Smash Pages Q&A: Dean Haspiel on ‘Starcross’

The prolific creator discusses the next chapter in his New Brooklyn universe.

Dean Haspiel has always been a creator doing many things and making many kinds of projects. From drawing books at Vertigo including The Quitter and The Alcoholic, to helping to launch webcomics first at the collective act-i-vate to the series Street Code that he made at DC’s Zuda imprint. He received an Emmy Award for designing the titles to the HBO show Bored to Death, co-wrote and drew The Fox for Archie Comics, and drew the children’s book Mo and Jo, which was written by Jay Lynch. In recent years he’s written three plays which have been produced in New York City and just launched the podcast Scene by Scene with fellow artist Josh Neufeld.

In recent years he’s been making The Red Hook, a superhero saga that he’s been serializing on Line Webtoon in two volumes, the first of which has been published in a print edition by Image Comics. Over the course of two volumes, the focus has gone from the titular character to other characters, and that focus continues to expand in this third volume in interesting ways. The third Red Hook story, Starcross, is being serialized starting this week, and we sat down to talk about the book.

You sent me the first three chapters of Starcross, but in addition to the scroll, you sent them to me as comics pages, which is how you draw them, and it was a very different reading experience.

It’s a different pacing. The way narrative is revealed is different. The way you read a page of comics is left to right and then back again. The landscape of a page is very different and how you arrive at certain information as your eyes cascade over the panels. In a vertical scroll you keep pulling to the bottom. Your thumb is pulling up so you can find out what happens at the bottom of this scroll. When I prepare the layout for these comic book pages I’ve had to think in terms of tall panels. More portrait and tall than wide and landscape. I love landscape panels. You get scope and scale better in wide panels in comics. Or at least in the format that we’re used to on paper. Whereas with the tall thin portrait panels you have to default sometimes to an overhead shot because it’s a tall skinny room that you’re dealing with constantly. I’ve been writing plays recently so I’m very aware of the economy of the space in a theater. You’re basically dealing with a black box or maybe something of a rectangle and then you have to have these actors interact with each other in a very tight space. I feel like that’s what I’ve been doing in my comics the last three years with The Red Hook. Having these characters perform in a very tight space but also trying to create scope and grandiose gestures within the economized space.

Are you always thinking of the comics page first?

I am thinking about both. If this was a traditional comic book page, I would lay it out completely differently, to be honest. If you look at the stuff I did in The Fox or The Alcoholic or anything I’ve done previously, I play with the real estate of the page. If you look at other artists’ layouts on Line Webtoon, I think they might be taking better advantage of the vertical scroll than I am because I’m also trying to make it successful as a printed comic. After a while it’s going to look a little too boring for me and of course what’s important is the story. You want to make sure that the story is exciting and dramatic and funny and ringing true. I did Billy Dogma on act-i-vate and those were just square panels. I was able to dramatize certain narratives in just a square and then you’d click to the next square. Here a panel a chapter of a Line Webtoon comic could be one long panel if I wanted it to be. I sent you the pages so you know that every chapter on Line Webtoon is basically 5 pages worth of traditional comics pages. I sent you the first 15 pages which is the first three chapters of Starcross. When you read it as a vertical scroll, the timing changes and the way I cut it up changes. Sometimes I repeat a panel. Sometimes I take a detail of a panel. I’m able to do different things for the vertical scroll whereas in the print version, it’s almost like I have less latitude in that way. Also I’m not doing what I would traditionally be doing or where I was moving to as an artist I’ve now had to pull back a little bit.

You couldn’t use a 9 panel grid for Starcross because people smile in your book–

(laughs)

But you could have drawn every page as say, a four or six panel grid, and that would have been one less thing to think about.

It takes all different ways to tell a story but my struggle and challenge has been trying to make two comics at once – one for the vertical scroll and then hopefully experience again later when collected in traditional comic book format. It will feel and read somewhat differently. Every time I sit down to lay out the next chapter it would go much faster if I just had to consider it for one format, but because I’m trying to do both, that’s where it takes a lot longer and changes the way I think.

