Smash Pages Q&A: Dean Haspiel on New Brooklyn, his new play and more

The comics creator and playwright discusses The Red Hook, War Cry, his newest play and much more.

Dean Haspiel has always been a busy creator. Right now he’s writing and drawing War Cry, a weekly superhero comic for Line Webtoon, which wraps up next month. It’s a sequel to The Red Hook, which will be published as a print collection by Image Comics in June, part of the New Brooklyn Universe that Haspiel has overseen.

This month Haspiel has the world premiere of his new play in New York. The Last Bar at the End of the World is Haspiel’s third play and his second in two years. Haspiel has been one of those creators doing many things, from making his own comics, drawing books written by other people, working in television and film. This fall The Alcoholic, which Haspiel drew, will be reissued in a 10th anniversary edition. There will also be a collection to Haspiel’s The Fox: Fox Hunt series coming out from Archie Comics.

An Off-Broadway play, an indie superhero, a realistic graphic novel, an Archie superhero – and the fact that Haspiel is able to move from one to other with such ease is just one of the reasons his work has always stood out.

Right now you’re serializing War Cry, which is the fourth New Brooklyn series.

In terms of New Brooklyn War Cry is the fourth, but it’s my second comic. It’s the sequel to The Red Hook. I have a third one written and we’re hoping to make that happen so I can create a trilogy. I did co-create The Purple Heart with writer Vito Delsante and artist Ricardo Venacio that expanded the New Brooklyn universe and helped explain some of what was going on with New Brooklyn. And of course there’s The Brooklynite, which was co-created by the late Seth Kushner and Shamus Beyale. But yes, War Cry is the fourth of the New Brooklyn wave.

War Cry is a direct sequel to The Red Hook, but it’s a very different book.

It’s also different because it’s four color. Red Hook was done in a limited palate. There were warm grays as the background there wasn’t a lot of skin tones. The characters were more defined by a single color or two colors.

That was something I did deliberately because number one, I’m not a great colorist; number two, I wanted it to look a little different. I was advised by my editor at Line Webtoon to go four color for this. I don’t know if it was a response to what he thought the readers wanted or the story felt more like a four-color story because of what’s happening in it.

Basically the dead girlfriend of the Red Hook – spoiler alert, she dies in the first book – is resurrected into the body of a young teenage boy who has inherited basically all the powers of all the dead American superheroes. When he shouts the words “War Cry” – kind of like when Billy Batson shouts “SHAZAM!” – he becomes the greatest superhero of all. I was inspired by a couple of things. One, a mashup of SHAZAM and OMAC with a little Firestorm and Hawk and Dove thrown in. Firestorm because it’s about two people sharing a body. Hawk and Dove because they have two different sensibilities.

The boy almost represents a certain sense of peace so he’s the dove where she is the hawk. Her purpose is to stop extreme situations and save the world. She’s having a tough time with a couple of things. She only appears when needed, meaning a violent space. And then she also has some amnesia because she died so she’s trying to put the piece back together of who she was. The only way I could tell this story was through the white guy – the Red Hook, her boyfriend who’s trying to figure out what’s going on. And also while this is all happening the black teenage boy discovers that he’s gay. So everything is complicated. [laughs]

When I talked to Vito last year, he said you were making a Silver Age book with The Red Hook, but Vito realized he was writing this Bronze Age kind of story in The Purple Heart.

Yes, and Seth was writing more of an 80s pastiche with The Brooklynite.

Exactly, and so how do you think of War Cry in that context? Because like we were saying, it is different from The Red Hook in many ways.

To me War Cry still has that Silver Age Jack Kirby bombast. If Red Hook is more of a 1961 pastiche, maybe War Cry is a 1966 pastiche? It’s addressing modern concerns, but it’s got a basically flat-color palate. Again that’s due to my limitations, but I was looking at old Batman and the Outsiders comics colored by Tatjana Wood. There’s some politics happening in War Cry. I wanted to play with the idea that each character is separated by a color or something so you could identify them from afar, but now they’re living more in this four-color world. I had a hard time wrestling with that. I didn’t know how colorful to do it. I leaned on older comics to see how they separated everything to make it work. I wasn’t looking at modern comics because the sensibilities are almost like Hollywood blockbusters. It’s incredible what they do today, to the point where it’s intimidating. I tried to keep within the comics stylings of what I grew up with, and so that was purposeful.

