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January 2, 2013


CR Holiday Interview #14 -- Dean Haspiel

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*****

imageAs we discuss below I met Dean Haspiel at the first comics show I attended as a working funnybook professional, a Chicago convention that I think might have also been Dean's first in support of his own work (Keyhole). I've bumped into him at what seems like one show a year since, striding in close proximity to the cartoonist through our combined young-turk phase all the way to men-a-bit-older-than-the-bulk-of-the-room. We've never interviewed. I talked to the New York City-based Haspiel twice this year, once at SPX and once over the phone in December. The man I talked to was a restless professional deeply curious about his place in the comics world moving forward and still, I think, a bit in love with the medium. I am grateful to Dean for his honesty during our chat. -- Tom Spurgeon

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TOM SPURGEON: Dean, I got the impression from our pre-interview that it's pretty tough out there right now. Is it tough out there?

DEAN HASPIEL: It's so tough, to the point that for the first time I've actually contemplated for real not doing comics.

SPURGEON: Really?

HASPIEL: When I say, "It's not worth it," I'm talking about the business of comics. It's been ingrained in me to do comics since I was a child. I always say I decided at age 12 to do comics and I became unemployable after that, because "eyes on the prize." But what is that prize? [laughs] I could be doing it for fun as a hobby on the side. In a way... that's what my career has been. It's not like people, editors at Marvel or DC, come knocking on my door. I've basically curated my career. The major works I've done, the three graphic novels at Vertigo? That was basically me going to them with a project, luckily at a time when they were open to publishing comics like that. On the heels of the third one coming out, Cuba: My Revolution, that's when they were shutting a third of their doors to those kinds of comics: when they let go of Joan Hilty and Jonathan Vankin. They were the editors of those comics: the autobiographical memoir, true-life story-type stuff.

SPURGEON: Is there anything that's specifically changed that has you discouraged?

HASPIEL: I think the lack of advance, the reduction of advances on books, meaning, gosh, the last good advance I heard of for an indy guy was when Josh Neufeld published AD: New Orleans After The Deluge with Pantheon. That I think was at the height, or what I heard of, for a webcomic to go into print, where two-thirds of the story was already on-line for free. To then turn that into a print edition, obviously updated, edited and completed. But the advance on that was so tremendous. He did have an agent, and I wonder sometimes... obviously, that's the value of an agent, to ask for more money than you would as an artist. But it was so much more [laughs] I wonder what happened, and how that was possible. I knew that was an anomaly, I wasn't like, "Oh, Josh got that. Anyone else can, too." It was a convergence of the topic and the fact it had had some play on-line. I think what's happened with beta-testing comics on-line is that it's making or breaking the possibility of a certain kind of advance. Do you know what I'm saying?

SPURGEON: I'm not sure I do.

HASPIEL: When something is unknown, and undefinable, there was a bigger guessing game the way traditional publishing was. Today you can look at, "How many comments?" "How many hits?" They want to know your numbers, and they can track you better than ever before. I've always said you're only as good as your last page. I mean, gosh, even Frank Miller might have a tough time with his next publishing venture after the holy mess of Holy Terror. [laughter] Of course, he has Daredevil and Dark Knight and Sin City to recommend him, too. You know? So you can have a few misses like that and continue your career. But it's changed so much.

I mean, I don't know if I told you this when we last sat, but I listen to Marc Maron's WTF podcast. He had Chris Rock on for an interview. They were talking about what it's like to get by these days, in this case as a comedian. Chris Rock said that when he became a comedian, there were 12 channels and you had to appeal to millions of people on HBO and that's how you became uber-famous to the point where you could have some kind of career. Nowadays, the playing field is leveled so much because of the Internet and because of crowdfunding and podcasts and everyone and anyone can have a blog and a web site, that if you can at least secure 5000 people that will pay for whatever you decide to do next, at a reasonable price, you can basically get by. You won't get a yacht, necessarily, but if you can get that low of a number -- I think he actually said 5000 people -- it probably should be more than that, to be honest. That really impressed me, that he had insight into that, and is probably right. Look at publishing today. A comic book used to be canceled when it only sold 100,000 copies. Now I think a book like X-Men, at best, is selling 100,000 copies. You know? And we all wanted the movies to kick ass, and we wall wanted to crossover into other media. Well, we're there and those media are taking over and I don't think it's driving people into comic book shops. The few that we have left.