The teaser is that only love can save the world.

As I was writing Red Hook and imagining what the big stories are because it’s hard to write a big long epic story especially because every big long epic story has been told. From Shakespeare to Stan Lee, they’ve told all the stories. It’s basically how you make it unique. For this third story I was going to use this idea about how love could save the world. As I was putting that together I realized that it’s not just a story about the Red Hook and his lost love The Possum, a.k.a. War Cry, but it’s also about community. It’s about these other characters. And if it’s about love, maybe it’s not just one person’s love but a whole bunch of love. What does love look like in its many iterations? It’s complicated in this third season because I’m letting other characters shine just as much as the Red Hook because it’s becoming more of a communal story. Curiously enough, it’s a weird metaphor for global warming. The sun is dying and they need to reignite the sun. It takes a bunch of characters to ally and figure out what to do next. It involves the community and the people of New Brooklyn. It become a weird metaphor about global warming and lost love and it becomes Shakesperean on a galactic level.

You were talking about community and this idea of New Brooklyn has attracted a lot of readers, but also while this is the third Red Hook story, it’s the fifth New Brooklyn story. Are you thinking about and talking about doing more with other characters and expanding New Brooklyn?The bigger dream is to create that new universe. I’m highly inspired by 1961’s Marvel Comics, or those first three years from ‘61-’63. When I was invited to pitch to Line Webtoon I came at then editor Tom Akel with three different ideas, one of them being The Red Hook. He liked The Red Hook but I said, there are other New Brooklyn characters. At the time Seth Kushner was alive and he had been writing this idea called The Brooklynite and Vito Delsante had co-created The Purple Heart and so we got artists to become co-creators and we created this three pronged universe. Everyone had a first season. As you know Seth passed away in the middle of working on the Brooklynite and Shamus Beyale and Jason Goungor completed that season. Vito and artist Ricardo Venâncio completed the first season of The Purple Heart. To preserve Seth’s legacy I don’t really want to touch The Brooklynite anymore. I love that character but I don’t want to touch that character unless Seth’s wife wants us to do more, so we’ve told his story and he’s going to be pushed to the side. I would love to do more with the Purple Heart, and in fact he makes an appearance in Starcross. I have other characters that I feel are as crucial and critical to The Red Hook like The Coney, Sun Dog, even Benson Hurst. I have others set up. Adam McGovern and Paolo Leandri created Aquaria, and Aquaria has always been loosely attached and tethered to New Brooklyn. I’ve talked with other creators about coming up with characters for the New Brooklyn universe. It’s a long winded answer but yes, in my heart and even written down on paper there is a whole universe expanding through New Brooklyn.

Last year Image Comics published a collection of first season of The Red Hook.

Yes and we’re hoping to announce soon that they’ll be publishing Volume 2, War Cry, in the fall. With that in mind that will mean that Star Cross will follow a year later. Line Webtoon, where they get to publish first, and I can publish in print later. And I’ve written the plots for the next two or three Red Hook stories.

You’ve talked about this 1960s Marvel Comics sensibility defines so much of your stuff and you’ve done work at Marvel, but after binge reading The Red Hook, it’s pretty clear that if you had been hired at Marvel, you would have either quit or been fired very loudly and publicly.

Yeah, either or. [laughs] At best I would have been that artist who a small niche of fans ask, what happen to him? They’ll collect the 9 or 10 issues I did of something and talk about it at their comic book club.

We met when you were working at Vertigo and drawing books for them. All along you were doing Billy Dogma and memoir comics and you always seem to be in this situation of being unsure where your work fits.

Exactly. Not for nothing – and I’m guilty of this – everyone’s lazy. They don’t want you to be complicated. They like a complicated story, but they don’t want you to be complicated. They want you to be the person who does that thing. I like to use Frank Miller as an example. He did Daredevil, Batman, Sin City, they all can be under the banner of neo-noir and it keeps it easy to track. Ed Brubaker has a track. Brian K Vaughan is hard to pin down, but I feel like writers can away with expanding their rubber bands but it’s harder for artists and/or auteurs. People don’t like it when you hopscotch all over the place because they want to place you in their mind where they understand you and again.

