Interview: Dean Haspiel Talks About "The Red Hook" and His Love For Brooklyn

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Dean Haspiel - The Red Hook

Earlier this year ComicBook.Com had a chance to speak with several creators from LINE Webtoon about their exciting new roster of digital comics. The company is rapidly expanding in a wide range of directions with some very talented writers and artists. We had a chance to catch up with cartoonist Dean Haspiel to discuss one of those directions: a shared superhero universe.

Haspiel is the backbone of the "New Brooklyn" concept, an alternate universe in which Brooklyn has separated from the city of New York and taken on its own roster of colorful heroes and villains. He has debuted the first of three series set in New Brooklyn called "The Red Hook" following a villain turned hero after gaining immense new powers. Haspiel shared his thoughts on Brooklyn, superheroes, and how to best tell stories on the web with us below.

Creating a new shared universe, especially one with a unique history like New Brooklyn, is no minor feat. How did you approach the development of this world?

When I first invented The Red Hook in 2012, I didn't know he was going to be living within a sentient Brooklyn whose heart got broken by an indifferent society, so much so that it physically secedes into becoming its own country apart from America. That idea came after I worked out the origin of The Red Hook and how and why he goes from being a super-thief to a superhero against his will, or he will die. I wanted to create a hook that would let my characters share a unique universe with the late Seth Kushner's and Shamus Beyale's Brooklynite characters before Seth passed away.

Seth liked my idea of a living Brooklyn that's fed up with the rest of the world and sparks a cosmic pandemic of guardians to protect its borders. But, as everybody knows, "with great power comes great responsibility" -- and, in this case, a borough of villains. And, with that in mind, we needed an avatar that spoke for Brooklyn. So, I co-created The Purple Heart with Vito Delsante and Ricardo Venancio to get to the root of what happened to Brooklyn herself and where we're going with New Brooklyn while telling curious stories about superheroes and their struggles. We were able to birth and merge our initial ideas while sharing a studio in Gowanus, Brooklyn.

There's something about New York, specifically Brooklyn, that seems to make artists dream of superheroes, inspiring many of the greats. Any thoughts on what it is about the neighborhood that has made it so important to the genre?

Haspiel: I think what makes Brooklyn a force for manifesting superheroes comes from the fact that blue collar workers like Jack Kirby and Will Eisner, and a slew of other progenitors of the comix form, hailed from Kings County. Kinda like Neil Armstrong planting the American flag on the moon, they got there first and Brooklyn is where the genesis of many famous cartoonists created extraordinary characters to deal with extremely tough times dating as far back as Captain America punching out Adolph Hitler.

Lots of heroes were spawned from war and economic strife. In fact, The Red Hook and New Brooklyn is partially a response to my getting the proverbial boot from my own studio soon so that land developers can attempt to revamp a few more artist-friendly neighborhoods into expensive condominiums and co-worker hubs for those who won't blink at a $12 shot of bourbon. Rapidly dying are the affordable underground happenings that made NYC rich with experimentation.

While New Brooklyn has a very different history and a slightly different location, it is still very much set in Brooklyn. What made you fall in love with Brooklyn and want to set your story there?

Haspiel: I moved to Brooklyn 19-years ago after a break-up with my then girlfriend. I couldn't afford to stay in my native Manhattan and an old high school pal alerted me to an available apartment in Carroll Gardens. My mother and late brother lived in that neighborhood for a little while, so I was familiar, but it still felt like I was moving to the suburbs. Growing up in Manhattan, I thought I knew everything I had to know about NYC until I spent a solid year in Brooklyn and discovered what I didn't know.

My exodus from Manhattan to Brooklyn became the basis for my graphic memoir, "Beef With Tomato" (published by Alternative Comics). I think I fell in love with how Brooklyn kept things "street." There were hardly any pretensions when I landed. What Manhattan abandoned for brighter lights and bigger signs and whiter noise, Brooklyn brandished in their water towers and stoops and trees and people. I felt a better sense of community in Brooklyn, even when I was getting the stink eye from indigenous locals. Hipsters came later. But, in the late '90s, I had to earn my way in. Brooklyn hazes you for your self-worth, especially in Red Hook. Ironically, since my Manhattan escape, Brooklyn has become more expensive. I can't win. Nobody put a gun to my head but I've given my life's blood and art to NYC and it sometimes treats me like an infection just because I'm economically (and esthetically) allergic to champagne and caviar while my veins proudly pump 70% cheap Chinese food takeout and 30% discounted peanut butter. Give me royalty checks or give me grape jelly.

In The Red Hook you have the opportunity to share your perspective on Brooklyn. How are you approaching the visuals to distinguish and interpret the city?

Haspiel: Most of the origin story of The Red Hook takes place up-close-and-personal between other heroes and villains but I got to set the stage in various parts of Brooklyn I truck in, including the Red Hook waterfront, The Brooklyn Bridge, the Gowanus canal, and DUMBO. Rooftops and water towers are an essential backdrop to the theater of the New Brooklyn abstract. Stylistically, I'm honing my seasoned cross-between the Golden Age of comics and gritty black & white comics from the 1980s with a healthy handful of Silver Age comics for cosmic candor.

You're sharing this vision of New Brooklyn with other artists and creators too. What sort of work went into planning the design of the stories and universe?

