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Cartoonists Nick Bertozzi and Dean Haspiel Interview Each Other

Nick Bertozzi and Dean Haspiel. Photo credits: Nick (Mike Rhode)/Dean (Whitney Matheson)

For over twenty five years Nick Bertozzi and Dean Haspiel have been two of the most respected voices in the Alternative Comics Scene.  Along with such other cartoonists as Paul Pope Jessica Abel, Matt Madden, Brian Ralph, Brian Chippendale. Jordan Crane, Evan Dorkin, Sam Hiti, Josh Neufeld, Bob Fingerman, Adrian Tomine, Jason Little, Julie Doucet, Jason Lutes, Ed Brubaker, Sam Henderson, Jon Lewis, Tom Hart, Joe Chiappetta, Jennifer Daydreamer, Mary Fleener, Terry LaBan, and Jhonen Vasquez, they helped usher in a “Bronze Age” of the genre, bringing energy, new ideas, and techniques, as well as serving as inspiration to other cartoonists who they would influence through their work.

Now, many of those names are no longer working within comics, but as the medium evolves, the creators that are still active are continuing to evolve their work.  Both Nick Bertozzi and Dean Haspiel are such talents.

Alternative cartoonists as Teen Idols (phot0 by Vanessa Bert0zzi)

Thanks again to Nick and Dean for taking the time to participate.

*  *  *  *  *

BERTOZZI: We were roommates for over a year at the end of the ‘90s. I’d been doggedly self-publishing a superhero satire that sold less every issue, and I’d been trying to connect the comic to an imaginary audience.

I was deep in debt and about to publish another issue when you stopped me, “Imagine you’re at the comic shop, looking for the perfect comic for you that you can’t find. That’s the comic you should make.”

That simple mental exercise completely changed my art. I can’t thank you enough for doing an intervention for me. Did someone do that for you?

DEAN HASPIEL:  To know that I had any influence on you makes my day, Nick. Your commitment to innovating the comix form (like your vintage map comic, Boswash) helped galvanize my slow but sure path towards autonomy. But it’s been a long haul.

In 1985, when I was 17 going on 18 (my senior year of High School), I became an assistant to Howard Chaykin (as well as Bill Sienkiewicz and Walter Simonson). It was probably Chaykin who lit my auteur fire. American Flagg! and Time2 is STILL ahead of its time (pun intended). Nobody asked for those independent Chaykin efforts. They burst from his own gut reaction to the industry, his own desire to be seen apart from mainstream fare. The stories he had to tell.

Coupled with my discovery of Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor and Chester Brown’s Yummy Fur (where comics could be about anything), my simple dream of one day drawing The Fantastic Four for Marvel Comics was compromised. Suddenly, I wanted to fully create my own stories.

Nick wrote and Dean illustrated this Juggernaut story approximately 20 years ago for X-Men Unlimited.

NB: “Nobody asked for those” is a really powerful way to make work.We’ve both lived through the “Death of Print” several times now. How is it still alive?

DH: Gee–I dunno. The fact that a lot of us are slaves to our smartphones three hours a day (not counting laptop and television) might have something to do with our desires for nostalgia. Our desires to play tag-no-touch in the park and hold pulp instead of pixels in our hands. Comic books. Vinyl records and cassettes. VHS tapes. I’ve been watching old reruns of Star Trek, Batman, The Honeymooners, The Twilight Zone, Alfred Hithcock Presents and Mama’s Family on MeTV because they remind me of my childhood.

A simpler time but also they’re still THAT good. And since we spend so much time scrolling and doom scrolling through social media, manifesting attention deficit disorders, navigating the pros and cons of artificial intelligence, it’s our TIME (my time/your time), that we’re ultimately vying for. And even though everything has become exponentially more expensive, people have been spending money. They just don’t know what to spend it on anymore.

So when a creator makes a cool object, it’s something to consider. At the end of the day, we’re not competing for each other’s wallet, we’re competing for each other’s time.

Do you think authenticity is overrated?

NB: From a cartoonist’s perspective I’d say the parts of my work that give me a sense of meaning are more often found in my self-published work. But the process of working with a publisher or an editor or a collaborator, who has their own vision that may challenge my own, is sometimes the push I need to go deeper into the structure of storytelling.

We’ve both self-published before. Is there a difference in the way the readers of your self-published material respond?