I’m guilty of this as well. I look at filmmakers like Tarantino, who’s a great DJ of cinema. I look at musicians like Scott Walker, who just passed away. What an interesting artist and musician. Or someone like Prince or David Bowie. There’s a lot that’s similar in their music, but they were always creating different things. I wonder if in my career I’m making albums, and I don’t mean bande desinée French comics albums, but these little experiments. To your answer about where I belong, I don’t know if I belong anywhere. Maybe I belong everywhere?

Talk a little about what you wanted the color in Starcross to look like because the big shift from the first series to the second was the color.

That was an editorial mandate. I was happier with my original color scheme in Volume 1 but I was told that the readers of Line Webtoon prefer a four color experience over the limited palate that I use. I disagree and also I’m not a good colorist. I tried to meet the challenge of producing a four color comic with War Cry and I realized that I don’t have the talent or the skillset to do what four color colorists are doing today, which is one of the reasons why I created a limited palate. Having said that, I came upon a collection of Batman and The Outsiders written by Mike Barr and drawn by Jim Aparo and colored by Adrienne Roy. It was a team book; it was going to get cosmic. I knew there was going to be a contrast between the New Brooklyn setting and it would get a little wild. I liked a lot of what Adrienne was doing, her solutions, keeping it a flat color schema. I was looking at that. With Starcross I was just pushing what I learned in War Cry a little bit more because now we’re really getting cosmic. There’s a lot going on in this comic. In a way Red Hook is almost a secondary character to the story in this third part, even though he’s essential.

So your plans for The Red Hook going forward involve putting him at center of the story again.

Yes. At the end of the day, I’m writing all kinds of characters. I’ve always represented diverse characters and strong females – I grew up around strong females, my mother is my first superheroes. Nowadays people are being called out for not being the person that they’re writing or drawing, but I feel like I’ve been very respectful of the different cultures and different kinds of people that I write and draw. But at the end of the day I’m telling this story through the eyes of a straight, white man, i.e. Sam Brosia, the Red Hook. So it is his story.

You also sent me the two page story you made for the comics anthology about Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Josh Blaylock, the publisher of Devil’s Due, reached out to me and said, do you want to do something for this? I didn’t have any thoughts on it, but he asked me if I knew other local cartoonists who might want to be involved. I sent out a call and a bunch of people responded. He asked me one more time and I had an idea that wasn’t a comic about AOC, because as you’ve read, it mainly focuses on someone else. The little I know about AOC, she seems to be a catalyst of new fresh ideas so she could be the person that sparks this fire. I hate the 45th President, as most of us. I can’t stand him, he shouldn’t be President. Having said that, I don’t like the amount of horrible drawings – and I know why artists do it – of this guy drawn every day. He’s throwing himself under the bus everyday. I feel like we’re in some ways perpetuating this monster by talking about him and drawing him constantly. We have to keep him on his toes, but I thought, if I’m going to contribute to this, what can I do to put a positive spin on it. Not that he’s doing something good, but what story can I tell to put a positive alternative spin on what will happen. I didn’t draw it. I wrote it, laid it out and lettered it and my former studio mate Christa Cassano, who drew the first half of John Leguizamo’s Ghetto Clown graphic novel, did the line art and colored it. I’m happy with the collaboration and I’m glad I was able to contribute, but I am curious to see how it all comes together as an anthology.

You’re always working on many things and I know that you’ve finished a lot of Starcross and you’ve been thinking about other projects. What else are you up to and what are you thinking about?

I’m in the middle of writing two new plays. I am wondering about my next phase because I wrap up production on Starcross around mid-August and then I’m going to be going to Yaddo, the writers retreat, for a month. I hope to finish the first draft of a prose novel I’m writing and hopefully tweak this play. I might need to really buckle down and invest in myself and try to stay in this autonomous creative space. I spent years wanting to draw other people stories and characters, and slowly but surely I started to write my own stories and create my own characters. Now I want to stay here.

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