Man and Myth

Comic-book artist Dean Haspiel set to attend Staple! Independent Media Expo

Man and Myth
Illustration By Dean Haspiel

The third annual Staple! Independent Media Expo – our town's comic-book and zine shindig – will take place at the Red Oak Ballroom on Saturday. Engineered by Chris Nicholas and his crew and sponsored by that chunk of graphic paradise called Austin Books, this year's version features writer and artist Dean Haspiel as its guest of honor. The engaging Haspiel – creator of Billy Dogma, illustrator of Harvey Pekar's The Quitter, and collaborator with author Jonathan Ames on Ames' first graphic novel, The Alcoholic – will be signing books and talking about his career, doing sketches with a pen of near-Mjolnir majesty, and generally hanging out in all his scruffy, affable, Brooklynesque glory. We caught the man via telephone last week while he caught a breath between multiple deadlines, and here's how some of the conversation went.

Austin Chronicle: So, what's the deal with this Staple! gig?

Dean Haspiel: Well, I'm honored and flattered that they chose me to be a guest of honor. Because I don't have my one-hit wonder; I don't have any big thing that people know me for, really, except maybe Billy Dogma and my online stuff. Especially the online stuff. Because, you know, taking off your shirt on the Internet does a lot for you [laughs]. I'm gonna be doing a one-hour panel, kind of an overview of my career. Lecture's not my forte, but I'll be talking about how I toggle between franchises and genre stuff and doing creator-owned, indie-style comics, because I've got a foot planted firmly in each pond. So I'm this guy who's played with the franchise toys, making some bucks, but has also maintained his own voice.

AC: Integrity, they call it.

DH: Maybe. Integrity doesn't pay the rent, but hey. And I know my gravestone won't say, "He had health insurance" [laughs]. And so I'll have a table where I can talk and sign stuff, do sketches. And the night before Staple!, there's a meet and greet at Austin Books. And there's gonna be a party at some club Saturday night, with live drawing going on, that kind of thing. It's gonna be a blast. One of the reasons I'm excited to go to Staple! is to find those diamonds in the rough, those comics that people don't know about yet, the ones that have genuine stories to tell. That's what [Small Press Expo] is; that's what [Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art] is. I'm hoping that's what Staple! is, too.

AC: When you do your own indie comics, you're a helluva fine writer. So why, in all these mainstream projects, are you working with a writer?

DH: Well, I co-plot, sometimes. Not with Harvey Pekar or Jonathan Ames for The Alcoholic, but when I worked with Nick Bertozzi on an X-Men Unlimited story, I plotted the story out, and he wrote it. And often I'll throw in my 2 cents with the writer to give my own spin on stuff. But, bottom line, I just wasn't confident in writing franchised, already-established characters. Like, for that Thing miniseries, "Night Falls on Yancy Street"? I started writing the pitch for Marvel, got stuck, and asked Evan Dorkin if he'd take over. And he did and fleshed it out into a four-issue miniseries. But the whole romance angle was my idea for The Thing, because that's what I dig. My comics are, I like to say, superpsychedelic romance comics. They're kind of hyperbolic and surreal, like Shakespeare on a bad day. You're told, in writing class, that you should "kill your darlings," right? But I don't: I indulge my darlings.

AC: Like Billy Dogma and Jane Legit?

DH: I created Billy Dogma in 1995 as an umbrella character, an avatar to represent my sensibilities in a kind of, uh, Dean-Haspiel-to-the-second-power, as it were. But I was still learning how to write, learning how to tell stories, and subsequently I was doing autobio comics – like the Keyhole series, which was a two-person anthology I did with my buddy Josh Neufeld. And I realized that I love memoirs, and I enjoy reading other people's memoirs. But it's like, when you read about Dean, you can't be Dean. But if you read about Billy Dogma or Jane Legit, you could be Billy or Jane. You can displace yourself into those fictional, mythic characters. I'm telling my autobiographical stories by tapping into emotional, universal truths. I'm actually gaining more of an audience for myself, for my sensibilities, by creating mythological characters of some kind.

AC: Right, because, that way, anybody can tap into it. It's like the narrative version of what Scott McCloud was saying in Inventing Comics. Where you have something generic, almost, which lets a person project their own –

DH: Well, yeah – I mean, look how iconic I am. Because we grew up on fables and fairy tales and stories, and the thing I'm having fun with now, on the Act-I-Vate Web site with my comics Immortal and Fear, My Dear, I don't exactly know what's going to happen next. And usually, when I'm working on a project for one of the big companies, not only do I already know the entire script, and I just have to interpret it into comics, but, even when I pitch a graphic story, I have to already know the entire idea in order to sell it. What's great about the more experimental nature of Act-I-Vate, is that I have an inkling of what I wanna do and what I wanna say, I've created something of a thesis, sure, but I can also divert from it. And because I've taken dramatic structure classes and stuff like that, I know when to pull back from veering too far, y'know? And, at the same time, I'm such a fan of so many different genres – like horror, kung fu, spaghetti Westerns, crime – and all that stuff amalgamates and caramelizes into my work.