SPURGEON: So you're definitely not encouraged.

HASPIEL: I'm not. I just watched the Zack Snyder Superman trailer this morning. It looks awesome. It looks great. I enjoyed Avengers; I even enjoyed the third Dark Knight movie. And of course I'm talking about the superhero movies. I enjoyed Dan Clowes' Ghost World and Scott Pilgrim the movie as well. And frankly a lot of the movies I watch, the genre-based ones, are poaching from the comics we've read throughout our lives. And then there are people that play the games.

I don't know how many comic-book readers there actually are. I'm a comic book reader. Most people I know don't go to the comic book shop. They might order something if you send them a link from Amazon, at a discount price. Is it encouraging? Yes, there are probably more graphic novel readers -- if that's the term we want to use. It's basically comic-book reading. Hello. But I don't know... I think it's becoming more... extreme between the two ends. Being the indy guy that kind of made a name or had a weird hit happen because of a perfect storm between a topic and a look, style-wise, vs. writing and drawing a character that's been around for 75 years. There are no new heroes. There's no stuff in-between. Nobody wants a new hero. Most people don't care about a new protagonist. It's either memoir or, "Okay, show me your Batman. Your Spider-Man."

imageSPURGEON: You see yourself in that middle ground.

HASPIEL: I'm in that middle ground! I'd be more in the Scott Pilgrim arena, if I had five consistent books that came out on a year-to-year basis. I don't. I don't have that. We're talking about my Billy Dogma character. I don't have enough of a library, enough of an inventory of Billy Dogma to recommend Billy Dogma. Plus the fact that I do iterations or variations on the character means I don't do it consistently. When I revisit this avatar that I like to write and draw, it's basically an emotionally-based version of me, it's my little project, my little hobby. It has a small fanbase, and it seems that when people read it they like it. But it doesn't have the promotion or library or inventory to recommend it.

The minute somebody reads something and likes it, they want the next thing. "Where's the next thing?" I don't have more. I have more in my head. I've done enough free comics, at least of Billy Dogma and other things, to say I'm around. You can read other things. Maybe I'm branding a sensibility. I don't have my action figure. Or my movie. And again, that's getting away from comics. I'm trying to write and draw comics. I'm sitting here going, "But the business of comics sucks." So why do I want to do comics as a business?

SPURGEON: So what would have been ideal for you? Would it have been a continuation of the model that you were on with the Vertigo books?

HASPIEL: Where I would do a graphic novel a year type thing?

SPURGEON: Well, yeah. What is the ideal industry set-up for you, specifically for you? Is that it?

HASPIEL: I feel like... you know me well enough to know that I do like the toys that I read. The toys being the DC and Marvel characters.

SPURGEON: Sure. That can be part of it. I'm not bringing any judgment to this question. I just wonder after the ideal.

HASPIEL: I would like one year of doing their stuff, one year of doing my stuff. Or three years of doing their stuff, three years of doing my stuff. I'm not going to sit here and say, "Gosh, I have all of these stories that I, Dean Haspiel, have to tell about myself." [laughs] I don't have that many stories to tell about myself. At least not in an artistic way. Now that we have these ways to express ourselves, social networking, Facebook and Twitter and blogs and e-mails, my little bits of narcissism can come out that way. To actually craft a story that means something, I don't have as many of those personally. So for me to have fun with Billy Dogma or any new character I might create, I have less of those. But I grew up reading all of these other characters, like the Fantastic Four. I love The Thing, Jack Kirby's OMAC, Batman, Spider-Man, all of these characters. I have little ideas how to write and draw their stories, too. So I believe on a creative level I would love to write a draw a bunch of those characters. I was complaining to a friend that I've never done 12 issues of one character. Like consistently. A year long. I don't know not having ever done it that I could do it. I don't know that I have the chops or skill-set. But I never got to do that, I never had my run, as it were. I would love to try that with a few characters that are pre-existing to my birth.

imageSPURGEON: I read your Spider-Man comic from a few months ago. You did a Spider-Man story this year.

