The Dean? No, the Godfather of Brooklyn’s comic scene

The Dean? No, the Godfather of Brooklyn’s comic scene
Photo by Stefano Giovannini

A jackhammer cracks the road open, a car alarm blares and the F train brings a rumble of thunder from above every 10 minutes.

But Dean Haspiel can’t be distracted from deadline.

Bound to his drawing table inside a room barely larger than a dorm that he shares with four other comic book artists — dubbed Deep6 Studios — Haspiel spends the afternoon pushing a 4H lead pencil across a two-ply Bristol board with vellum finish.

On this afternoon under the Fourth Avenue train trestle, the heralded graphic novelist is finishing “Street Code,” a six-part web comic. The final installment, “Beef with Tomato,” is a nod to Charles Bukowski’s “Ham on Rye” in title and is an equal in emotional vulnerability.

Like much of Haspiel‘s body of work, “Street Code” is a collection of semi-autobiographical moments woven together with his pulpy poetry and told through an avatar. Bukowski had Henry Chinaski, Haspiel has Jack.

So whether Jack’s crashing his bike in Carroll Gardens or getting run over in DUMBO, Haspiel is careful not to let the stories that make up “Street Code” take a wrong turn into reportage, esotericism, narcissism or traditional narrative tropes such as romance and the workplace.

“It’s my love letter to New York City,” said Haspiel. “There’s a New York City tourists know about, and there’s a New York City the natives know about. I’m writing about what the natives know.”

Naked honesty and Brooklyn as inspiration are two of the many recurring themes in the new book, “Graphic NYC Presents: Dean Haspiel — The Early Years.” Due out in mid-November, this 192-page retrospective is the brainchild of Bay Ridge’s Christopher Irving, who waded through sketches, photos, diaries, early works and current books to arrive at the conclusion that Haspiel is “the Godfather” of the Brooklyn comics scene.

“Dean can take credit for mentoring dozens of cartoonists and writers here in the Brooklyn area, and is easily the most outspoken voice on the comics being done from Williamsburg to Carroll Gardens or Gowanus,” said Irving. “But if you ever go to an event at Bergen Street [Comics] or to a local comic convention like King Con or the Museum of Comic and Cartoon’s annual fest, Dean is like the eye of a hurricane, and a lot of people count on him for his input. Dean doesn’t just put himself out there — he reaches out to others and makes things happen.”

Indeed, beyond the walls of his converted warehouse in Gowanus, Haspiel has brought together comic book artists including Mike Cavallaro, Simon Fraser, Tim Hamilton and Joan Reilly, as well as two dozen or so creators through the online comics community Act-I-Vate. It’s one-stop shopping for web comics of all shapes and sizes, including Haspiel’s “Billy Dogma” — perhaps his signature work to date.

Billy, like Jack in “Street Code,” is another avatar of Haspiel, who didn’t fare too well when his ex-girlfriend, ahem, reunited with an old boyfriend. But Billy is torn out of the pages of a Jack Kirby comic and has the super strength to survive the literal hole his heart.

Haspiel searches for this same kind of raw honesty when he collaborates. His artwork brought Harvey Pekar’s “The Quitter” to life, and he created “The Alcoholic” with Boerum Hill’s Jonathan Ames.

“I’m sort of like the screenwriter/director and Dean is the cinematographer,” said Ames, who took Haspiel and used him as a model for Zach Galifianakis’s character in his TV show, “Bored to Death.”

“I describe to him something I see in my mind’s eye … and then he takes that image and reproduces it, but adds to it his own sensibility, creating something spectacular and familiar, while at the same time unexpected.”

Collaboration is key in Haspiel’s newest graphic novel. In “Cuba: My Revolution,” out this month from Vertigo, he works with the artist Iverna Lockpez in detailing her experiences in Cuba during the 1959 revolution, from joining the militia as a medic to getting jailed and tortured by her own comrades to attempting to come to terms with her trials through art.

With “Cuba” out and his work on “Street Code” nearly done, what’s next for Haspiel? Not even the Godfather knows.

“I’m three weeks away from not having any work,” said Haspiel. “You’re only as good as your last page and we’re all striving to create stuff that makes money while you sleep. That’s the goal. The end.”

Mean streets: Dean Haspiel’s “Street Code,” a semi-autobiographic take on living in Brooklyn.