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Interview: Dean Haspiel Talks The Red Hook and LINE Webtoon’s New Brooklyn Universe

The Red Hook

LINE Webtoon is an amazing outlet for quality comics that are designed for the digital space, and earlier this month they launched a whole new universe!

The site released the first of three titles in their New Brooklyn universe, a world in which Brooklyn is a living, breathing entity that has broken away from the rest of New York City. Here’s the official description from LINE Webtoon:

New Brooklyn follows the adventures of a unique group of heroes who emerge in the fallout from Brooklyn’s decision to secede from New York State. In these comics, Brooklyn is not just the setting, but also a character with a broken heart whose decisions greatly impact the destinies of its residents. Fed up with the way society has formed around her, Brooklyn quite literally pulls away from New York – its bridges breaking and tunnels flooding – and proposes that humanity return back to days of old where things and people were defined by their ethics, values and contributions; where skills and art could be bartered and traded; where land could be farmed to sustain life and spawn beauty.

The first title in this intriguing new universe is The Red Hook. Created by Dean Haspiel, it tells the story of a hero named The Red Hook aka “Brooklyn’s master thief, Sam Brosia, who finds he can no longer lie, cheat, or steal when America’s greatest champion bequeaths him the powers and moral burden of the Omni-Fist of Altruism– against his will.” The comic, currently on its third chapter, very much has a Silver Age vibe to it, as the ethos of the series — and of the New Brooklyn universe — is that Brooklyn has taken a turn for the worst, and that people should get a little closer to the way things “used to be.”

I had a chance to chat with Haspiel via email, and he spoke to me about The Red Hook, the New Brooklyn universe, and what it all means to him as a lover of comics and New York City.

Teresa Jusino (TMS): First of all, I’ve read the first two chapters of The Red Hook, and I thought they were great! And I’m saying this as a Queens girl through-and-through who has it in her DNA to hate Brooklyn!

Dean Haspiel: Respect! In chapter one of The Red Hook, I drew a part of Eldert Lane during the “great secession” to signify the eradication between Brooklyn and Queens. It was chilling to illustrate.

TMS: You’re the creator behind The Red Hook, but this is just one title in an entirely new New Brooklyn universe. How much input did you have in creating the universe as a whole?

Haspiel: After I created The Red Hook in 2012 as a creative palette cleanser during a residency at Yaddo (the legendary artists/writers colony in Saratoga Springs, NY), my former studio mate and great friend, the late Seth Kushner, created The Brooklynite. He was an amazing photographer who loved comic books and wanted to write them, too. He’d been writing a comix memoir anthology called SCHMUCK, done in the spirit of Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor, for, a website we’d co-created & curated with a few other writers and artists but he didn’t draw much. So, Seth was in search of an artist/collaborator which we eventually discovered in Shamus Beyale. Anyway, back then we’d threatened to spark a two-man Brooklyn comics anthology where I’d draw my Red Hook stories and Seth would write his Brooklynite stories, but paying gigs got in the way and, tragically, Seth got cancer and passed away. When editor Tom Akel approached me at a NYC comic convention last year and asked me to pitch something for Webtoons, I thought about The Red Hook yet wanted to honor Seth’s posthumous superhero work. But, I needed a spectacular hook (forgive the pun) to give our independent characters a background theme to dance in.

When the white flags replaced the American flags on the Brooklyn Bridge for a week in 2014, I thought about a good way to give Brooklyn a science-fiction/John Carpenter-inspired twist; Brooklyn is sentient and its heart’s been broken, and it physically secedes from America, going back to days of old while inadvertently causing a pandemic of new heroes and villains. Which also meant it needed an avatar, a cosmic guardian to speak for Brooklyn’s heart and protect it. So, I also co-created The Purple Heart with writer Vito Delsante and artist Ricardo Venancio. I pitched the idea of a New Brooklyn Universe to Tom and he loved it. He asked for one comic and got three! I’ve acted as a comix-show-runner on all three series, making sure it lines up with the overall concept while we flex our individual sensibilities.

TMS: I myself moved from NYC to L.A. four years ago, because as a native New Yorker, I felt like New York had changed so much that it was no longer a place I recognized, so the themes of The Red Hook (Brooklyn separating itself from the city and trying to go back to an earlier era) really spoke to me. What message are you trying to get across with this title? What do you think Brooklyn specifically and New York in general could be doing better? What will save the city’s soul in your opinion, and how are you manifesting that through these new characters?