The late 70s and 80s were my golden age of comics. I read more indie comics in the 90s, and so I missed a lot of that initial Image launch. I was reading more black and white stuff and autobio comics. Superheroes got grittier, and I don’t mind grit, but I don’t want horror to subsume my superheroes. I feel like things got really ugly really fast because lesser minds were trying to capitalize on the darkness and grit of what Watchmen and Dark Knight proposed, but they didn’t realize that that was a kind of commentary. I avoided a lot of that because I’d rather see a horror movie; I want my superheroes to be superheroes. I go back to George Reeves Superman where he grabbed a robber’s gun and turned it into a metal pretzel. I still like the bombast and the cosmic energy and the Kirby krackle and trying to answer the bigger questions because that’s what Jack Kirby did. He dared to write and draw about God and death and even dared to answer those questions.

Part of that is that in all these books, romance is at the heart of them.

Romance is the key to it all. Otherwise who cares? For me the hardest part of any longform story is trying to find the romance angle because that’s what tethers us universally – love. That’s going to be a major part of the third part of the trilogy if I get to do that story. I’m not a guru about the subject, but I have been heartbroken many times. We all can relate to what that feels like. We all can relate to wanting it, I presume. But we all can’t relate to putting on tights or getting superpowers and fighting bad guys. So we deal with those questions about dating, about who you’re supposed to be with or who you pine for or those kinds of obsessions. Which is actually a major part of my play The Last Bar at the End of the World.

This is your second play in two years. How did you end up writing plays?

It was me dusting off old screenplays. I went to film school in the late 1980s. I love movies. I was willing to quit my passion for comics to make movies. But it never really happened. What’s enticing and beautiful about making comics is the unlimited budget of a blank page. There’s no excuse to not make a comic. The entry fee if a blank page. Whether it’s good or not is a whole other thing, but anybody can make comics as long as they have paper and a pencil. That’s me betraying how old I am – as long as you have a computer or a phone you can make comics. [laughs] Again it doesn’t mean they’re great but you can do it.

You have to experience theater live. It means that a lot of people have trouble writing and producing theater because it evaporates, and you only walk away with the experience. I ignored it even though I grew up around a lot of actors and I went to school with actors and directors. I enjoyed theater from afar. I’d been checking out plays and staying in touch with actors and directors and producers and that’s how I got my first play Switch to Kill done in 2014 at the Brick Theater during a comic book festival of sorts. The festival either featured comic book characters or were written by comic book creators or somehow they were all involved. R. Sikoryak, Adam McGovern and a whole bunch of people were involved. I was turned onto this festival by Crystal Skillman, who’s a playwright. She told me about it and I thought, I have this screenplay that’s essentially a play because I wrote it as a low budget movie for one room. I submitted this play and it got accepted. It was amazing. I got bit by the bug.

So now you’re making comics and writing plays.

It’s a really beautiful time for me right now because it’s a time of full autonomy. I am writing and drawing comics and characters that I own – and getting paid, which is crazy. I never thought I would be in that creative space. I understand it’s a privilege and an honor, but I worked really fucking hard to get here hopscotching between working on franchise comics and indie stuff and creating these posses like Act-i-vate or Hang Dai or Deep Six. Being communal and giving back and helping others, but the one person I wasn’t helping as much as I should have was myself. A good friend of mine said, sometimes you have to take the energy you’re putting on other people and put it back on yourself. I thought about that and realigned things. My good friend Philip Cruise who acts and directs said he loved my writing, and I said, I would love to do another play. We brought that play to Ian W. Hill who directed by first play. That’s what became Harikari Kane, my second play last fall at the Brick.

I had been introduced and collaborated with Stoya, the porn star. I adapted one of her essays into a comic for Heavy Metal magazine. We became friendly and I realized she would be perfect to play the lead in Harikari Kane. She’d never done theater before but when I approached her she was totally into it and did a great job. She’s writing essays and starred in a movie and just won best actress at a film festival. She’s also going to be in my new play. I specifically wrote a scene that I wanted to see Seth Gilliam and Stoya perform in my play and in a way woo them to agree to do it – and they did. That scene is also a really important part of the play. Seth plays Father Gabriel Stokes on The Walking Dead, he was in The Wire and Starship Troopers. He’s good friends with Phil Cruise. I think he just liked the writing and wanted to act in a play.

You mentioned before that you have written a third Red Hook story.

