Sunday, August 16, 2009

Sequart #6 Dean Haspiel's Action Autobio

One of the weirdest comics experiences I've ever had was reading Jack Kirby's "Street Code", an autobiographical tale of his past that was reprinted in the intriguing STREETWISE collection a few years ago. Kirby wrote this tale of growing up in a New York slum in much the same way he did any of his comics. Everything was in constant motion; even a sequence in his mother's kitchen moved us from panel to panel rather breathlessly. A scene out in the streets was not unlike some of the crazier sequences he had drawn in the 70's in places like NEW GODS or JIMMY OLSEN. Action was the only language he really understood; even in quieter Kirby scenes, the dialogue he wrote propelled the reader through the story. It would have been interesting to see what Kirby might have wound up with if he had continued with stories in the vein of "Street Code".

In Dean Haspiel, we may have a partial answer. He has an unabashed love of superheroes that is less and less unusual these days in the world of independent comics. What is unusual is that after years of struggle as a cartoonist, in recent years he's gotten more frequent gigs doing work for Marvel & DC. He did the art for the recent (and memorable) THE THING: NIGHT FALLS ON YANCY STREET series that Evan Dorkin wrote, in addition to several other one-offs. However, his biggest recent break was getting the gig of illustrating Harvey Pekar's first graphic novel from Vertigo, THE QUITTER. This has gotten a huge amount of publicity in both the comics world and the book world.

Haspiel's own work intrigues me more than his collaborations, enjoyable as they are. That's because he seems to be in a constant struggle to reconcile his expressionistic, kinetic style with his desire to tell more personal stories. His most prominent creation, Billy Dogma, is "the last romantic anti-hero". While his stories are fictional and contain a number of superhero tropes, it's clear that Haspiel is trying to get across a number of emotional truths through his characters. Conversely, his directly autobiographical stories are written Kirby-style. That is, Haspiel is always concerned with having actual action in the stories, eschewing the talking-heads/navel-gazing approach chosen by many of his peers in the same sort of stories. The result sometimes yields an interesting anecdote, but one in which the main character feels a little more distanced from the reader. Haspiel seems to hold back a little here, and doesn't quite give us the balls-out style autobio of a Denny Eichorn or the introspection of a Harvey Pekar. It's clear that he has lived an interesting life, but doesn't want to give the reader much beyond the facts.

Haspiel got his start as an assistant for Walt Simonson, Howard Chaykin and Bill Sienkiewicz. One can see echoes of each in his style. His figures are stylized and expressive like Simonson, especially in terms of facial expressions. However, he makes heavy use of Chaykinesque thick lines, blacks and shadows. And like Sienkiewicz, he's not afraid to leave reality and anatomy behind when the situation calls for it. Even if most of Dean's stories aren't noir in terms of subject matter, they still have a noir feel. This often serves to create a disjointed reading experience, as the writing and illustration sometimes clash. This clash sometimes works to Haspiel's advantage, and sometimes not.

What is clear is that one can almost feel Haspiel's struggle to reconcile his influences and fully develop his own style. It's always been clear that he was reluctant to lock himself into any particular subject matter, and this showed in his earliest works. Collaborating with long-time friend Josh Neufeld in the two-man anthology KEYHOLE, Dean threw in autobiographical stories, Billy Dogma adventures, and collaborations with other writers. Haspiel and Neufeld made an interesting duo because Dean, no matter the kind of story, always injected drama and action into it. Neufeld's use of a more "clear-line" style made his stories seem quieter and less intense than Haspiel's, even if the subject matter seemed intense. Their differing methods made for an interesting contrast and made their individual goals as artists a bit more transparent.

Let's take a look at Haspiel's most significant solo works to date. DAYDREAM LULLABIES (1999, Top Shelf, $7.95) compiles the early Billy Dogma stories. Haspiel creates a character incapable of engaging in pragmatism, who can't hold down a job but instead quests after ways of creating a world where his love of music, comix, art and especially his "career-driven girlfriend", Jane Legit are all that's important. He can't tolerate the world of consumer culture, and goes into frequent rants against it on the streets, often setting his Berzerk gun to things like "twine" or "marbles". While he does fight against absurd villains like the Human Barcode or the Undercolor Cop (who sort of resembles the Question), the more interesting parts of the series revolve around his relationship with Jane and his friends, especially Jack Flashback. Jack is a not-so-thinly-veiled version of Haspiel himself, and the reader often gets a better sense of what Haspiel is like from these brief appearances than in Haspiel's actual autobiographical stories.

As stylized as the art is in these stories, the dialogue is even crazier. Lines like "It's the furrow of yer brow and the steadiness of yer trigger finger that I must confront with caution! And therein lies the thread of authority that speaks volumes to a punk like me!" show the influence that Stan Lee-style dramatic dialogue had on him as a writer. That said, he twists them completely to his own ends. The main difficulty with these early stories is that Haspiel doesn't quite know when to rein himself in. Every panel, every line of dialogue is so intense and over-the-top that the reader finds oneself battered and exhausted. The earlier BD stories worked better in small chunks, as complements to quieter stories.

His later Billy Dogma installment, BOY IN MY POCKET (2000, Top Shelf, $2.95), showcased the work of a more assured artist. The lead story is about Billy being unable to accept a regular job ("I didn't feel...special", once again putting him through the clash of his own romantic [in every sense of the word, including superheroic and as a lover] notions and that of the mundane this to Bob Parr and THE INCREDIBLES.) and Jane's day at her job. She fantasizes about Billy in various capacities all day, as window-washer, magical telephone repairman, and chef...and the final panel reveals this may not have been a fantasy after all. In addition to fleshing out the series' lead female character a bit more, Haspiel simply tightens things up in this story. There are fewer tangents and a more direct story that still has all of the characters' charms.