HASPIEL: I actually did that a year and a half ago. I didn't know it was going to be in the anniversary issue. That was a sweet surprise.

SPURGEON: "Sweet" is a very good word... because it's a very nice story. You have a nice grasp of the values those old stories had.

HASPIEL: Oh, thank you. That's exactly what I care about. You said the values of those stories. I'm not... the first time they killed a superhero that became resurrected later on? That character should have stayed dead. Gwen Stacy stayed dead. Uncle Ben stayed dead. There are a handful of characters that have stayed dead. There were clones... [Spurgeon laughs] There were clones of some of them. But they stayed dead. And that's important. If you kill someone, let them stay dead. Nowadays they die every year. The same characters. How many times has Superman died now? That strips the value of death, and to me, these stories are about how to avoid death. It was rare that a character ever died. They would transition or turn into something else or evolve or mutate or whatever. But they rarely died in the comics of the 1960s and early '70s. And then comics got real, with those Denny O'Neil Neal Adams Green Arrow/Green Lantern comics. And I think that's okay to do that with out made-up superheroes once in a while, to put them through that ringer, that lens of "reality." But that's not way I wanted to read those comics. When I think about those character, those are the stories I write. Who they are, and what they mean. This Spider-Man story, Spider-Man barely appears in the story. Peter Parker walks aways from the costume. Somebody else adopts it. Ultimately the power of that costume becomes the value of the person wearing it.

Maybe that's a little sappy, maybe I can be a little Preston Sturges in my vision, but those are the kinds of stories I want to leave behind, to impart. Yes, life is hard. And war is hell. [laughs] Sometimes I indulge those stories. But I don't want to write and draw those stories myself.

SPURGEON: There's something I always wanted to ask you, because I'm curious about how you see yourself. This is a standard interview question, and it's not one I usually get to ask. Say we get off the phone so many minutes from now and a meteor smacks into your apartment. You're gone. What gets included in the first graph of your obit?

HASPIEL: You mean in terms of any work I've done?

SPURGEON: Work... or how you're seen, just in general. What do we focus on first?

HASPIEL: That's interesting. [pause] In terms of work, obviously I'd want if they needed something to go "Who is this person? What kind of testament of life did they leave behind?" I think obviously my recent Billy Dogma stories, after about 2006, are the ones I want people to check out if they care. But ultimately, what's really strange is that I'm a communal person. I care more about people, I think. This has been a struggle in comics. You deal with a lot of different egos, not only egos but failings of human character and behavior. It's a real struggle to uplift. The people that I try to uplift... I'm not some kind of cop, or a superhero, trying to make people better. I care about people, I care about my community, I care about comics way too much to focus only on myself. We live in this curious time right now, we have the DIY tools to only care about yourself, to only pimp yourself, to only hype yourself and your work. I spend an inordinate amount of time hyping other people, basically curating a life of my influences, the things that I like. I can tell that's exactly what you do with your site.

That's a curious question. Because if you want to define a person, say, "who were they?" I was "they." You know? I am a culmination of my influences and what I like. I don't know... that's not what you write in an obituary. [Spurgeon laughs] But I do feel that if a meteor suddenly dropped and I was killed, I feel that anyone following me in the social networking arenas would suddenly see a drop in not just "Oh, Dean disappeared. I won't get more Dean stuff." But I really feel I was curating an interesting time and space of culture. At least of the stuff I like.

