Monday, February 2, 2009

Bleeding Hipster Ink: A Chat with Dean Haspiel

I came up from the subterranean depths of the F-train station, getting my first whiff of Brooklyn rain lightly coming down from the gray February sky.

Coffee shops and mom and pop cafes flanked the tree-lined, clean sidewalks in Dean Haspiel’s neighborhood, only a few blocks from his unassuming brick apartment building, the sometimes-setting of his autobiographical comic Opposable Thumbs.

Dean, the cartoonist behind everything from The Alcoholic to American Splendor, from Batman Adventures to his semi-autobiographical genre-crossing “avatar” Billy Dogma…has a tendency to end statements with “you know what I’m saying?” in casual conversation, and to drop the “dude” bomb when serious. A cartoonist of many styles and approaches; Dean bleeds hipster ink out on his pages with a thick brushstroke.
And so, it was around 2:00PM that Dean answered his door, sporting black jeans and a t-shirt with white stripes running along the shoulder seams and a faded skull and crossbones emblem (it would become his convention uniform for the weekend, so that fans could more easily spot him); he gave off a bearded drowsy-eyed Fonz-like vibe, like one of those older high school kids who smoked in the boy’s room and sat in the back of the bus.

The apartment is cramped yet labyrinthine with bookshelves placed in front of bookshelves, CDs and DVDs meticulously alphabetized a picture (circa the late ‘80s) of six shirtless men, his film school posse, standing on the lawn of an old stone hotel hangs over Dean’s futon/sofa. Even his studio is laced with shelves of graphic novels and trade paperbacks, flanking his computer desk and drawing table, which holds pencils from his current graphic novel, The Alcoholic, with writer Jonathan Ames. Pictures of Ames litter the bulletin board overlooking the drawing table, with art from the second Billy Dogma ACT-I-VATE strip, Fear, My Dear, to the right. The rain’s letting up as Dean pours a cup of joe (of the Maxwell House variety, he admits) from his kitchen Mr. Coffee, and nursing my still-warm coffee housed in a Styrofoam cup from a hole-in-the-wall coffeehouse just a few blocks back, we settle down and get to talking…
Pick up a copy of The Quitter, by Harvey Pekar and Dean, and take a look at the author’s photos in back. You’ll get a close-up of a tired-looking Dean, his nose busted and covered over with a strip of plaster ala Geraldo Rivera in the ‘80s.

“A couple of years ago, I was walking with my best friend, Mike Hueston, who I’ve known since I was twelve and we drew our own comics,” Dean kicked back in his chair, his feet propped on the coffee table. “We were walking down Smith Street, and there was a bar called Angry Wade’s. We were walking across the street, around Christmas time….”

And then, Dean slips into an aside:
“This is a very Italian neighborhood I live in and, one thing I’ve discovered about an old-school Italian neighborhood is that they don’t like black people. In fact, one winter I was walking down the streets and I saw a bunch of broom handles stuck in trees…since the leaves were now gone, I could notice them. I was talking to this old Italian guy, and I asked him ‘What are with these old broom handles? There’s one every block.’
“He said ‘They’re NBC sticks.’
“‘NBC stick?’
“‘Nigger Be Cool.’
“I went ‘Wow! You’ve got to be kidding me.’ It’s 2007 and we’ve still got that kind of racism? I have seen ten Italian kids chasing a black kid down the street, so it does still happen.

“Anyways, Mike and I were walking down town across from Angry Wade’s on Smith Street, when I saw ten guys come out, beating each other up and breaking the windows from the outside.
“This one guy looks over and goes ‘What the fuck are you looking at?’

“I said ‘A fight,’ because it was. I guess the way that I said it and the way I looked made it more of a challenge, you know? Of course, those ten guys stop fighting each other and come over towards me. There was one black guy, who I thought they were beating up – turned out he was with them. I thought they were going to start messing with my best friend Mike [who is black], getting around me to get to him, so I turned left when the black guy from the gang punched me, and he must’ve had brass knuckles, because he broke my nose and pushed it over to under my left eye. I almost went down, and a Niagara Falls of blood went rushing down my face. Fortunately, there was the ‘Whoop! Whoop!’ of a police car. Apparently the police had been called ten minutes before. The gang scattered and ran.

“Mike was wondering what the hell was happening, and I’m sitting there with my nose busted. I didn’t even know what it looked like at the time. The ambulance came and they took out two guys from inside the bar on stretchers. One guy had glass in his head, and a pool cue had been broken over the other guy’s head. I went to the Emergency Room and they pushed my nose back over without pain medicine. It hurt like hell. The next day I took some pictures, which wound up being my portrait for The Quitter.

“So, I’ve been in lots of fights and accidents. I’ve been in the wrong situation at the right time. It always makes for a great story.”

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