The backup story in this comic, VOLCANO GIRL, is one of his most delightful creations. Simply put, it's the wordless story of a romance between a young girl who lives near a volcano and the lava man who can't touch her without burning her horribly. The sweetness of the story meshes perfectly with his action action action style. The thickness of his line that sometimes detracts from dialogue-heavy stories serves perfectly here.

The latest Billy Dogma comic is AIM TO DAZZLE (2003, Alternative Comics, $3.50). It's a mix of BD stories, autobio and "semi-auto-bio", to put it in Haspiel's terms. The first entry showcases Haspiel's ability to depict sensuality, even (and perhaps especially) with his slightly absurd, over-the-top characters. The next couple of entries give Billy's takes on smoking and fashion; both are amusing and suitably short. Dean then checks in with a one-page autobio story with an agonizing ending; it's as raw as anything he's written. The downbeat nature of this comic continues with "Pinata", about an abused kid literally beating the stuffing out of his favorite doll, then looking on with horror at what he's done. There's a plainness and simplicity in this story that one doesn't normally see in Haspiel's works, but the message is clear to the point that it's too obvious.
The last entry is more of an old-school BD story, a crazy take on the Y2K problem that Dean did in 1999. While not as interesting as some of the other recent BD sagas, it does show a more assured art style even as it goes through its weird and convoluted plot, with a typically romantic ending. It's interesting to compare it to the more recent stories, because Haspiel abandoned most of the action tropes of his series and found other ways to get to the heart of his characters. This gets to the core of Billy Dogma: it's where Haspiel expounds on his emotions and his deepest-held beliefs. Billy isn't precisely Dean, but is certainly an aspect of him, in much the same way that Jack Flashback and other characters are other facets. Jane is clearly both an idealized figure and clearly modeled from his own life.

That leads us to his autobiographical collection, OPPOSABLE THUMBS (2001, Alternative Comics, $4.95). The first story, "Proud Flesh", gives us an account of how he received all of his various physical scars. While he gives us the facts regarding his former daredevil lifestyle (he shattered his knee and ankle sliding off the roof of a library), he only alludes to his recent broken heart. "Shit-Fuck-Piss-Karate" is perhaps my favorite Haspiel story to date, dealing in a hilarious yet matter-of-fact manner with his one-month excursion into the world of crack cocaine. The last line sums it up aptly: " I quit smoking crack the very next day, only to discover...bourbon!" This is after a public men's bathroom fight over who would get to eat a piece of fruit that was a homemade crack pipe!

The rest of the book is less about Dean per se, and rather it's about the people he lived with, loved or observed. Watching an AIDS-afflicted fellow tenant fall down stairs twisted a painting he was doing for his girlfriend; he and a roommate tried to one-up the other in being disgusting; his sense of mortality comes to play in dealing with an elderly fellow tenant; he is freaked out at an impromptu sex party.

The stories are interesting, but never draw the reader fully into the story. Comparisons to Eichorn and Pekar (the opposite ends of autobio storytelling styles) are again instructive. Eichorn is not especially introspective in his tales of fights, sex, drugs and rock 'n roll, but he holds back nothing. His straight-ahead style engages the reader immediately, no matter how outrageous his antics. Pekar is all introspection, treating his mundane quotidian existence as something worthy of analysis and preservation. His comics are less about his surroundings and even the people in his life and more about the way he observes the world. Haspiel's most successful autobio story, "Shit-Fuck-Piss-Karate" works because he doesn't hold back and doesn't even pretend to put his actions in any kind of context. He demands that the reader take it or leave it as it is. His difficulties come when he tries to do something more introspective, but doesn't go as far as he needs to in order to get across the truth of his observations. His Billy Dogma stories show that he has a lot to say about the world, but he hasn't yet figured out a way to do it autobiographically.

A reason why this might be lies in his artistic choices as a penciller. Even in his most stylized work, there's a certain slickness in it, the sort of slickness common in superhero work. Even though his style doesn't resemble standard superhero-style art, he still has a tendency to add that layer of polish to his art--and this adds a layer of unreality to his autobio stories.

This observation became crystalized when I saw some sketches that he put up on his website. Despite being rougher-looking than his finished artwork, they had an energy and vitality missing from his autobio work. And to put it in McCloudian terms, it's easier for a reader to engage and identify with a more iconic, sketchier character than a more "realistic"-looking one.

Bringing the discussion full circle, it seems as though Haspiel has brought some of these lessons to bear in THE QUITTER. While Pekar tends to have a lot of input in page layout when collaborating with an artist, Haspiel 's style was a bit different here regardless of Pekar. He relied a lot less on shadow, thinned up his line a bit and in general used a looser set of figures than he usually would. The result was a warmth in storytelling that still employed his skills in depicting action and movement.

What will be interesting to see is how this experience affects his own stories. I think Haspiel has the potential to carve out a unique niche as an autobiographical artist. One story I didn't mention in this article was his submission for the 9/11 anthology, which depicts in straight-ahead fashion the things he experienced that day. The raw, unguarded emotion on the page is almost disturbing to the reader, and has an immediacy lacking in much of his other work. It was a blend of introspection and immediacy, and while it still had a certain slickness, it seemed as though it was drawn quickly, almost frantically. Haspiel has a lot to say in an autobiographical style, and may well be close to finding out the best way in which to say it.

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