SPURGEON: Can you give me an example or two of what you're talking about? Are you talking about a specific sensibility? Are you talking about artists that you carry with you?

HASPIEL: Certain artists, but it's not even like rookies or grasshoppers. The gods as well. I can be having a parlay on line and Walt Simonson drops in. And then a kid I met at the Atlantic Center For The Arts is also weighing in. For example, the other night Joan Hilty had a studio party at a space she shares here in Brooklyn with a bunch of other writers. There was a woman there I met at the Atlantic Center For The Arts who was a young, new artist-illustrator. She's focusing on YA/Children's Books. There's Rachel Gluckstern, an editor from DC Comics. There's Joan Hilty. There's Nick Abadzis -- Eisner-award winning artist for Laika and such. Even though I'm always like 30 days away from living on the street myself, I took it on myself to introduce this girl to these different editors and different headsets, and make sure by the end of the night she had a card from everyone and could do follow-through. That's what I cared more about than me trying to get my next gig.

SPURGEON: Was there something about that artist as opposed to another artist? Was there something about her work you were responding to?

HASPIEL: Nothing in particular. If she sucked, I wouldn't be doing that. [Spurgeon laughs] She obviously has talent, and she's a nice girl. She was about to leave, and she stayed another two hours because she was having good, provocative, healthy conversations about the medium and expressing herself to people she doesn't have access to. Meanwhile, I have access. I'm using my powers for good. I'm using my relationships with people for good. I felt so good about that, that if I were to stay in the business of comics, that I might be better served as a Harvey Kurtzman type, where I might be laying out and writing stories for other artists, better artists than me, to finish. I have thought about that. I don't know that anybody would give me that chance. I don't know that if I had the chance would I want to sit in an office and deal with all the stuff that those people deal with, and with I have no experience, and frankly no desire, at least with that part. I'm more creative than I am nuts and bolts.

SPURGEON: The last comics show I ended up in a late-night discussion about you. I was sitting in a bar, and your name came up. We were talking about people's ideal projects, and someone said, I don't even know if they know you, someone said that it'd be less important to you what comic you did but that they thought you'd primarily like to be a part of the studio where a bunch of people including you were making those ideal projects.

HASPIEL: [laughs] Well, the end result has to be good.

SPURGEON: I guess what they were saying is that the social part of the creative act is very appealing to you.

HASPIEL: They're accurate about that.

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SPURGEON: And you are part of an ongoing collective, so this might give us a chance to talk about that.

HASPIEL: This all started when I learned that, "Oh God, I'm going to be drawing a four-issue mini-series with Evan Dorkin." The Thing: Night Falls On Yancy Street, where I basically wrote part of a story, didn't finish it, wooed Evan into picking up the baton and running with it and writing his fleshed out version of this amazing story. I'm working at home alone and decide to quit this part-time job as a graphic designer. I'm sitting at home a lot. And I have these scripts. And they're daunting. Luckily, there's this thing called LiveJournal on the Internet, and I'm able to have virtual officemates. So my first studio was a bunch of folks on-line typing up blogs and occasionally putting up an image or so. That lead to Act-I-Vate in 2006. That was my first on-line studio rather than having officemates. After that, it turned into a physical studio called Deep Six over here in Brooklyn with five other people. That expanded into a few studios next to each other on the same hall. So we had all these different people. I was really excited by that. My initial idea was I wanted a Rat Pack. That's what I wanted. Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr.... the fourth guy always escapes me.

SPURGEON: Peter Lawford?

HASPIEL: No, the fifth guy. [Spurgeon laughs] Lawford was really the fifth guy. Who was the fourth guy? Joey Bishop. So the Rat Pack all complemented each other in certain ways. What I wasn't ready for was all the egos and personalities including my own. I'm a 300 pound gorilla and we had a very small room. You're going to have clashes. It was a really exciting time for me. Three years of that went by, and it started to break down, and I had an opportunity to move to another space. I asked the fellas if they wanted to do that and they didn't. I moved. I helped organize a new studio that wasn't just cartoonists. Actually, Nick Bertozzi was part of that studio. Gregory Benton was a part of that studio. Currently Seth Kushner. And a bunch of folks. Plus other artists and filmmakers.

