at Hellboy, look at Scott Pilgrim and that kind of stuff. One of the good things that Marvel and DC have done over the years is to create a hunger. Sure, there can be a deluge or a backlash to this stuff, but that’s only when it sucks. When it’s good, people want more. You go to a Chinese restaurant and the food is bad, you’re not going to go back to it. But, if you keep eating good food, that just expands your menu and your diet, and then you become overweight. I feel that if I’m going to throw down the gauntlet and say ‘Here’s my superhero,’ starting with the Red Hook as my anchor, then I got to go to the party and see how it fares.
There’s this other work coming out in the fall, which is a reprint and the tenth-anniversary edition of The Alcoholic which is a collaboration with one of my favorite people and one of my good friends and definitely one of my favorite writers Jonathan Ames. And we’ve collaborated on HBO’s Bored to Death and a couple other things, but this is the project where… When I met them, it was in 2001. I had read some of his essays and I noticed him in my local café. I was like, ‘Oh snap! Jonathan Ames lives near me.’ And I went right up to him I said, ‘Hi my name is Dean Haspiel. I love your work. We’re going to make a comic together someday.’ I guess I was able to recognize in his own prose writing that he could probably write a comic. And it wasn’t until I became friends with him when I realized Oh, you do have an appreciation for the form. And. in a lot of ways, he’s a Renaissance man because he was able to transition from novel writing to prose writing into television writing to comic book writing, which a lot of literary-minded authors have a tough time with. They forget that image is text too and to rely on their collaborator i.e. the artist to convey the story visually.
I think we both created something that we otherwise wouldn’t have. And that’s what’s cool about collaboration. That’s why advocate for collaboration. Because now that we have comic book-ologists, I think that they are encouraging the auteur more than ever before. But when I grew up reading comics, it was an assembly line. I thought I was just going to be a penciller one day. So it took me a long time to find the courage and the confidence to write. But some of that came from these collaborations with great writers: Jonathan Ames, Harvey Pekar, Inverna Lockpez, J.M. DeMatteis. I learned from everyone and from all those experiences. And now I feel like I’ve come to my own space because LINE Webtoon pays me to create something I own that [they have digital] exclusivity for, which I can then later turn into a print edition or maybe even create merchandise if I want to. I now have the dreaded ‘IP’ to then go Hollywood baby.
FROST: The circle of creation, haha. For the tenth anniversary, The Alcoholic, which was originally a Vertigo book, is being reprinted through Karen Berger’s new imprint at Dark Horse, Berger Books. You were on the Berger Books panel this year, and Karen likewise won an Eisner. Can you talk about her legacy in the field of comics
HASPIEL: Karen is an amazing woman because she’s rose through the ranks—from assistant editor, to editor, to launching her own imprint—and nurtured a specific kind of voice in comics. It wasn’t just superhero comics. She innovated in fantasy and memoir and recognized the potential of outlier voices, and people of color, and women. In fact, I just spoke to her early during the Con and I asked her something that I meant to ask her on the panel but we ran out of time. I asked: ‘What is different now from when you were working and being the leader of Vertigo to what you’re doing now with Berger books?’ And she said, ‘Now, I can work with more women because there are more women and there are a lot more voices.’
She also said she wants to work with a lot of new people. You know the young, the next generation of cartoons you know. I think what happens is that your Rolodex gets filled and you start using the same people because you can rely on them. You like them, you build relationships. But then get stuck in that mode. And I appreciate the idea that she’s keeping it young, but also honoring the old. You know like me or Dave Gibbons, haha. I really appreciate that and I think that that’s why she’s important and continues to revolutionize comics.
FROST: How do you balance and manage your time? And I know you’re so… well, prolific is one word. The other is just producing quality work after quality work: writing plays or comics. You’re doing a new webcomic here. You have an artistic collective. How do you keep all that stuff together and still manage to create that is not only of high quality but work you can look back to and be proud of?
HASPIEL: Gosh. The honest answer is I don’t. I balance my career better than I’ve balanced my life. I don’t have a good quality of life at home. I don’t have dinner with my girlfriend. I work on weekends often. I work odd hours, by which I mean late night hours. I haven’t figured out that wake-up-at-the-crack-of dawn-and-be-done-by-5:00 PM lifestyle. I don’t think a lot of freelancers and/or authors slash artists really figure that out. And I think I trade a lot for that lifestyle because I’m committed and invested in not only crafting stories that mean something to me and hopefully to others but also because I care about other artists. I’m constantly checking in with them and giving unsolicited advice or trying to you know play like an absentee mentor in some ways. I don’t know. Creation, to me is how I get high. It’s life for me. You know it they say violence begets violence and I think creativity just begets more creativity. I guess that’s where I live.
FROST: The second volume of The Red Hook, “War Cry,” just finished up its run online. Is that going to be collected into a trade like the first volume was?
HASPIEL I’m hoping we get that War Cry volume collected. It all depends on the sales of the first volume. I know that it seems that anyone who actually discovers it and reads it seems to like it; I haven’t received a negative review yet thankfully. The kind of reader this book attracts gets the joke: That I’m having fun with this kind of silver age hero that is coupled with a 1980s grit, and an homage to the comics I grew up loving. I’m just putting a modern spin on it with my concerns and you know and being able to mold and create my own superhero carbon footprint into the annals of this format that I love so much.
FROST: What are you working on now?
I’m currently working on Starcross which is the third story of this Red Hook trilogy, we’ll call it. Although I’ve already got a fourth story blocked out. That could be the next trilogy it because everyone loves trilogies sometimes. In my heart, it’s a Red Hook saga. This is my most ambitious project yet because of the stuff that I address in it including the corny conceit that love can save the world. That is where the story is going. But I also do address some things that I’ve talked about concerning Brooklyn, a borough that secedes and becomes its own country. Not how it works, because I’m not a scientist or a political person or whatever. But, emotionally how it might feel and what are people doing in that kind of space. So I do revisit some of that in the background of the story but it becomes very cosmic.
FROST: Do you have any final thoughts about your time at this year or what you’re looking forward to next?
HASPIEL: Well, I’ve enjoyed it. Luckily I kept myself busy at Comic Con and I’ve enjoyed everyone I’ve met and talked to. You know if I can afford it I’ll come again next year especially if I have something to hawk. But also I think it’s important to go to the shows even if we have nothing to sell because you can absorb the energy and use to be part of the ecosystem that is comics. I think the next thing I’m doing is Long Beach Comic Con, Baltimore Comic Con, New York Comic Con, and working on Starcross.
FROST: Thank you so much for chatting!
HASPIEL: Thank you!