“I definitely have one foot in one pond and one foot in the other pond,” Dean Haspiel tells me. “I’m trying to toggle between the two.” For most of his cartooning life, Haspiel’s work has been firmly planted in the more independent end of the spectrum, with titles like Billy Dogma and his various collaborations with Harvey Pekar and Jonathan Ames.
As the artist admits, however, superheroes are his first love, a fact that seems to be rising to the surface more frequently these days, thanks to his Emmy-nominated work on HBO’s Bored to Death and some forthcoming work for Marvel.
Looking at the work you’re doing with Bored to Death—and a lot of the work you do in general—it seems as though you keep veering back toward superhero books. Are they something you’ve wanted to do all along?
Superhero books are my first love. Billy Dogma is my true autobio, even though most of the things that occur in the Billy Dogma stories have not directly occurred to me, but they’ve emotionally happened to me. Memoir or semi-autobiographic comics, what’s hard about them for me is that you, the reader, can only be a voyeur. But if I create an avatar or a character that doesn’t truly exist, then you fill that character’s shoes and follow their journey. That’s a more powerful way to tell a story.
You feel like it’s easier for people to relate to a fictional character?
Yeah. When I’m doing reportage, which are the basis of semi-autobiographical comics, you’re more accountable for what happens and the details are more closely scrutinized. Whereas larger than life characters have a little more latitude to express things artistically and metaphorically.
But on a less grandiose and less intellectual level, isn’t it just fun to draw action and fight scenes?
Well, that’s another thing. Luckily I’ve been able to write and draw stories where things happen. I’ve never been really good at navel gazing, which, luckily these days there’s less of that happening in comics—or, ‘oh my god, my girlfriend left me.’ They’re crying in their beer. Boo hoo.
I definitely have a lot more fun drawing stuff with action, drawing things in a surreal situation. But because I’ve been doing so much memoir, between Street Code, The Alcoholic, The Quitter, American Splendor, and now Cuba: My Revolution, even when I dabble back into the superheroics, I keep contrasting it somehow with neo-realism.
Maybe what’s happening now is, by the function of having to draw realistically or show realistic situations, that’s starting to bleed more into my fantasy world. But who knows. I definitely have one foot in one pond and one foot in the other pond, and I’m trying to toggle between the two.
Something like Billy Dogma definitely skirts the line, but you’re also working on aDeadpool book. Are you interested in going all the way over to that side?
When I was younger, I felt like I would be lucky to grow up to be the penciller of The Fantastic Four. That assembly line mentality; you’re only serving a story and you’re only one cog in this big story-making machine. Because I was basically rejected by Marvel and DC—I wasn’t good enough to write and draw, at the time, for the big two comics companies.
But, because I was passionate about doing comics; and with examples like American Splendor and Yummy Fur and Art Spiegelman and R. Crumb, and all these guys that shrugged off these franchised characters to write and draw their own their own stories and characters, it encourages a young, a budding auteur to write and draw their own stories, to create their own superheroes or real-life stories.
Because my hand was forced, because I wasn’t getting hired, is the only reason I’m writing my own stories, today. And, because I’ve had so much practice, now when an editor at Marvel like Axel Alonso calls and says, “Hey Dean, I have some room at the end of Deadpool, would you mind writing and drawing a story?” First of all, I’m excited to be asked. I’m honored. And then I’m like, “who the fuck is Deadpool? I don’t even know who this character is.”
And then, when I look online, I realize that he’s been around for over a decade. He’s one of the more popular Marvel characters. He’s a Looney Tune—he’s like Marvel’s Looney Tune. He’s like Bugs Bunny with a gun. And then I remember that one of my studiomates, Reilly Brown, has actually written and drawn Deadpool.
So, I’m asking Reilly, “who the fuck is Deadpool? Tell me what I need to come up with a story.” I’m looking online. There’s enough information everywhere that I can devise a story, but the cool part is, because my hand was forced into writing and drawing my own stuff, I actually have a sensibility at age 43.
So, I’m relying on, “okay, what would I do if you gave me Deadpool and gave me a couple of pages to play around with?” And that’s what I did. And luckily Axel bought the story and it’s getting published.
Did you find that you were moving away from reading mainstream books as you moved away from the prospect of creating them?
What I shy away from as a reader, when it comes to mainstream books, are the events. I’m so not interested in the events. I don’t care about Civil War, Secret Invasion—whatever the next thing is that is happening. I’m sorry, but if Batman is going to die, let him die in his own comic, not across the DC Universe. I’m not saying that that isn’t working, because obviously it is working, but I just want to pick up a 22 page comic and read a fucking story, like I did when I was 15 years old and get something out of it.
I’m a real champion of the done-in-one story, and hey, if there’s a little cliffhanger that will get me to another story, or get me to the next issue, I’ll buy the next one. But why can’t I pick up a comic book and read a story in 22 pages? You can’t anymore.
So that, to me, is bothersome, not to mention the fact that you have to pay an arm and a leg to buy a comic. Four dollars is insulting. Which is why digital downloads are going to become more popular—you won’t have to kill so many trees.
But have I moved away from the mainstream? I’ve moved towards better stories. I’ve moved towards reading books by my favorite authors and artists. The only franchise I’m a diehard fan of anymore is The Fantastic Four, because I’ve picked up that book every month since I was 12. That’s a relationship I’ve had for 31 years.
That keeps the fanboy in me alive and well. But I’m more interested in reading and telling a good story. Which is hard to do because some of these characters have been around a very long time. I don’t know how people keep milking out stories from them but they do. And, I guess the reason why it’s possible is that, if I can think of new stories then they can think of new stories and that’s the power of these iconic characters.
[Continued in Part Three]