What I realized from that, though, is that I'm not just a cartoonist. I never was, Tom, I never was just a cartoonist, even as a young kid. I liked acting. I liked writing prose. I love music. That's what I realized, one of the things about comics, I don't know if I should stay in comics for the business of comics. Not only is it hard to make a living at it, I bend over backwards to write a pitch to get a piddly page rate for something I don't own that will hardly get marketed. I don't even know if my name brings any kind of sales acumen to the properties or not. No matter the amount of fun I'm having writing or drawing these things. Then again, it's comics. I watch TV. I love movies. Like I said, I love music. Why don't I expand out and take more risks like that? When I went to Yaddo this year, I didn't go for artwork. I didn't want to draw. I went, and the first night I was there and didn't know anyone I wrote a comic book script. Fine. And then I drew it. Great. But what I spent the majority of my time there doing was finishing a screenplay and writing the first 60 pages of a prose novel. I took that time to invest in something different in myself. What do I do next with it? I don't know. I have some friends that work in that industry, and slowly but surely I'm sharing my wares that way.

What I'm known for is drawing other people's stories and characters. I drew Harvey Pekar's story. I drew Jonathan Ames' story. I've worked with Stan Lee. I've drawn a bunch of Marvel and DC characters. But nothing substantial. Nothing essential. Frankly, I'm a little frustrated with my career path [laughs] because as much as I enjoy a lot of that work and I'm really proud of the Vertigo graphic novels, I need to write something definitive. So when that meteor does strike, you do have that profound piece of work -- hopefully -- that I did. That does come with a certain sense of ego, but that's why we do what we do. We have egos.

SPURGEON: When Harvey passed, and you got to see someone's life and life work summarized... does how we process someone like that have an effect on you? Do you wonder after your own legacy? For that matter, are you happy with the way that Harvey's legacy is settling into place?

HASPIEL: I joke that he's like Tupac -- he has more posthumous works coming out than most of us. [laughs] It's strange when someone asks if I'll miss Harvey, because there are so many obvious things that are asked when people die. It's the way we express things to each other; we can't help it. When people ask about Harvey, I say, "The thing about Harvey is that his whole life is in comic book form. He's been immortalized." There aren't too many stones unturned in Harvey Pekar's life. You can go read his life.

The thing I hadn't thought about is that he doesn't get to write his last story. Because we share our lives with people, mostly, it's up to us that knew him, that have the tools to write and draw in this medium he's most know for, we can tell his story. A friend of mine was at a Jewish funeral, I think that's what that was, where everyone digs into the sand and buries the person -- you help put them back into the earth. I did a piece for Entertainment Weekly where I felt like I was throwing dirt on Harvey's grave in a respectful way. How he had an impact on me. I got to write a little bit about Harvey for those that didn't know who Harvey Pekar was. But by talking about the impact he had on me, that was my way of respecting him back. So yeah.

It happens so fast, Tom. [laughs] I remember meeting you in Chicago in like 1995.

SPURGEON: Sure. Maybe the year after, but sure.

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HASPIEL: It's 20 years later, but it doesn't feel like that many years later. And 20 years from now... 40 years from now it's done.

SPURGEON: It feels like 10,000 years to me. [Haspiel laughs] But I get it in terms of blinking and it's gone. Twenty-five years from now, we are quite old by any standard you'd care to use, and we're not young now.

HASPIEL: Did you read Sean Howe's Marvel Comics: The Untold Story?

SPURGEON: I'm reading it right now.

