As I attempted to schedule a long overdue interview with Dean Haspiel, the cartoonist sent me a long list of possible topics. It’s a testament to the Act-I-Vate founder’s self-promotional savvy, a quality to which anyone on his much used mailing list can attest. More than that, however, the document illustrates his unflagging work ethic.
The list was long and diverse, from a Marvel book, to the passing of his friend and collaborator, Harvey Pekar, to the recent Emmy co-nomination for the animated opening to HBO’s Bored to Death.
For the sake of beginning with happier topic, we kick off our interview with a conversation about the latter.
How did you Bored to Death gig first come about?
Jonathan Ames is a pal of mine. We collaborated on The Alcoholic. And I also provided illustrations for his recent essay collection, The Double Life is Twice as Good. In pitching a series based on a short called “Bored to Death” that he had written for McSweeney’s that was green lit and made into a pilot, he elected to fill out the case with a best friend who was loosely based on me. He is a Webcartoonist.
I think he was really excited by what I was doing with Act-I-Vate and, at a point, even joked that he was going to have our Deep Six Studios be like the Lone Gunmen from The X-Files. These characters were going to help the protagonist solve cases—but it didn’t turn out that way.
So he kept that Ray Hueston character. And then, when they finally cast it with Zach Galifianakis, it was altered, because Zach and I are hardly alike, at least in demeanor. As much as I’ve come to know the real person, he takes a different tact with the characterization of this Ray Hueston take off of me.
I didn’t get to know him well in the first season because I wanted him to create his own character from the words and the situations. I felt a lot better about getting to know him a lot, come season two. He’d already explored how to approach this character in season one.
But the way the show came about was, Jonathan wanted to represent aspects of Brooklyn and the artists and writers who live there. He’s the kind of guy who writes what he knows best, and I happened to be in his life, so he was just grasping for certain aspects of me to add to the show.
Did he initially want to have a graphic element to the show? Is that part of the reason he chose a cartoonist as a character?
I think that, right at the very beginning, he was savvy in understanding that the prevalence of the graphic novel or comics was a selling point. The New York Times and The New Yorker acknowledged the form, which opened the doors for a lot of people in the last five to ten years. The entertainment industry has been poaching comics for eons. Now it actually acknowledges their importance. Between the likes of Ghost World and American Splendor and X-Men and The Dark Knight—I think the fact that all of these things are doing well is a selling point for the show.
Right off the bat, it was known that, if this sold, that I was going to be the artist. That was one of the perks of Jonathan being the executive producer of the show—he can make those decisions. So I was excited by that. I was excited to help co-create the character that Ray Hueston was going to be drawing, Super Ray.
This all comes from Jonathan’s head, this stuff that I’ve been drawing. And I get to talk to him about different aspects of the show and the characterization, but really, the Super Ray character is purely an invention from him, in terms of what the superhero could be. It kind of makes me laugh, because in season one, and more so in season two, the Super Ray character uses his penis a lot to enact justice. It’s something I never would have considered on my own—or maybe I did, when I was 12 years old, drawing on my friend’s social studies book, but not as a 43-year-old.
It’s a very Jonathan Ames approach to the superhero.
Exactly. And in a way, what’s kind of smart about that approach is, he understands that you’re only going to see it for a three to four second flash on the screen. And in those three to four seconds, you have to get the gag, or else it doesn’t work. It’s not like the camera is going to slowly cascade over a couple of panels, so you can read them like a comic book.
What’s funny is, it’s an embarrassing kind of job in some ways—I’m not a prude, but when HBO puts these comics up online to fill out the Web experience, you can study these drawings, and they’re really kind of silly. Again, once you see what I did in season two, you’ll better understand what I’m commenting on.
But, having said that, season two has a lot more Super Ray comic art in it. In fact, without giving too much away, the season culminates at a comic convention-type scenario.
Having worked with Jonathan on a few comicz projects, do you feel like he brings a firm grasp of the art form to the table, compared to other more Hollywood types?
It’s really boils down to the fact that Jonathan Ames is a renaissance man. He really knows how to adapt his ideas into almost any form, from literature to live stage performances to television to movies. Maybe that’s inherent in his stories or storytelling, and sure, a lot of good ideas should be able to cross platforms, but he, as the sole author, is able to look at the format and determine how to tell his stories. He uses the virtues of the format to tell the stories.
When he was writing The Alcoholic, for instance, I was impressed by the fact that he understood panels and pacing and pages. If you want to contrast him to a Harvey Pekar, who is famous for having written in comics his entire life, I would criticize Harvey in that he didn’t really pace his comics. He took a piece of paper, made eight squares out of it and then would draw a stick figure that rants and raves, or he would sometimes observe the quieter moments of life, and it was up to the artist to stage the story.
But that was the kind of latitude that a Pekar strip would allow an artist. The more successful Pekar stories are dependent on the artist, not necessarily the way the artist rendered things, as much as the way they used the comics medium.
But going back to Jonathan, he knows how to pick these things up quick. And maybe he’s a good study, because he read comics as a kid. He told me privately that it was The Avengers’ Korvac Saga that broke his heart and made him stop reading comics for many years. You’d have to ask him why, but the guy can cite examples from the comics.
When I showed him Y: The Last Man by Brian K. Vaughan, it resuscitated his interest in the comics form—that plus Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home. They made him see the path of how to write The Alcoholic.
[Continued in Part Two.]