Interview: Dean Haspiel Pt. 4 [of 4]

Categories:  Interviews


In this final part, Dean Haspiel relates the hilarious story behind his collaboration with the late-Harvey Pekar, and explains why online comics are a no-brainer.

[Part One][Part Two][Part Three]

How did you relationship with Harvey come about?

Oh, jeez. My good pal Josh Neufeld had written Harvey and gotten a gig with him. I used to compete with Josh a lot and claim that I was a better artist, so it was a no-brainer that Harvey would hire me. So, I sent off some samples and never heard from him. I thought, ‘what the hell, man? I’m a better artist—I’m far superior to Josh Neufeld, and you’re giving him gigs.’ Of course, I didn’t realize that it was my then sensibility that he wasn’t responding to. It was much more heroic.

So, I was kind of peeved by that. I then did a comic about it in Keyhole, a two-man anthology that Josh and I put together. And then I sent Harvey the comic, and he didn’t respond to that either, and I was thinking, ‘jeez, what an asshole!’

Maybe a year or two later, I got a call from a guy claiming to be Harvey Pekar. He sounded like a parody of Harvey, talking in that jazzy vibe, “don’t you wanna make some bread, man?” I was thinking that it was Josh or a friend of mine playing a prank on me. So I gave him some shit, and he told me to fuck off, and hung up the phone.

I thought, ‘well, that prank turned sour.’ So, I called Josh and told him the situation, and he said, “that was Harvey. You idiot.” So I asked for his phone number, called up Harvey, and apologized. He said, “what have I got to do for you to prove that I’m really me?” And I said to Harvey, “give me a job.”

So he did, and I did a one-pager. I did a couple of other things with him. I had been working as an assistant to movie producer Ted Hope, who was a big comics fan and a big Harvey Pekar fan. So I put a bee in his bonnet and said, “hey, it would be kind of cool if there was an American Splendor movie. Let’s talk to Harvey.”

He said, “if you could hook me up, I would love to talk to Harvey.” And I did, and a year and a half later, there was this awesome movie. After that, Harvey wanted to thank me, and he said, “what can I do—within reason—to thank you for resuscitating my career here?” And I said, “well, I’ve never done anything substantial with you. Can we do a graphic novel together?” And he said, “sure.” And a little while later, he came up with a 12-page story [laughs]. And I said, “Harvey, that’s not a graphic novel.”

So we discussed it some more and brought the idea to Jonathan Vankin, who was just becoming an editor at Vertigo, and he was into it. So we did The Quitter on Vertigo, and on the success of that, I convinced Vertigo and Harvey to bring back American Splendor, and we did eight issues. And I also did an Escapist story with Harvey for Dark Horse and did a Bizarro story with him.

And then, as things were winding down with American Splendor for Vertigo, and me having pretty good success with Act-I-Vate, and the whole Web thing, Harvey was trying to place a new artist he was working with named Tara Seibel. He was like, “would you publish some of her stuff on Act-I-Vate?” I was like, “well, I don’t know if I would publish her stuff, but I would publish your stuff, if you guys collaborated and maybe with some other artists in collaboration, like you usually do.”

I love Harvey, but I didn’t want to have the headache of having to edit Harvey. But because I did Next Door Neighbor at Smith, and I know that Josh did A.D. and Dan Goldman did Shooting War, and Jeff Newelt was the comics editor at Smith. I handed Harvey to Jeff, who is a good salesman of the form. It came with the price of having to learn how to truly be an editor and to work with a famous writer.

I thought it was brilliant, the way he handled it. He knows that Pekar loves music, so he was creating a band by finding the four right people to rotate stories, and thus the Pekar Project was created. And the other thing was convincing Harvey—as you, there was a price to everything, he wanted to get paid, just like the rest of us—to basically write this stuff for free with the promise of a publishing deal in the backend.

It was a real coup for Smith and Jeff to get Harvey. I know he hesitated, but once he saw the results, and he had new readers not dependent on a regular publishing schedule, that was really helpful for him.

A lot of publishers have had some difficulty adapting to an online presence. Have you become something of a go-to for people, when they want to learn more about new media?

People have asked me formatting question, which is weird, because it’s a no-brainer, converting print stuff online. Maybe it is smarter to use the 4 x 3 aspect ratio for your laptop. And yet, when we first launched Act-I-Vate in 2006, it was Dan Goldman who said to me, “you know, a lot of people are going to look at stuff on phones only in the future, so maybe it’s better to do things as squares.” So that’s how I did Billy Dogma originally online.

I don’t think I’m a genius [laughs] or have any insights into the future, I just thought it was obvious, you know? But it seems that there are a lot of people in a lot of companies and a lot of young and old creators that lean on people like me and my studio-mates to say, “hey, how did you do that?” It’s an easy tutorial. It takes five to ten minutes to figure it out.

The hard part with the Web, I’ve discovered, is the marketing, because you’re in competition with everyone. Before you were in competition for a page in magazine or the side of a bus or a building. with the world wide Web, it’s infinite. So, how do you get attention? As I’ve known since my days on LiveJournal, it’s social networking. But with social networking comes a price, which is, when you’re not writing or drawing, you’re social networking.

And unfortunately, what has happened a lot these days, at leas with the smaller, boutique publishers, is that they’ve become synonymous with paying the printer’s bill, and that’s it. They don’t have savvy marketers as much as us cartoonists and authors would like. And a lot of the marketing, we bear it on our shoulders, and what happens is you’ve got less time for creativity, and you’re trying to get people’s attention to look at your stuff, and you split the dividends, because they pay your printer’s bill.

Of course, that’s going to change because we’re cutting out not only the publisher, but also, possibly, the distributor, because of online digital formats. It’s kind of a cool time, but it’s also really scary. You can make a feature-length movie or cut an album in your house, you can also publish in your house, be the distributor, and almost be the manufacturer in your house.

The one thing they don’t teach you in your senior year of art college is business. I have a feeling that that’s what it’s going to become. We’re the content makers. These other people wouldn’t have their jobs, if we didn’t provide content. And the more they fuck that up, the more the savvyier content makers are going to adopt that business.

–Brian Heater