HASPIEL: I couldn't put it down, and it completely broke my heart, that book. When you were talking about how I wanted to be remembered and someone suggested I wanted to be a part of the rigamarole, a studio, the fantasy I had growing up was the Marvel bullpen. Stan Lee and all those guys, and the idea that they were sitting in a room making things happen. These comics came out every week. I've never had that experience. That was what I wanted. That was the Rat Pack I wanted to be a part of. And then you find out, no, that's not how it went down. That was just hype. That was just PR. These people are amazing talents and provocateurs of ideas -- the House Of Ideas. That was just made up. They didn't sit in a room together and make this stuff up. There were bullpens. Production staff. There was the Mark Gruenwald era: he sounds like he was a happy guy, an innovative guy. But it was more of a struggle than anything else. That's what comics is. Comics is hard.

SPURGEON: Are you jealous at all of the students that have this bonding experience up at CCS or wherever?

HASPIEL: You're basically saying that the era I never got to live in was comic book high school and college. [laughs]

SPURGEON: There are some things like that as well. Fort Thunder had that kind of collective feel to it, and a lot of comics were made there.

HASPIEL: I've met a bunch of the artists that went to the Joe Kubert School. Now there's CCS. There's Atlantic Center For The Arts, which has a three-week program with a lot of bonding, that I call Vietnam. Something you hold onto forever. Then there are the studios. I'm sure Neal Adams' Continuity Studios... Upstart Studios where I was an assistant for Howard Chaykin and Walt Simonson and Bill Sienkiewicz down the hall.

What you learn when you get older is that there's no template for anything. People always want to be a part of something they heard of, if they like it, but they realize that you can't have it the way it was. It's always going to be a different way. Being a freelancer means being an innovator, nothing you do has a template attached to it. When you get older, you realize that. But when you're younger you say, "I want to do that. That thing I like." That thing either doesn't exist anymore or never existed the way you thought it did.

So I'm not jealous.

SPURGEON: When you said earlier you could see yourself not doing comics, what did you mean you would be doing? Did you mean the prose, and the screenplay you talked about after that?

HASPIEL: I went to film school. If I could write and direct movies -- that's a fantasy. The reality is that it's just as difficult... it's easier to make a comic book, of course, now that I've done it. I feel like if I want to make more of an impact with any of my stories, it's not going to be in comics, Tom. Marvel and DC are not going to let me do my Grant Morrison take on one of their characters. They're not giving me the keys. At the end of the day, because I have created some of my own characters, I should probably do that with my own characters and figure out how they can sit next to the icons somehow. But that's impossible. I don't think I have anything like that. I have my own little story, my own unique way of writing and drawing, but it doesn't have that universal appeal. That's what you find out. That's what all those editorial meetings are about. How can we get more people to read these damn comics? These damn characters that we've been drawing for 75 years, how can we get people to read them next month?

SPURGEON: Why is it that you don't have that intersection of skill and opportunity, then, that would allow for this? Is it that your sensibility is different? Is it just that you haven't come across your idea? A lot of the guys that work in that industry are our same-age peers.

HASPIEL: I was given advice recently to copy the stories I like and then put a little twist on it. My own little twist on it. I've spent too much time trying to avoid the copying part so I've just... I've exploited the twist as it were, the uniqueness. That's shooting myself in the foot. I think what people respond to are the clichés and tropes of our lives. In fact, that is what knits us together in a weird way. Those are the kinds of stories... we're made up of like 98 percent water or something?

SPURGEON: [laughs] Something. We're a lot of water.

HASPIEL: I'm focused on the non-water aspects of the stories. Instead of trying to beat them, I should be trying to join them. Then do my twist on one of the seven plots that are famous. Not be unique and outsmart it. I'm not that smart. Why am I trying to outsmart something? Why don't I just give in and start the classic hero's journey or whatever people have figured out before I ever started to draw? Why don't I do that? I feel like I avoid that, and it's because I'm trying to be unique. Maybe it's because I don't know how to respond to the norms in a way. I'm still trying to escape something that is more escapist than like-minded or like-lived.

imageSPURGEON: What is the work of yours you're proudest of? That you're happiest with?