Haspiel: I was born and raised in Manhattan but moved to Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn 19 years ago after a sad break-up with a girlfriend. It took me a while to acclimate from the fast-paced white noise of NYC to the slower paced neighborhoods of Brooklyn, but I fell in love with how vast and accessible it was. I discovered the waterfront via Montero Lounge on Atlantic avenue and heard whispers of a timeless bar in Red Hook nicknamed Sunny’s for the spirited owner who ran it as a friendly speakeasy for folks in the know. I dubbed it “the last bar at the end of the world.” I found a serene sense of peace and possibility in Brooklyn that I didn’t encounter growing up in competitive Manhattan. A sense I’ve since discovered in parts of Upstate NY, the Catskills, Los Feliz, and New Orleans. For many years I’ve made comix in shared Gowanus studios, from Deep6 to Hang Dai, and helped spark small creative communities in real-life and virtually. And, now that a bunch of Gowanus artists are getting kicked out of their studio spaces (including me) for land developers to fancy up otherwise undesirable work-zones in order to hike rents in what has become the most expensive city in America, I’m getting sick and tired of my homeland economically banishing its natives.

I don’t have the answers. I’m not a scientist or a professor. I live by my gut and try to contribute good will with the romance of my art. Ergo, my recent memoir collection, BEEF WITH TOMATO (from Alternative Comics), and my abstract fantasy of a New Brooklyn that gets explored in The Red Hook and beyond.

TMS: The vibe of the whole New Brooklyn universe is very much a Silver Age vibe. I can see why, considering that a big part of the message is that we “used to” be great, but we’ve lost something. However, do you think we have to look backward to go forward? Is there anything about today’s Brooklyn that’s worth saving, and will we be seeing the characters in The Red Hook dealing with those things as the story continues?

Haspiel: History tends to repeat itself, so you have to look back in order to move forward. Brooklyn is still a great place for diversity, culture, food and art, but it will only be shaped by the last artists and curators standing in an economy that can’t afford the avante garde and the under-looked like it once did when my mother was the deputy director of the New York State Council of the Arts. Back when artists could afford to live small and create unhindered. Nowadays, it seems you need to have a 5-year plan and a digital app to hawk while you social network more than you create. Hype has become as necessary as a paint brush and pen.

As for the Silver Age vibe, blame it on the comic books I grew up stealing from my local newsstands, while discovering back-issues in comic books shops, where I fell in love with Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Alex Toth, Will Eisner, C.C. Beck, Ron Wilson, John Byrne, and so many others, only to be trained my senior year of high school by the likes of Howard Chaykin, Walter Simonson, and Bill Sienkiewicz.

During The Red Hook series, some of my characters debate the pros and cons of a New Brooklyn that barters art for food and services, but the first story arc is essentially an origin about a bad guy who breaks good when a cosmic-god bequeaths the burden of altruism upon his very soul, and how that all shakes out on a borough that’s recently become a self-sustaining country in the face of apathy and indifference.

TMS: I love the old-school romance between The Red Hook and The Possum, and I also love that she’s a competent and intelligent partner. What can we expect from her as the story goes on? Also, are possums running rampant in Brooklyn? Why “The Possum?”

Haspiel: I cherish The Possum, too, but not every character is going to be named after a street or an area in Brooklyn. In fact, many of my characters were named something else until I realized Brooklyn had some great names like “Benson Hurst.” I can’t explain my creative process. Some things speak to me and I have to follow my heart. Some characters are created to support a story or theme. You’ll have to read The Red Hook as it dramatically unfolds and introduces great new characters and new problems.

TMS: It’s interesting that you’ve gone “old-school” with your storytelling, but seem to be resolutely new-school about offering comics digitally. Will The Red Hook ever see print? Is there a value in print despite us living in the Digital Age? Or is The Red Hook most at home online?

Haspiel: With so many comics being produced in so many ways for so many platforms, I guess you can claim I’m old school by the fact that I’ll be 49 at the end-of-May and been reading comics for over 40-years. However, I started making web comics and have been hopscotching between print and digital while yielding to their virtues a decade ago before it became trendy and viable. Two of my recent graphic novels, FEAR, MY DEAR, A Billy Dogma Experience, and BEEF WITH TOMATO, are both derived from web comics I did as far back as 2006. Producing a vertical scroll for Webtoons is a new challenge, but I think I’m doing well with it. I aim to put The Red Hook in print come Fall 2017.

TMS:  What can you tease (without spoilers, obviously!) about upcoming chapters of The Red Hook?

Haspiel: Coming soon: you get to meet The Green Point and The Invisible Light and how that impacts The Red Hook forever. Plus, some insight into The Red Hook’s background and the return of Benson Hurst, and much more. It really gets cranking and doesn’t let up!

The Red Hook is available now (for free!) at LINE Webtoon. Seth Kushner and Shamus Beyale’s The Brooklynite launches this summer, and The Purple Heart, by Vito Delsante, launches this fall. Whether you love New York now, or you love the way New York used to be, the titles in the New Brooklyn universe are definitely worth checking out!

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