ean Haspiel has been working in comics for most of his life, and there are seemingly few publishers—Marvel, DC, Vertigo, IDW, Image—for whom he hasn’t produced work. He’s probably most famous in the comics world for his longtime collaboration with Harvey Pekar (American Splendor), culminating in 2005’s critically praised graphic novel The Quitter. In 2008 Haspiel started working with his friend, author Jonathan Ames, to produce the graphic novel The Alcoholic. The HBO show Bored to Death followed in 2009, wherein Zack Galifianakis plays a character loosely based on Haspiel’s own exploits. Haspiel also drew the opening sequence and all of the comics seen in the show. Meanwhile, his own autobiographical works are unafraid to show a man who can take a punch, down a drink, or fall in love (or lust). Repeatedly. When I ask him why one of his autobiographical selves, as portrayed in his comic Street Code, is always wearing bandages, Dean replies, “I wanted to cement the fact that he—and me—tends to get into trouble every time he steps outside.”
Vasilis Lolos (The Last Call), Jason Little (Bee in Motel Art Improvement Service), Steve Ellis (High Moon), and Kat Roberts (Fever Dream). Down the hall is another comics studio, Outpost 51, and a pair of comics journalists work across the way.
For all of his projects and accolades, Haspiel’s greatest achievement may be the community of cartoonists he’s helped gather here in South Brooklyn. For comics noobs, “cartoonist” means an author who writes, illustrates, and possibly colors and letters their own work. “Basically, we’re all waving flags,” Haspiel says of the large comics scene emerging from South Brooklyn. “We’re saying how cool it is, and it attracts people.” Haspiel was born and raised in New York City and has lived in Carroll Gardens for the last 13 years. Despite the financial burdens of living in New York, he has little interest in leaving. “I could do comics anywhere,” he says. “But I choose to stay because of the energy. Creative forces are all around you.”
It takes a singular personality to be at the center of a community of creators and organize them into webcomic collectives and studios, and Haspiel fits the bill. He’s affable and engaging. He likes to party and have adventures. He’s willing to go out and promote his work and do interviews. His studio mate Mike Cavallaro says, “He’s not afraid to walk up to someone and engage them in some way. This tends to create opportunities where mildmannered people would have kept their mouths shut and not built that bridge for fear of seeming pushy or intrusive. Dean’s the pebble that starts the avalanche.” Cavallaro continues, “Cartoonists are typically a solitary, reclusive sort, so having someone like Dean in the community to draw people out and bring them together is invaluable. Many of Dean’s efforts on his own or via ACT-I-VATE are designed to create events that bring us together.”
In 2006, Haspiel started the webcomics collective ACT-I-VATE. Within a year, he had gathered the Brooklyn-based cartoonists involved to form the Deep 6 Studio, which operates out of a warehouse directly under the F and G trains in Gowanus. Of the view of the elevated subway at Smith Street, visible from the studio’s large windows, Haspiel says, “It looks like a Will Eisner drawing. It has a haunting dread to it. It’s a beautiful sight for a cartoonist.” Inside the studio, cartoonists Tim Hamilton (Adventures of the Floating Elephant), Leland Purvis (Vulcan & Vishnu), Joan Reilly (Hi-Horse Comics), Mike Cavallaro (Loviathan), Simon Fraser (Lily MacKenzie), and Michel Fiffe (Zegas) sit close but face different ways, working diligently in front of their drawing tables, sketches and posters tacked to walls, shelves rising everywhere, heavy with graphic literature. Soon after Deep 6 formed, the comic-creating community began to take over the entire floor. Sharing a wall with Deep 6 is the XOXO studio (pronounced, “Hugs & Kisses”), whose ranks include Becky Cloonan (Demo), George O’Connor (The Olympians), Joe Infurnari (ULTRA-lad!),
“We have these concentrated efforts that rally the form,” Haspiel says. “I think what’s really great about our studios is the individuality of all the artists. We’re all doing different things. I’m probably jealous of them for different reasons, and that’s what makes me go do my thing. You’re learning by proxy and advancing by proxy—by being around really good artists and people who are committed.” Haspiel admits that comics can be made and discovered anywhere; someone who wants to work in comics doesn’t need a destination like Brooklyn. But he emphasizes the importance of community, and one that you can’t find with Twitter followers. He points out the emergence of what he calls “comics lounges,” stores such as Bergen Street Comics in Park Slope, or Rocket Ship on Smith Street, that have parties that are more than just signings by creators. “A signing is a gathering of tribes,” he says.