DH: Collaboration is super important to expanding your craft. Stuff you would never have considered doing on your own. But I’ve also hopscotched between genre and memoir. Franchise and alternative. Print and web. And it appears my diehard fans dig my semi-autobio stuff the best. But after drawing many other people’s real life stories (Harvey Pekar, Jonathan Ames, Inverna Lockpez, Jonathan Lethem, Stoya, etc.), I kinda had an allergic reaction to memoir and wanted to draw 25th Century dolphins having sex in outer space.

And that’s when I invented The Red Hook and produced 4.5 seasons for Webtoon. It was my love letter to superhero comics. But I’m not sure my diehard fans really read that saga. And when I got fed up trying to pitch original concepts to publishers only to be met with anemic offers and/or crickets, I decided to spark a “Deep Cuts” self-publishing concern.

But instead of listening to my diehard fans, I doubled-down and produced COVID COP via Kickstarter. My black comedy response to the pandemic. Luckily, some of my base picked up what I was laying down while the comix eco-system of crowdfunding helped spread the word and secured new readers.

When I Kickstarted my second “Deep Cut,” BILLY DOGMA & JANE LEGIT, it was a return to my grassroots: a psychedelic romance noir. Now with my third Kickstarter outing, THE RED HOOK x DEAN HASPIEL, I’m blurring the boundaries between fact and fiction. I’ve written a meta-mem-noir that merges semi-autobio comix with a New Brooklyn fantasy where I get to excavate emotional truths; hoping my base, and new readers, will tag along for the ride.

Nick, you started self-publishing before crowdfunding. In fact, you (as did many of our mutual cartoonists pals) received a Xeric Grant to self-publish Boswash. (RIP Xeric; all hail Annie Koyama– (@anniekoyama)).  But then you took a long break between personal efforts and produced a wild array of graphic novels for publishers. What is the difference between what you’ve done for yourself, and how different the self-publishing landscape has been upon your return?

NB: The big difference I’ve noticed since the ‘90s is that the community of self-publishers has made design a large part of their comics-packaging. In the early 2000s, Jordan Crane published a handmade issue of the comics anthology Non, that required him to hand-cut the cardboard interior that held two of the three physical books that made up the issue.

The self-publishers have taken up that challenge and I am always stunned by one book or another that I see at a show, a book screen-printed in 25 different hues; hand-cut “die-cuts”; a hand-lacquered cover. My early comics in the ‘90s were black and white interiors with 2-color covers and I’ve since taken the younger cartoonists’ hint and worked to make Rubber Necker Blue and Rubber Necker Automatic Autobio elegant-looking and elegant-feeling in the reader’s hand. I’ve had a few of the covers of my big-publisher graphic novels taken out of my hands and drawn or designed by someone else because a marketing team is deciding what will sell.

The part of self-publishing now that’s difficult is the inability to concentrate when the campaign is running.

DH: Not to push back on cool and sexy designs – I respect their value – but I’m more concerned with story value. If you can achieve both at the same time, great!

Especially if the design is integrated into the narrative (like what Chris Ware does). But I’ve experienced way more indie-comix concerned with cute designs over narrative. I’d easily lose a Rube Goldberg inspired comic book for a barebones tale that makes me laugh and/or cry. Something that pulls at my heartstrings. Which is probably why my current “Deep Cut” comix flexes vulnerable character meditations in hopes of making human connections.

I won’t say nay to a Saul Bass influenced cover with Chip Kidd interiors but I know where my skill sets lie.

What is Rubber Necker Blue about? Why did you design the cover that way? And tell me more about Rubber Necker Automatic Autobio.

NB: Early issues had some variant on the idea of a rubber neck on the cover and I wanted to bring that back for BLUE–the fella on the cover has a rubbery neck. BLUE is a collection of short comics, some funny, some sad–one is an autobiographical story about the time I was hit by a car when I was 15.

Automatic Autobiography is a collection of one page comics that came from Lynda Barry’s exercise: draw a one page comic, 6 panels, 3 minutes per panel, about a childhood memory. A few of them have been revelatory in their reinterpretation of past events.

I agree that cartoonists should strive to write and draw challenging, moving, gripping, and experimental stories, but I give newer cartoonists a lot of slack, you should read some of my first comics. I was not firing on all cylinders.

Why on earth are you mixing memoir and fiction??? What compelled that idea?

