Before getting a chance to sit down and talk with Dean Haspiel (American Splendor, The Quitter, Billy Dogma) at the Alternative Press Expo, I met him at the Isotope Comics Lounge on the eve of APE weekend for a pre-APE Isotope in-store bash. Currently, Haspiel is but one artist that is part of a larger collective of storytellers at ACT-I-VATE.
Recently, October saw the recent release of The ACT-I-VATE Primer by IDW Publishing, featuring new and original stories. While at the Isotope, I discovered Haspiel is as gracious and as nice as I could have imagined just sitting and talking with him as he signed and sketched a head shot of Harvey Pekar in my copy of The Quitter.
That night talking generally about the unique positivity that courses through the comic industry, Haspiel signs my Pekar sketch advising me to “never quit.” It’s good advice.
Needless to say, I was excited to sit down and talk with Haspiel again on Sunday as APE was coming to a close.
Joey Pangilinan: How did you come to start working with Harvey?
Dean Haspiel: Here’s a long answer to a simple question. I grew up reading superhero comics. My dream was to become a penciler and draw for Marvel. I didn’t know there were other comics that could be non-superhero or not published by DC and Marvel. I started to expand my horizons and got hungrier for the medium.
In the early ‘80s, I discovered American Splendor, at a place called Soho Zat in lower Manhattan, which had a lot of alternative and underground comics, and I discovered a whole bunch of different types of works.
So, there I am reading the Fantastic Four, and suddenly I come across semi-autobiographical comics and stuff like Yummy Fur by Chester Brown, and it just blew my mind. I started out being a fan, like most people are, of Harvey Pekar, or whoever else they admire.
Then years later, my friend Josh Neufeld was bold enough to write Harvey a letter and got a gig drawing one of his stories in “American Splendor.” I used to have a big brother thing with Josh, and tell him I was a better artist all the time and, when that happened, I thought “if Josh could get a job drawing for Harvey, then I know I can.”
So, I sent Harvey a bunch of my artwork thinking it would blow him away. But I never heard back from him, and I kind of felt insulted and hurt. A year later, Josh and I created a two-man anthology called Keyhole, kinda like our own Eightball (a comic series by the great Dan Clowes).
I did a story in Keyhole called America Dilemma, which was my two-page story about feeling hurt that Harvey Pekar didn’t hire me, much less, acknowledge me. I got that published, and mailed that to Harvey, and again — heard nothing. So twice now, he ignored me and I didn’t understand why.
Then I get a phone call a couple years later from a guy saying he’s Harvey Pekar, and he wants to give me a job drawing a one-page comic. I didn’t take him seriously. I thought it was somebody pulling a prank. I kept asking, “are you sure you’re Harvey Pekar?” Finally, he says, “You don’t believe me? Go fuck yourself,” and he hung up the phone.
Then I thought that ended a little nasty. So, I called Josh and he asked to describe the conversation, and I told him the guy kept saying “don’t you wanna make some bread, man?” I thought that someone had read Pekar and just repeated the things that he says in his comics. But Josh tells me, no, “that’s really him.” I realize I f*cked up. I ask Josh for Harvey’s number and I give Pekar a call later that night and apologized.
Then Harvey asks “What do I gotta do to prove to you that I’m really me?” And I said, “Give me that job.” And he did, and that’s how I met Harvey Pekar.
JP: You said that you wanted to work with your friend Jonathan Ames for the longest time. What writer or artist that you’ve yet to work with, would you like to?
DH: I almost got to work with Mark Waid on something. I’d love to do something with Peter Milligan, Warren Ellis, Brian K. Vaughan, and J.M.DeMatteis. Outside of comics, there are other folks in other mediums that I would love to collaborate with. But, what I’m trying to focus on now, is trying to get more work where I write and draw my own stories.
I feel like I have a bunch of stuff that I want to say, but I wanna make a living at it, too. So even though I’m doing my own stuff at ACT-I-VATE via Billy Dogma, and Street Code at Zuda, I’ve two or three screenplays I’ve written, ideas for graphic novels. Also, I can’t claim I’m writing a novel, but I’m typing a novel right now.
Right now, I’m developing a modern Frankenstein story with one of my favorite writers of all time, a guy named Tim Hall (who does Uplift the Positivicals at ACT-I-VATE), and I hope to be able to draw that story someday soon.
JP: Billy Dogma is obviously something very special to you. How hard or difficult it might be to put something so personal out there?
DH: They say, “Write what you know.” So, the well that you tap into, you’re not necessarily making stuff up. You’re actually revisiting the stuff that happened to you or something that’s occupying your mind. The good thing is that, as I get older, I can look back at what I’ve been tackling in my personal stories, realize the trends, and discover that I’ve been writing and drawing all the same stuff all my life. In some weird symbolic way, I’m exercising and exorcising my experiences and my ideas.
The difficult part is shaping that stuff, turning it into something that can be entertaining, while imparting some kind of wisdom, or something that’s heartfelt and poignant. There is no formula to a successful story.
I think Hollywood is famously known for trying to do that. Trying to take another idea and befit it to a current trend, or fall back on formulas. Saying “This worked the last time, maybe it’ll work again.”
There are certain formulas that people gravitate towards. I guess it’s a combination of trying to be real while trying to provide a sense of escapism.
JP: ACT-I-VATE seems to push everyone involved to bring his or her “A-Game,” so to speak. For you, what makes ACT-I-VATE so special?