AC: How would you describe your newest Billy Dogma story? He's got these superpowers now, right?

DH: Yeah, and so things kinda went crazy, but at the same time I think there's a very simple story being told there. Because, if I had to say in a few words what Immortal is about, it's a War of Woo. And I know I've said that in the comic, but, when you boil it down, it's about two love titans who love each other very much – but they don't know how to love each other right. And what happens when you don't love each other right, and you have those immense powers, that kind of influence in your town, you unleash something that's much bigger than you are. And then you have to make things right, and you have to love each other better so you can put things back together right.

AC: That about boils everything down. As far as romance is concerned.

DH: Well, thank you. And, I gotta tell you: I didn't know that when I started writing it. That came to me while I was working. It was like, wait a second, look what I'm writing here. Because, I mean, listen: I'm dating a single mother of two daughters, and she's from England, and she's 6-foot tall, and she's beautiful, and we have a kind of love tension that, in a weird way, I was mirroring in my comic. I actually dedicated it to her. But that's the stuff I was talking about before: It's kind of like autobiographical comics, but with an avatar.

AC: How did you get hooked up with Jonathan Ames to do his graphic novel, The Alcoholic, for Vertigo?

DH: I'd been reading some of Jonathan's essays in The New York Press. And eventually a bunch of them were collected into a book called What's Not To Love? And since then he's had two more collections published, and three novels, And a couple years ago, I was out getting coffee at this little shop in my neighborhood, and I saw Jonathan. He'd just come back from playing basketball or something, and I recognized him, and I went up and said, basically, "Hey, I'm a big fan of your work, and I do comics." And he was really open to meeting a local guy who was also artistic in some way. And, little by small, through e-mails and phone conversations and actually hanging out, we became friends, and then we became really good friends. And I turned him onto comics, more than just my stuff, and I had the notion – because he's not just a guy who writes essays and novels, he performs, he writes screenplays, he's onstage, he's all over the place. So I was thinking, here's a kinda renaissance man. And graphic novels had finally gotten the nod of approval from the The New York Times and from people in Hollywood, and everybody was checking out the graphic-novel format. So I encouraged Jonathan to pitch something to Vertigo while I was doing The Quitter. And he did, and eventually, when he turned in the first draft, about a month or so ago, it was brilliant. It is brilliant. In fact, I'll hazard to say that it will change the face of literary comics in 2008.

AC: Jesus. A little hyperbole goes a long way.

DH: You know what happened? He was trying to figure out, how do you write a comic book. So our editor at Vertigo furnished Jonathan with a few Vertigo collections – most notably, Y the Last Man by Brian K. Vaughan. And Jonathan really got into the whole serialized nature of that book. And Vaughan is a really great comic-book writer, he's really good at cliffhangers and twists and turns and making kinda nutty stories be plausible. And because Jonathan was writing a story about his alcoholism, and because a lot of the stuff that happened to him is fucked-up but also funny? He wanted to figure out how to put all that together. And he's really a master of that in prose, but then how do you visualize it? And I think reading Y the Last Man, and then, a year later, reading Fun Home by Alison Bechdel, those two forces of nature made him dig deep and create a semiautobiographical fiction that will be undeniable.

AC: So, other than the mainstream gigs, you're publishing yourself, is that right?

DH: Well, publishing's a funny word. Because I've been published by indies, like Top Shelf and Alternative Comics, I've been in anthologies by Fantagraphics, AdHouse Books, and so on. But these days I'm more excited by being published online via Web comics. And the goal for that is, it's like crack: You give it away free the first time, and that creates a fan base, an addiction to your sensibilities. And rather than that being a bad thing, it's more of a love thing. And I believe that if someone really likes what you're putting up online, and you make it available as a nicely designed package at the end of the road, they'll buy it for themselves – because comic-book readers covet as a nature, it's natural for them to covet, and a lot of them still appreciate books, the whole textile thing, the paper and ink, something you can actually hold on to – and they'll also buy your stuff as gifts. end story

Staple! Independent Media Expo

Saturday, March 3, 10am

Red Oak Ballroom (2525 W. Anderson)

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