Haspiel: Luckily, I only had to look as far as my studio mates. Seth Kushner and I had threatened to publish a two-man anthology featuring our superheroes before the offer to do a webcomic for LINE Webtoon came to me from Tom Akel. I could have just published my Red Hook idea solo but I wanted to honor my commitment to Seth and that meant creating a universe that would excite new readers. A lot of superhero stories happen in NYC (just throw a rock at Marvel Comics) and I didn't feel that setting our stories in Brooklyn was going to turn enough heads. In coming up with a sentient Brooklyn who literally secedes, I needed a character to explain some of how that happened and why. So, I invited studio mate, Vito Delsante to create The Purple Heart with me.

Vito is a veteran of the kinds of Silver Age comics I like to read and make, so he was great to bounce ideas off of and he made The Purple Heart his own. Obviously, I'm privy to the scripts and art and Vito is doing a great job building a mystery behind the analogy of "New Brooklyn," while Ricardo Venancio is drawing beautifully eerie yet heroic art. Unfortunately, Seth passed away before he could finish expanding his Brooklynite story and his co-creator/artist, Shamus Beyale (who was recently nominated for an Eisner Award for his work on John Leguizamo's Ghetto Klown, along with artist Christa Cassano) did an amazing job writing what Seth couldn't, adding his own superhero cum New Brooklyn sensibilities. Shamus' art is phenomenal, too. It's heartbreaking to know that Seth will never see what we eventually put together but we're honored to be able to bring to fruition his posthumous superhero and perpetuate his legacy.

As the other series, The Brooklynite and The Purple Heart, begin are there plans to crossover characters and events immediately or will the shared aspect be more subtle?

Haspiel: The three different New Brooklyn comics will hint at each others characters but we wanted to focus on their individual origin stories and how the great secession impacted their lives. Plans of future stories are already in development, including a few new characters and a possible team situation.

Focusing on The Red Hook, the first few strips establish it as a superhero comic, but also incorporate elements of crime and romance. What's your personal thesis for approaching this character and his story?

Haspiel: All good superhero stories express a healthy mix of science-fiction, romance, and crime, don't they? That's what makes superhero comics stand part from singular genres. If you've ever read any of my Billy Dogma comix or the occasional superhero stuff I've done for Marvel, DC and Archie/Dark Circle, you'll know that I've never been good at sticking to the trappings of a particular genre. Listening to Prince, Throbbing Gristle, The Clash, J.G. Thirlwell, Moby, Swans, Death Grips, The Chemical Brothers, and Run The Jewels while watching horror movies, spaghetti westerns, and AMC/HBO shows, has a way of influencing a mind and body. Like life, I'm influenced by a cacophony of diverse cultures, ideas and ambiance. I'm hard to peg. Dub me a one-stop-shop; a Renaissance cartoonist.

There's a diversity of style and reference in the first few strips too, with some Kirby crackle and emphasis on simple, but iconic costumes. How has your approach as an artist on The Red Hook varied from past projects?

Haspiel: I'm a card-carrying student the likes of Kirby, Toth, Eisner, C.C. Beck, Ditko, Kane, Miller, Chaykin, Simonson, Sienkiewicz, Romita Jr, and Frank Quitely. But, knowing I had to produce a chapter a week (equivalent of 4-7 pages of traditional comics), I developed a shorthand for coloring and inking that would allow me to step up my production game to deliver three chapters a month ahead of schedule. I'm currently three months ahead. I figured out a way to color code the world of New Brooklyn while showcasing the various superheroes and villains.

I abandoned slick, Joe Sinnott-esque inking that I've been practicing (and cherish) for years for a grittier line and broken art/dry brush style. I shelved my two-ply Bristol board for crappy sketch pad paper so as to remove the precious aspect of drawing. If I messed up a drawing I would simply toss it and start over. So far, that's only happened twice. I needed to move faster and not be controlled by the craft while making both a traditional print comic (to be published later) and concurrently delivering a vertical scroll for digital consumption. It's been a challenging learning curve and both versions yield very different reading experiences.

The Line Webtoon format has you designing the comic to read in a continual downward scroll. How has that affected your approach to storytelling and layouts?

Haspiel: For the vertical scroll, I had to eliminate two-page spreads and my beloved inset panels. A lot of the action is designed to go from top panel to bottom panel. I'm employing more tall rectangles than usual. Where I used to innovate the blank canvas of the comic book page, I'm now concerned with bare bones narrative clarity. It's a wholly different but satisfying way of absorbing story and it's free!

Dean Haspiel

The Red Hook is only a few installments into its run so far. Looking ahead what has you most excited about the stories to come?

Haspiel: The Red Hook is going to go through a life-changing shock while a rival takes revenge. A mysterious vigilante is going to show up when least expected and then planet earth is going to be threatened by a sick superhero. I've attached a sneak-peek sketch of the mysterious vigilante exclusively for Comicbook.com readers. And, of course, I can't wait for New Brooklyn fans to read & see The Brooklynite and The Purple Heart when they finally launch later this summer and fall. 

Chase Magnett is a freelance journalist, critic, and editor working with comics, film, and television. He has been hooked on comics since he picked an issue of Suicide Squad out of a back issue bin fifteen years ago. When Chase is not working with comics in some way he spends his time rooting for the San Francisco 49ers and grilling. He currently contributes to ComicBook.com and other outlets.