DH: ACT-I-VATE is community for me. ACT-I-VATE is a sense of family. I love my family, but I didn’t choose my family. You can choose your friends, and then your friends become family, too. I’ve definitely met artists here at APE who are shy and introverted but don’t necessarily have the skills to parlay their art beyond the page. See, my mother was deputy director of the New York State Council of the Arts.
She practically becomes the mayor of any town she lives in. And, my father is a writer and very extroverted. Combined, they were a force to be reckoned with. At an early age, I was encouraged to speak my mind. Shelley Winters was my godmother and she was infamous for speaking her mind. A lot of the stuff we do as artists, as storytellers, is to reveal our vulnerabilities and connect with strangers.
I’ll see someone doing incredible artwork that nobody knows about and I’ll feel like a proud papa if I’ve been able to give someone a place at ACT-I-VATE where people can see their work. People may come to see my stuff but they’ll discover their work, too. I feel really great about that. I feel like I’ve helped someone out in some proactive way.
Meanwhile, people who came to ACT-I-VATE to see/read Michel Fiffe, Kat Roberts, Mike Cavallaro, Joe Infurnari, Jennifer Hayden, or Simon Fraser, or whoever, will peruse ACT-I-VATE and may discover my work. Therein lies an equal opportunity situation.
JP: You have a background in film, who is your favorite director? Or directors?
DH: My favorite director is probably Sergio Leone. There’s a blog called GRAPHIC NYC, run by Seth Kushner and Chris Irving. They asked me to write an upcoming column that reveals my top five non-comics influences, and I’ll expand why Leone is so important to me in that column.
I also love the Coen Brothers, early Scorcese, Preston Sturges is a master. I love German Expressionism for the style. I’m a big fan of Hammer Horror films. I like Park Chanwook, the guy who did “Oldboy,” and a trilogy of revenge films. Then, I look at Bruce Lee.
He might not have been a filmmaker but you know he was leading the way. Sometimes you can cast an actor, a master of storytelling, who basically takes over the production in some beautiful way and commands the medium.
JP: Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels is as actually one of my favorites.
DH: It’s amazing. Have you seen Unfaithfully Yours?
JP: No I haven’t.
DH: Make sure to check out Unfaithfully Yours by Sturges. It’s unbelievable.
JP: You’ve mentioned that Zach Galifianakis’ character in HBO’s Bored to Death is only a loosely based on you, but still, how weird is it to see some part of you on screen?
DH: I don’t feel weird at all. The only thing that’s weird is reminding folks that he’s not me. A Bored to Death episode will air and somebody will say, “Oh my god, they totally captured you.” And, I’m like, “Where? How? I don’t see myself in that at all.” So really, they’ve been fooled or they’re telling me something I wasn’t aware of about myself. For shame.
I know for a fact that Jonathan Ames is not commenting on his friend, Dean Haspiel. He’s created three characters that are derived from his own persona. Meanwhile, some of the background character plot is derived from my life, somewhat. So, defending my true self while championing the show, because I love the show, is an interesting seesaw.
But, I love doing the artwork for it, the experience, getting the attention is pretty cool. Last weekend at Baltimore Comic-Con, someone came up to me, and handed me their headshot and resume because they thought I might be able to get them on the show.
Luckily, I have enough confidence, and enough of an ego to brush it off. If people want to think I’m the Bored To Death character, Ray Hueston, that’s fine. I don’t care, honestly. That’s cool. I dig the show. I dig the characters. I love the stories that are being told. I love Jonathan Ames.
JP: In a blog post, Paul Pope likened the iPhone to a “retarded motherbox,” and mentioned this was born out of a conversation he had with you about Jack Kirby. Of course, both of you are obvious fans of the King. What is Jack Kirby’s biggest influence on you?
DH: What Jack Kirby could do with a blank page is unmatched. He may have gone overboard at times to the point of being absurd but I love Kirby’s comics. When I was a younger, I probably wanted to read stories that were more grounded and plausible. But, as I get older, I love the absurdity of a lot of Kirby’s ideas because they’re all rooted in some kind of emotional truth. He was a big thinker.
In an ironic way, I think the world is catching up with Jack Kirby right now. He wasn’t afraid to jot down his ideas and see what worked. I don’t think it was a case of “let’s throw everything at the wall, and see what sticks,” because I definitely think he had conceptual considerations per idea. The guy was just a bottomless well of ideas, and the fact that he had no fear experimenting in public, on the printed page, week after week, says a lot to me.
Kirby inspires me. There’s some stuff I’ve done in Billy Dogma recently I never would have tried without reading OMAC, or some of Kirby’s Fourth World stuff, or Thor and the Fantastic Four. So many people need to have a fully realized idea before starting their project and I don’t think Kirby ever did. I think for every comic book series he ever worked on, there’s another issue waiting to be done by the King.
In fact, I had an idea to take his creations or co-creations and do the very next issue of his run on the title. For example: There were eight issues of Kirby’s OMAC, and I want to do that ninth issue of OMAC. He created such a universe…a galaxy of ideas. I can always be entertained by a Jack Kirby idea or drawing. Even a bit of dialogue can be magic, very cosmic in a true sense. He’s hard to qualify for me, because I feel like I’m still learning from him.
Jack Kirby is a magnet for personal expression and ideas. I keep getting drawn to him. I can’t qualify what draws me to Kirby, which is a compliment. It means, I’m still steeping in his oeuvre (to use a fifty dollar word). I can’t get enough of Kirby.
Luckily, there are so many pages of his work; it’ll probably last through my lifetime to indulge Jack Kirby. Thanks to Jack Kirby.