Smash Pages Q&A: Dean Haspiel on ‘The Red Hook: Blackout’

The versatile creator talks about the ending to his latest Webtoons series, how it fits into the broader New Brookyln saga, his theater work and more.

Dean Haspiel has always made a wide range of comics, from personal stories to cosmic epics, from realistic tales to superhero stories in books like The Alcoholic, The Fox, The Quitter and The Thing: Night Falls on Yancy Street. For the past few years he’s been writing and drawing The Red Hook at Webtoon. The story of Sam Brosia, a boxer turned super thief turned superhero and bartender. Over four seasons Sam Brosia, aka The Red Hook, has gone through a lot of changes

This week Haspiel wraps up his fourth series at Webtoon, The Red Hook: Blackout, and we spoke about Brooklyn, where things stand and his next chapter in the Red Hook saga, PTSD: Post-Traumatic Superhero Disorder.

You mentioned before that you moved recently.

I just moved studios. I’ve had studios in different places in Brooklyn, and two weeks ago I officially moved my studio to Red Hook. We had to reduce our studio footprint mainly because of the pandemic. A lot of people couldn’t pay for a parking spot anymore. I was going to it because I can write at home, but that’s the only place I can draw. We went from 12, 14 studios mates to three. We went from a big spacious place to a windowless room that houses three people. Viva comics! [laughs]

Part of the reason my comic The Red Hook was born was because of shrinking studio spaces and Brooklyn becoming more expensive. More expensive than Manhattan. I was losing studio mates who worked from home in their closets or living rooms or were moving to more affordable states. I’ve said it before, a lot of artists will move to a crappy area in a city because it’s industrial or dangerous, and it doesn’t have the hip factor. A whole bunch of artists will find the space and make it cool for three-five years and suddenly realize that developers will see that neighborhood is becoming cool and then kick us out for people who have money and line the streets with banks and CVS’s. So we have to keep moving around, and I’m tired of moving around, and I don’t know how much more of that I can do.

And on top of that, a pandemic. It’s a battle of wills. Right now I’m working on a project that is about me dealing with Brooklyn and being an artist and being autonomous. Celebrating the streets and the neighborhoods and the diversity of Brooklyn. Trying to talk about how art is an energy, art is life. And put a superhero mask on it.

Brooklyn in one form or another has been a part of your comics long before you ever made The Red Hook.

I’ve done semi-autobiographical comics and I’ve dealt with Brooklyn a lot in comics. The first fictional comic I made set in Brooklyn was a Mars Attacks story I did for IDW. I did a Christmas story that takes place at a restaurant known as Fort Defiance. I kept thinking more and more about Red Hook because it’s a place I visited often. I’ve only lived in Manhattan and Brooklyn, and I felt like I found my heart in Brooklyn. I recognized it more as its own country in a lot of ways. I think that’s where a spark hit my brain. That Brooklyn could probably sustain itself as its own country. I started thinking about how it could physically secede. Then I gave it a soul. I combined that with my ideas about how to create a new superhero, who was a super thief forced to become a superhero. That was me asking, “What if Jack Kirby and Alex Toth got together? What kind of character would they make?” I would throw Will Eisner in there. The stories he would draw about the city felt very human and communal, and it breathed. A city is alive. It’s what we contribute to it. Even in these days I’ll ride my bike and everything is closed. Sure some people aren’t wearing masks and being reckless, but you can also feel that people are inside.

I live in Carroll Gardens, which used to be part of Red Hook. In the last decade or so, it’s drawn more artists. It’s hard to get to Red Hook. There’s no train. So once you get to Sunny’s, you had to make an effort to get there. I would go to Sunny’s and every Saturday night they had bluegrass music in the back room. I don’t like bluegrass, and I’m not religious, but I got back then and it felt like God, and it put me at peace and at ease. I would go to the back room with a rocks glass of whiskey and just listen.

The weirdest people would show up there. You’d be talking to Marissa Tomei while watching bluegrass. Norah Jones would show up to try out some songs. Michael Shannon lives around the corner and I’m sitting at the bar with him talking about Zod. I just named some famous people but all kinds of people go there. It’s just where people congregate. I wrote about a version of Sunny’s in my play The Last Bar at the End of the World. That’s how I feel about Sunny’s. 