I have plotted a third Red Hook story for the proposed trilogy. Hopefully we’ll be able to make an announcement at some point. That’s really exciting because the way I leave War Cry is kind of fucked up. [laughs] It definitely resolves the story that’s in War Cry and then a wild card gets thrown in. You do that in the hopes that you get to do more. Or you piss off the readers. I don’t know. [laughs]

That tends to be how you work. I mean just look at the last scene in The Red Hook.

Image is publishing The Red Hook Volume 1, which I am calling New Brooklyn because that’s where the idea started and is talked about in the first season. That comes out in June. I’m hoping to make that an annual affair, producing them for Line Webtoon and then cascading them over into print via Image. Then I have lots of ideas how to do either a Red Hook comic book series in print or maybe a two or three man anthology a la Tales to Astonish. Again hip checking the 1960s Marvel Comics where you had a regular anthology series that featured a couple characters. I’m trying to figure out what makes sense. One might presume me a fool to even dare compete with Marvel and DC because they truck in superheroes, but we have Madman and Hellboy and Flaming Carrot and a bunch of great superhero characters outside of that. I think right now especially as the Marvel cinematic universe is coming to the end of its first wave or whatever with Avengers: Infinity War, I suspect there’s going to be something of a reboot. I think if those movies have created a certain kind of hunger for superheroes, and I think now is a great time to hop onto basically the origins of new superheroes. Like The Red Hook.

So you have plans for more Red Hook. Are there plans for more New Brooklyn comics besides that?

I’ve been talking with Vito about a second season or another storyline for The Purple Heart. I’ve been talking to Adam McGovern. I co-created Aquaria with him and Paolo Leandri. But loosely. I was hoping to do a fourth New Brooklyn series at Line Webtoon and that would have been Aquaria. Adam and Paolo have been doing backups in Savage Dragon and they never officially said that it’s a New Brooklyn comic character but there are hints that Aquaria is part of the New Brooklyn comic universe. As well as the fact that she makes cameos in The Red Hook and War Cry. We are talking about how to make that work. But the bottom line is yes. I’ve been talking with other creators about even more characters. But we’ve got to establish this. We’ve got to create the desire. If that turns into something, we can add more.

You’ve created tons of characters in the series.

I created Sun Dog, this new character in War Cry. I have a new bad guy named Al Dente who may or may not have something to do with The Red Hook’s father’s murder. His mom is The Coney who’s this crazy Punisher chick. We’re also setting rules up. Towards the end of The Purple Heart, one of the things we did, which was important to us at the time, was to eradicate all guns in New Brooklyn. Bombs and knives and other shit can be used, but guns have melted. This was one way to make some commentary about this new republic this New Brooklyn. Where art can be bartered for food and services. It’s a little hippy dippy, I have to admit. [laughs] But the one thing I learned about Jack Kirby is if you put out ideas, they can come right back at you someday.

It’s a busy time for you right now.

There’s a lot happening. And of course I’m also developing nine other things because that’s what you do as any freelancer or creator. In my pocket is a third Red Hook story that I hope to do. Plus perpetuating and expanding the New Brooklyn universe, if possible. One of the things I want to do is turn some of these plays into graphic novels. There’s a character that’s talked about in all three plays that also tethers them into one universe and I have that character’s story. I want to do the full version of Switch to Kill maybe next year if possible. I’m hoping that we can make that happen for 2019. I’m developing a TV show that I can’t talk about. I would love to revisit The Fox some day. Fox Hunt, the second collection I did, is coming out in the fall. I do have more ideas for The Fox. Dan Slott and Sara Pichelli are bringing back FF and I have FF ideas. The Thing is my favorite Marvel character.

How are things going for you in this Brooklyn?

You mean real Brooklyn? [laughs] It’s hard. I’m either at home or in my studio, or I go to Sunny’s Bar in Red Hook. That’s about it. To be an autonomous freelance cartoonist you have to live small in order to achieve that. The good thing is that I’ve lived in my apartment for years and it’s rent controlled so that means it’s affordable. But that’s about the only thing that’s affordable. Our subways don’t work anymore. Our landscape is becoming a lot of closed stores and shops because landlords decide to jack up the prices to the brink of insanity. I’m going to be 51 in May so I’m getting cranky and I’m losing a lot of what I grew up with. A lot of people have left and moved to more affordable spaces in other cities and states. I’ve always had one foot in the Catskills, but I’m such a city boy. I don’t know, they might have to drag me out of here in order to live a more comfortable lifestyle.

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