HASPIEL: I'm pretty proud of -- I was just talking to a publisher -- a comic I did called Immortal and then Fear, My Dear. I felt like they spoke to something I wanted to express, that was meaningful to me. Nothing's perfect, but I was happy with the way those came out. I was happy with the process of that. These two Billy Dogma stories I'm going to remaster into a book to be out at the end of next year. Then I'll have this book out there, right? It sort of stands in for me. What I want to project. I'm very aware of the fact that we're projecting stuff, and you can't control how people respond to it. As long as you have a little sense of humor about yourself you can let certain criticisms fly. You can prepare for it. I'm okay with it. I'm pretty tough. As sensitive as I am, I'm pretty tough. I can take the lumps. I am excited about having something in print in a day and age where print is dying. I still respond to that. I still feel that, for instance, I can send those stories digitally to a producer in Hollywood and they might look at it -- they probably won't, because they have to make the effort of clicking something on their iPad. The minute they have to hold something in their hand, there's something happening there. There's a different sensibility. A different sense of care. I think that still impresses people more than a digital download. So I wanted to have that for those reasons. In print, that is.

I've never downloaded a comic in my life. I've read a webcomic, but I've never downloaded something to my phone or whatever.

SPURGEON: You said at one point that you were a web designer.

HASPIEL: I did web design for a company years ago, I was the graphics guy. I did a couple of front page web designs, and then a couple of pages in. I had a basic sense. I didn't know how to code. I did understand how pages work -- click on this and it brings you this page, so on and so forth. I used to joke that Chris Ware's comics always reminded me of web page design.

SPURGEON: I wanted to talk to you about your art. Your design sense in general seems more refined and elegant than it used to. Your art seems more spare, too. A lot of artists refine their work that way.

HASPIEL: You get a little more confident. The stuff that I rejected as a kid -- the Harvey Kurtzmans, the people that use less line to tell their stories -- were the people that used fewer lines and I didn't understand that. Now that I'm older and you get more mature, with your own work you realize that it's a reduction. That's the one thing that recommends cartooning: it's a reduction, a boiling down. You also create a lexicon of visuals that live in the same world. That poster you drew goes along with that person you drew with that background, that horse. Early on I'm drawing a toaster from reference and a background from a photograph and trying to make sure I get it right, but I'm not thinking in terms of visual lexicon. Now I do: how does everything live together on the same page. Ultimately, they're just indications. If you want to look at the positive side of cartooning, if I could get to the point where I'm drawing as fast as you're reading -- which is impossible, but if I could get down to those kinds of markings, I would be so much happier. Of course, the more you do that, the more artsy-fartsy you are getting in some way. I don't even know what that would look like. Maybe that's more what my layouts look like. I'd have to turn that into my finished piece and have people be okay with that.

We have a handful of artists, like Gary Panter, that can draw whatever comes out of their heads and it's done. It's finished. It's a calligraphy, a signature that he figured out a long time ago that he's okay with and so is everybody else. You want a Gary Panter comic, no one is saying it's not finished.

imageSPURGEON: You don't think you have that same strength of sensibility?

HASPIEL: I think I do, but I don't have any confidence in it right now. I think I have the same strength, but I lack confidence. I think what will give me the confidence is the day I decide, "This is what I'm going to do. I'm going to finish the story this way. And then put it out there." I think part of the confidence comes from the reaction. If everyone says it sucks and stop doing it, I'm not going to sit there and fight everybody. I want to convey my ideas, and if I can't convey my ideas then I have failed. I have not served my story.

SPURGEON: Have you been confronted in that way? That sounds horrible.

HASPIEL: I have by editors. And by myself. Yeah, of course. I remember Joe Quesada at Marvel Comics saying I wasn't good enough. Mike Allred just came out with an FF comic written by Matt Fraction. I was talking to an editor at Marvel recently and I was like, "If there's anything I'm closer to, it's a Mike Allred in terms of commercial appeal and the way I do the superhero stuff." They agreed, and said they wished they could do more comics like this but the market doesn't support it. Mike Allred has enough of a fanbase that they can get away with one comic that looks like that right now. If more people wanted that, they would do more comics that looked like that. That's business. Again, the business of comics.