The Red Hook is a former boxer who accidentally kills an opponent and gets exonerated. But he’s no longer allowed to box and then is shunned by his community. He becomes a thief and he’s good at it. He’s not evil and then he’s forced to become a superhero. I was thinking, “What kind of a job would a superhero have?” I decided he becomes a bartender at Sunny’s. That way he can commune with people and talk to them about their problems. He can hang out with a former bad guy or current bad guy. Those are comics stories I really want to do. After I do the cosmic stories, I’m hoping I can go from a superhero comic to a something that feels like a memoir. He takes off the mask and is just a guy. It’s not like Harvey Pekar, but what if Harvey Pekar used to be Spider-Man? I think that’s an interesting space. The greatest thing Marvel Comics ever did was to put Peter Parker in Queens, the Baxter Building in Midtown, and put them in real places. That felt real. And you would look out your window and go, “Is that Spider-Man?” I know its cliche to say that, but it’s so true at the same time.

That idea of the bar and Red Hook as this out-of-the-way but welcoming place. The concept of New Brooklyn was turning all of Brooklyn into that.

It’s welcoming, but it has certain caveats. I still haven’t really worked out how commerce works. Art can be traded for goods and services. I have a scene all about how unfair it is. Some people can’t make money at it. It doesn’t work for everybody. That’s why I said art “can be” traded for good and services. People still accept money and use it. It’s more of a fantasy idea that I explore. Hell, I’ve done it. I have a vet that I’ve traded artwork for. I’ve traded original art for a root canal. 

The four seasons have been very different, and in the first three you were definitely going bigger in each volume.

The first one is about the protagonist becoming a hero, but we learn that Brooklyn is sentient. She’s heartbroken by the toxicity of the world and literally secedes, and that’s a big science fiction moment. The bridges are broken, the tunnels are flooded, so there’s a moat around it. You have access to it. When you enter it, guns don’t work, bullets can’t be shot. That mattered to me because of the gun violence we have. Season 2, War Cry, is me playing with my love for Jack Kirby’s OMAC and playing with the idea of Firestorm. Instead of two men it’s an African American gay teenager and Red Hook’s ex-girlfriend, and together they become this weapon of mass destruction. It gets a little cosmic. Season Three, Starcross, is bananas because the sun is about to expire and basically love will have to save the world. Which is very corny – I know this – but I love that idea. I believe that love can save the world. There’s a lot of big crazy stories, but it’s about love and community and loyalty.

In Blackout I’m dealing with this sword, which has been altered and it’s just a bad thing. And who holds it and why. Another character, The Invisible Light, talks about our relationship with technology. She’s a little nuts, but she’s not bad – and she’s not totally wrong. I’m attached to my phone and watching TV, but I’m also fighting against it. I want to bring back newsstands and that human interaction that we don’t have as much anymore. I’ve been living in my building for 24 years. When I was the new guy, the older generation that lived there welcomed me and brought me homemade food, and as the older generation died off, the new people don’t even look up from their phone to say hello. They won’t do that, but they’ll bend over backwards to connect with someone online. I’m guilty of that, too, but I remember another time. The Invisible Light wants to bring things back to the Stone Age when things were simpler. Because I’m an artist and I can control this universe, I’m going to put Brooklyn in a place where I want it to be. I have other stories that will complete the New Brooklyn saga.

In the final few chapters you’re setting up a new status quo.

And I hope you like it. Some people will say, “You’re a fucking idiot, Dean.” [laughs] Which is fine at the end of the day, as long as people react and think about it when they read it.

Is the plan for another print edition?

There’s only been two print editions and I want to do Starcross, but the numbers were not great. The first one did okay but the second one didn’t. I’m doing a superhero comic in the world of Marvel and DC comics. That’s not easy to do. A lot of publishers don’t want to do superhero comics.

Plus, book sales last year.

Oh, forget last year. You’re competing with the pandemic for the past year. I’m producing a comic that you can read online for free. Even though it reads very differently in print. If I’m lucky I’ll wrap up the New Brooklyn saga and then try to publish it as an omnibus. My working title is “Once Upon a Time in Brooklyn.”

You’re also writing plays that dovetail with the comics in different ways.

I’ve had three plays, Switch to Kill, Harikiri Kane, and The Last Bar at the End of the World. I had a play called The War of Woo that got postponed from last March because of the pandemic. That one had more comic book leanings to it and has these four characters that have to form a team and has to do with Heaven and Hell. This was one of the precursors to New Brooklyn, without giving anything away. I bumped into the director/producer on the street the other day and the theater is still interested and hopefully we’ll be able to put it on. I love my plays and would turn them into graphic novels or a different kind of universe of stories. But yeah, my plays have dealt with Brooklyn and comics and the struggle of trying to make human connections.

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