But all of this personality would be moot if Haspiel wasn’t such a hard worker. “I’m at the art table 12– 15 hours a day, often seven days a week,” he reports. “Many a night I’m not going to sleep because I had a good day’s work. I actually have to pass out.” Despite his productivity, at age 42 he’s only been able to support himself as a fulltime cartoonist for the last 5 or 6 years, and he doesn’t have health insurance. When he announces, “I shouldn’t be working for comics, comics should be working for me,” you understand that he hasn’t come out on the right side of that equation just yet. “I’m only as good as my last page. Every day is about filling a blank page, and I’m about a month and a half from living on the street. At all times.” You can’t help but maybe blame Brooklyn for his struggle, where a one-bedroom apartment in Carroll Gardens can easily rent for $2,000 a month. Upon further consideration, however, that notion of community surfaces again. Where else but Brooklyn can you make a comic with novelist Jonathan
Lethem that a local book store is going to release? Where else can you befriend Jonathan Ames, make some comics, and then end up as a character in a fictional television show about being friends and adventuring around Brooklyn with “Jonathan Ames.” There can be no other place with the same character as this borough, because of our shared experiences living in these neighborhoods. And then I think back to his earlier remark about how he and his friends have been waving flags, and I realize that the people making comics and attending comics lounge parties—well, we’ve been here all along. We live here already because we work in Manhattan, and Brooklyn is better, and we love comics so much we have to make them, and now we’ve got Dino and his crew waving that flag. Dean says, “I love stories. But you gotta live them, too,” and his work shows his concern for life as story. He says outright: “Comics are the high romance of persona.” While he’s published his share of superhero stories, he seems to always return to biography and autobiography. There’s his semi-autobiographical web comic about living in Carroll Gardens published by Zuda, titled Street Code. There’s his emotionally autobiographical, ongoing story about gonzo love in Trip City titled, Billy Dogma. He continually works with Harvey Pekar, a Cleveland writer known for his slice of hard life vignettes. With Ames’ The Alcoholic, he illustrated a raw and powerful biography about addiction. His upcoming comic with Jonathan Lethem narrates Lethem growing up on Nevins Street and contemplating walking down this same street as an adult. He has an upcoming graphic novel from Vertigo titled Cuba: My Revolution, written by painter Inverna Lockpez, wherein he illustrates her story of being a part of Castro’s regime (and wherein Dean cast himself as Inverna’s torturer, so that, in his way, he could protect who he calls his “second mother”). Finally, he’s planning to produce a comic for the second season of Bored To Death as written and illustrated by the character Ray Hueston—the one based on Dean Haspiel. He smiles knowingly, “Artists have a healthy ego, usually, and are semi-narcissistic.” And when you have a personality as big as Haspiel’s—one that opens doors and galvanizes communities and makes a lot of damn good comics—maybe you need to have several iterations of yourself running around in semi-fictional worlds to even begin to express that personality. Haspiel comments, “I understand that there is more than one version of the truth— I’m not talking about lies, here—the only kind of semi-autobiographical story I can write and draw is reportage. We live a seamless string of events, and it's the author's job to find an entry and exit point to every story told. Ultimately, readers can only be voyeurs in my life stories. However, telling those same stories by expressing the emotional truths of what happened to me allows me more latitude to explore the truth and make art from it.”
A quarterly magazine, an account of life around the Gowanus Canal