At the end of the day, I can't care any more about what Marvel thinks or DC thinks or what a book publisher thinks. I have to create my own branding that's unique to me, that if you want to that you'll get that: Dean Haspiel. That's what I've learned. Stop being so derivative of my influences, find a more unique way to create a story -- of course, that conflicts with being universal, and commercial. Trust me: I wish I could sell out. I don't know how to sell out. So if I'm not going to be able to do that, I have to create a brand where you hire me or buy me that's what you want. We now have a way to provide a hint of who we are -- we do have social networking, I do show up for the party, we do have previews. I do pimp myself. You're not going to be completely unaware. If you've discovered something I'm hyping, you'll have a pretty good idea of what it is before you buy it.

SPURGEON: You're someone that feels your influences very strongly, and you have a strong sensibility yourself. What is the last time you... how open are you to new influences?

HASPIEL: Every day.

SPURGEON: So who was the last person you saw that sort of blew you away, where you were like "Whoa, whoa, whoa: I have to look at this."

HASPIEL: I'm going to go pull the book I was looking at this morning. Josh Simmons: the way he paces and tells a story is amazing. The person I was thinking of, though, I think his last name is Brecht.

SPURGEON: Brecht Evens?

HASPIEL: That sounds right. I love the way he draws.

I was also completely blown away by Jon McNaught, at this publishing house called Nobrow. They blow me away. They put out a book, I believe it was earlier this year, it was an anthology called A Graphic Cosmogony. It was about the end of the world or something about that. I could not stop looking at this art work. It was completely different than what I would have liked as a kid. I love BlexBolex, too. There's a lot of stuff from Nobrow that blows me away. I just watched a movie called Martyrs, that came out from Canada a couple of years ago, a horror film. Influences isn't always about artwork and line; it's about sensibility and story. I see a lot of artwork in story, whether it's delivered in film or in text. It inspires me to think differently. Sometimes this happens even when I eat something.

I've actually bought A Graphic Cosmogony several times for other people. The artwork alone... it recommends print when you feel it and touch it. I don't want to see it in digital format at all. I want to hold it. I'm sure it looks great on a laptop. I was really impressed with Scalped, I wasn't used to that kind of artwork and line. David Mazzucchelli is awesome. There's an economy to Darwyn Cooke that I wish I had. That comes from his background of storyboards and animation. He's figured out a way to tell a story very briskly.

SPURGEON: It almost sounds like there's an excitement but at the same time I wonder if there's a fear you may end up internalizing at the same time.

HASPIEL: When I'm laying something out, I'm not thinking. The minute I have to turn it into a finished piece, I think too much. It gets in the way of those initial thoughts that have been translated into graphic footnotes. If I could take those graphic footnotes and turn that into a finished piece, I think I would be happy. Cartooning is indication, as opposed to "You drew a really great kneecap, Dean." Who cares! I don't care about a great-looking kneecap. That's not my job. My job is to convey a story. You're not going to look at my artwork and think about how well I drew something. How well I conveyed something in terms of story and narrative and drama or humor, beats and pacing, that's what I care about. When I look at something like Graphic Cosmogony, I wish I could draw with my other hand and break every influence I had.

*****

* Dean Haspiel

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* part of the new Billy Dogma material that Haspiel had at SPX this year
* photo of Haspiel from a couple of years ago that I like
* Haspiel's most consistent, recurring characters
* a page from Haspiel's 2012-published Spider-Man story
* from Night Falls On Yancy Street, which started Haspiel on his studio odyssey
* Haspiel draws Harvey Pekar
* a work the artist likes
* Haspiel's strong visual sensibility
* a panel from a story featuring Haspiel's later-period, pared-down style (below)

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image

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