Look up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s an allegory of gentrification! It’s the Red Hook! Comics creator Dean Haspiel — known for his collaborations with Jonathan Ames on the graphic novel The Alcoholic and on Ames’s HBO series Bored to Death, among myriad graphic endeavors with Marvel, Harvey Pekar, and more — has recently turned his eyes and pen toward the late capitalism trials and tribulations of the city he’s lived in all his life. The 51-year-old Manhattan native moved to Brooklyn 21 years ago, when rising rents made his home unaffordable, and now that those rents are pricing artists out of Brooklyn, Haspiel is dreaming of a way to save it. How? With a superhero, the Red Hook, named not coincidentally after the neighborhood where Haspiel had his studio for years.
Published earlier this month in print by Image Comics (after running as an online serial at Line Webtoon two years ago), The Red Hook is an ode to Brooklyn wrapped in a Dear John letter (wrapped in an “I love you anyway” letter), and inked in more bright and muddy hues than the water of the Gowanus Canal. Peopled with colorful characters such as the Possum, the mob boss Benson Hurst, and the Red Hook’s vigilante justice-seeking mama, the Coney, Haspiel describes the story as one of “a super-thief…who is transformed into a hero against his will, a year after a sentient Brooklyn’s heart is broken, and physically secedes from America.”
It’s not the first time Haspiel has turned his pen and ink toward Brooklyn. Haspiel was the loose inspiration for Zach Galifianakis’s comics artist character on Ames’s Brooklyn-centered Bored to Death, and won an Emmy in 2010 for the character drawings he did for the title sequence. But this project, written as well as drawn by Haspiel himself, is much more a reflection of Haspiel’s own hopes for the borough’s future. Not all heroes have capes, but this one probably has a MetroCard. Haspiel spoke to the Voice in the midst of a book tour heavy on Brooklyn stops.
So tell me about The Red Hook.
Well, it’s about a super-thief who is bequeathed the Omni-Fist of Altruism [a character called the Green Point is involved in this] against his will, and he’s forced to become a superhero, or he will die. And it’s during a time when Brooklyn reveals herself to be sentient, and she is heartbroken by the apathy and indifference of the world, and decides to physically secede from New York City, ergo the world, to start her own republic. And here, artists can trade and barter their art for food and services.
That last part sounds like a Utopia.
Listen, where does this stuff come from, right? I grew up reading Marvel and DC comics and then later on specifically a lot of Jack Kirby–inspired comics and/or written and drawn by Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Stan Lee, later on Frank Miller, Jim Starlin…and what I discovered is that a lot of those comics that were made back then were very prescient. And you could say the same thing about Star Trek or any kind of science-fiction or fantasy material, where if you put ideas out there, they start to materialize. Like our phones. We went from dial phones to, like, a flip phone from Star Trek. Anyway, all of these comics would impart these future ideas, which, little by small, start to come true.
So why create a world of heroes and villains called New Brooklyn?
So, [years ago] I’m sitting in a studio in Gowanus, Brooklyn, sharing a space with six other artists because we can’t afford individual studios anymore, and then those studios start to become too expensive. And buildings are getting bought and sold to the highest bidder, who then sit on a space and do nothing with it, because they’re waiting for the developers to turn the neighborhoods into Gardens of Earthly Delight — I mean, the Gowanus Canal in my lifetime is never going to be a place to swim in. Why would you want to do that? — but that’s the kind of thing they’re trying to do. The building the studio was in two years ago, which then got bought and sold, is still sitting there, they tore down all the walls, and I saw some plans, where underneath the Smith and 9th Street station they were trying to show a huge patio garden where they’re serving food and beer while the F and G trains run over you. On the one hand, it’s a fun idea, but realistically, it doesn’t work. They [builders] buy these 99-year leases, and sit on them for 10 years, and kick out all the artists. It’s too expensive. New York City is no longer underwriting the avant-garde, or interested in performance spaces. They’d rather build another bank or another pharmaceutical grocery store.
And how did that translate into the story you’re telling with The Red Hook?
It was inspired by something that happened in 2014. I’d already invented the Red Hook in 2012 but I didn’t have a story for him, but what I discovered [narratively] happened the day the American flags got replaced by white flags on the Brooklyn Bridge. And that really happened. And it took about a week to discover that some German artists had done some art prank or stunt. But what it made me think about: Whenever I see a white flag, I think about somebody giving up. And I thought, “Oh my God, Brooklyn gave up. It finally gave up.” And that’s why I anthropomorphized Brooklyn and the Brooklyn Bridge. What if it was sentient? What if it was alive? And what if she decided, “You know what? I’m done with all of y’all. I’m out of this.”
You have some striking images of the Brooklyn Bridge having ripped itself away from Manhattan.
I didn’t worry too much about the nuts and bolts of what would happen, except, when you pull the bridge apart, it snaps in half, a bunch of subway systems will flood…but what kind of beauty will rise from it? And you know, I love superhero comics, so I thought, there’ll be superheroes and supervillains, I’ll get to have fun with those tropes. But at the same time, I myself want to be able to trade or sell or barter my artwork that I do as actual commerce. I remember going to the dentist, and I couldn’t afford the root canal. And I discovered that the dentist was a comic book fan, and I basically got commissioned to draw him as a superhero in trade for a root canal.
Is that a real story? That’s amazing.
That happened to me. So with that in mind, I put that in my comic. And I know other people have traded art for services. It happens. So I put that all into the backstory of The Red Hook Volume One: New Brooklyn.
You have all these wonderful characters in the comic, named after Brooklyn neighborhoods. Benson Hurst, the Green Point, the Coney. In what sequel can I finally see a heroine named Carol Gardens?
I do want to bring out a Carol Garden at some point! That might be something I do in the third story, but I’m not sure yet. [The second volume of the Red Hook saga, War Cry, is currently online at Line Webtoon, and the third volume, Starcross, debuts in early 2019.] That’s definitely on my to-do list. There have been a couple of other ones that people have thrown at me. [The Red Hook Volume One also includes the Flat Bush, and a radioactive fish creature named the Sheep’s Head.] It’s a lot of fun. Part of what’s great about serialized comics and serialized television is that what was really cool about waiting seven days for the next episode is that it activated the writer in me. “What’s gonna happen next?” And you start to create this writers’ room with your friends. And it’s a real creative process. It was so much fun to engage that way, and I don’t know if people engage like that anymore. As a creator that [anticipation] was so important to me.
So where can we find you on this very Brooklyn-heavy tour you’re on? I see that you have art from The Red Hook at the New York Transit Museum right now.
The Transit Museum called me a year ago, and they were curating this show, showing comics from their origins, from the newspaper strips from 1907 through the modern day. There’s a lot of indie/alternative stuff, there’s a lot of stuff I’ve never seen in my life from back in the day. Marvel and DC is presented. The show is beautifully put together. And one level down is an actual train station with one car representing each era of the subway. They cover it all, from memoir to horror to superhero, all related to the subway system. Four pages of The Red Hook are there, which take place in the Smith and 9th Street subway station.
And these pages do not depict a bougie patio below the F and G trains.
And they never will.
Dean Haspiel will be appearing on July 5 at Greenlight Bookstore in Fort Greene, in conversation with Josh Neufeld, and on July 25 at Bushwick Book Club at Barbés in Park Slope, in a musical performance inspired by The Red Hook.