DH: The older I get the more I feel like life is a merge between fact and fiction. Our experiences. Our memories. Our dreams. Our stories. I was talking to my mother and she was lamenting about losing her new friends from the TV show, “This Is Us.” She binge watched all six seasons and was emotionally invested. I, too, have enjoyed those feelings with so many of my favorite TV shows, movies, books and comic books. These characters and situations come alive. And while Mom was watching the show the characters became real people. And when she watched the last episode they disappeared. Never to be seen or heard from again. That kind of thing leaves a hole in your heart. Even though they were fabricated, they were real.

What is true? I’m not sure I know anymore. But I’ve been wanting to take a bombastic superhero concept that slowly becomes a slice-of-life series with occasional surrealist aspects for years. Which is exactly what I did with my new comix Kickstarter, THE RED HOOK x DEAN HASPIEL.

And rather than regurgitate the entire campaign pitch in our parlay, interested folks can go here to check it out and all the perks here.

To say that I’m excited by your new comix campaign is an understatement, Nick. It’s been too long since the industry has received pure, unexpurgated Nick Bertozzi comix. Besides printing your collaboration with our mutual pal/writer/showrunner, Jonathan Ames, and catching up with your serialized story, “Drop Ceiling,” I’m super curious to see/read your experimental memoir as challenged by Lynda Barry. I love a good set of constraints. Makes me wanna throw my rulers and white out against the wall, dip my elbows in ink and start thrashing my stories on studio walls.

Maybe that’s where all this is heading towards – performance art. We’re no longer just writers and artists. We’re publishers and promoters. We’re dancing for our food. We’re baring our bums for your attention.

Where can we see your comix campaign for RUBBER NECKER BLUE and RUBBER NECKER AUTOMATIC AUTOBIO?

NB: You can find my Kickstarter here.

Curt Swan you are not, Dean!

DH: Hah! I’m not Karen Finley, either! But, in an alternative universe, I would’ve settled on being Jim Aparo or Frank Robbins.

NB: My last question to you was a leading one, but it sounds like you’re building something new and I’m excited to see exactly how it’ll work, how you’ll mix Jack Kirby-poetics with how you interpret your own life. I’ve hidden autobiographical aspects in all of my work but never mixed the two so explicitly

I hope we both get to keep making comics for as many years as Eternity allows. It’s stunning at this age to feel that there’s so much joy in writing and drawing comics. I’ve offered advice to many artists in the intervening 25 years and I hope we can continue to help point some other artists in their real direction.

Indie Cartoonists Circa 2002: Jessica Abel, Paul Pope, Dean and Nick (photo by Vanessa Bertozzi)

Thank you, dear friend! Also-thank you for encapsulating the contents of my book for me–you’re great at that too!

Thank you, too, my old school-chum Stefan! What Cheer, Netop!

CLICK HERE to support Nick Bertozzi’s Rubber Necker Blue and
Rubber Necker Automatic Autobiography.

CLICK HERE to support Dean Haspiel’s THE RED HOOK x DEAN HASPIEL.

About The Cartoonists

Nick Bertozzi is the author and illustrator of the multiple Harvey Award-winning and Ignatz Award-winning Rubber Necker series, The Salon, Lewis & Clark, New York Times Bestseller Shackleton: Antarctic Odyssey, BOMB (with Steve Sheinkin), Be More Chill (with David Levithan), comic pages for an upcoming A24 documentary series, and many more graphic novels. He storyboarded and final art for Netflix’s LOSERS and he has animated for NBC and PBS. You can find his work on Instagram (@nickbertozzi) and at nickbertozzi.com  He and Dean collaborated on an X-Men comic starring the Juggernaut at a poetry slam!

Emmy and Ringo Award-winning cartoonist Dean Haspiel is best known for creating Billy Dogma and The Red Hook. Collaborating with Harvey Pekar and Jonathan Ames, and illustrating for HBO’s Bored to Death. His published work includes writing and drawing for Marvel, DC/Vertigo, Archie, Image, and Webtoon on comics such as The Fox, Spider-Man, The Fantastic Four, X-Men, Deadpool, Superman, Batman ’66, Wonder Womzan, and Godzilla. In addition, Haspiel is an accomplished playwright, and Yaddo fellow. He lives in Brooklyn, NY. Instagram @deanhaspiel_art and deanhaspiel.substack.com

 

 

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