Haspiel/Fiffe: Brawl-ing Tales

A comics interview article by: Tim O'Shea
Dean Haspiel is the kind of creator that can discuss Ben Grimm one minute and the Brothers Grimm the next. He’s a storyteller that bridges several genres through his associations and collaborations with creators as disparate as Walter Simonson and Harvey Pekar. A few weeks back when Image announced the October release of Brawl (listed in the Diamond PREVIEWS coming out this week), I got in contact with Haspiel. According to Image’s advance press on the three-issue project, Brawl is an opportunity for:

“ACT-I-VATE alumni Dean Haspiel and Michel Fiffe bring their genre-bending Webcomics to the printed page in a black & white, three-issue creature romance double feature…

‘While Immortal, my half of Brawl, made its debut online at ACT-I-VATE, I always intended it to get in print," explains Haspiel, the critically acclaimed artist behind Harvey Pekar's The Quitter. ‘I knew Michel felt the same way about his psychedelic horror story, Panorama, so the collaboration was a must.’

Both halves of Brawl are completely different as far as content, but that's exactly what the cartoonist pair intended.

Immortal features Haspiel's anti-hero, Billy Dogma, in a hardboiled romance gone cosmic, while Fiffe's Panorama focuses on a teenage runaway suffering from his disturbing new found powers.”

In the spirit of this two-man project, I interviewed both Haspiel and Fiffe in two separate email interviews. Enjoy.

Tim O’Shea (TOS): How surprised were you when you saw Billy Dogma get mentioned in a recent issue of Heeb (sometimes known as Heeb: The New Jew Review). And did you enjoy their description of Billy as a "cross between Popeye and Nick Cave" (http://www.billydogma.com/)?

Dean Haspiel (DH): Scoring the Heeb nod was very cool. It's interesting to know what kind of an impact your work makes on people and, wearing Jack Kirby's influence proudly upon my sleeve, it's refreshing to learn what other artistic comparisons my comix yield. The Heeb review made me listen to my copy of Nick Cave's The Boatman's Call, again, and crack open my DVD of The Proposition. Deep, dark stuff. I think Billy Dogma is a lil' more Nick Drake than Nick Cave but I appreciate the notice.

TOS: After garnering an audience for Billy through the ACT-I-VATE webcomic readership, how important was it to you to get the series published in the traditional sense as well?

DH: The fact that I'm 40 years old dictates that print will almost always be the final destination point for my webcomix. Books and comic books have been an influential part of my being and reading experience.

Just today I bought two used science fiction paperbacks off a street vendor for $4 because I wanted something to read in the subway. I appreciate the wear and tear of yellowed pages and that distinct smell of aged paper as the glue loses its grip. An esthetic that an artificial, palm-sized machine with a two year shelf life can't possibly give.

So, with the invention of the internet and the exponential expansion of communication, persona building, downloads, and the next best thing to keep you connected and affected, it's tough to keep in tune with technology. The internet shares infinite space with a savvy, word-of-mouth, populace vying for your unique visit. As much as I feed off the loyal community I've helped create at ACT-I-VATE, I duck my head and continue to develop my storytelling powers and guerilla market my efforts while the world around me toys with new variations of the format.

TOS: Out of the mixture of ACT-I-VATE collaborators at the site, what prompted you to pair your work with Mike Fiffe's work for BRAWL?

DH: I've always been a fan of the one-two-punch. In the mid-1990s, Josh Neufeld and I launched Keyhole, a two-man comix anthology showcasing our near polar opposite sensibilities and I missed having that kind of creative tension. Mike Fiffe and I are both fans of The Hernadez Bros.' and Love & Rockets, and, more recently, Rodriguez & Tarantino's Grindhouse. Wanting to scratch that Keyhole itch, we identified certain shared themes between Billy Dogma and Panorama. And, even though we have very different responses to the issues of love, loyalty, life, and pain, Fiffe throws the perfect uppercut to my hay maker.

TOS: What motivated the recent formation of DEEP6 Studios? Do you find that you're more productive working in this kind of studio environment? What other benefits are there?

DH: Working alone is pure torture. Forming DEEP6 Studios was a blessing.

Ever since my ex-roommate, Nick Bertozzi, moved out to get married and start a family [and become a famous cartoonist, the bastard], I've worked home alone for over five years and, with the exception of those invigorating comix-making nights with Mike Fiffe, and/or, the occasional comix clatch in my living room, the daily grind was bleak.

I'm the king of procrastination and nine times out of ten I'd rather wash a dish or ego-surf the internet before putting pencil to paper.

Making comix is such a...process of elimination...it's hard to describe. So, it was thrilling for me to finally get a gang together [Simon Fraser, Leland Purvis, Tim Hamilton, Mike Cavallaro, and Joan Reilly with Michel Fiffe on deck] to fully realize DEEP6 Studios.
I've intensified my output and gotten back to brass tacks since moving in.

TOS: Are you making any revisions/tweaks to the story in making the transition from webcomic to printed form?

DH: I'm adding a splash page or two and a few panels for beats in between "scenes" to insure dramatic tension between pages. Rather than compelling the reader to scroll down their computer screen, I had to reformat my story to be a page turner for traditional comic books. In Brawl, my story, Immortal, is being published in stark black and white at six-panels per page. The ultimate print destination for The Billy Dogma Trilogy is a long ways off [a color hardcover], but I'm excited to test the webcomic to pamphlet format with Image comics.

TOS: One goofy question--How often do you feel the need to hug friends and associates in front of a photo of Lee Marvin?

DH: Whether it be for reference or for sustenance, hugs are essential. I sit next to DEEP6 studio mate, Tim Hamilton, and he emits a wanting glow that begs for big, hairy arms to give him a long, hard squeeze.

This glow emits often. Luckily, we've mastered the man-hug that disallows the embarrassment of "bumping helmets."

Michel Fiffe Interview

TOS: I think it's safe to say that eroticism and violence go hand-in-hand in both Brawl works, but from your perspective--what attracts you to exploring the merging of seemingly incongruent elements like eroticism and violence?

Michel Fiffe (MF): Eroticism and violence are such broad themes that one can do practically anything within those parameters. They are elements that are fun and highly attractive due to their universal nature, but it's a very fine line as to whether they promote basic human truths or are just cheap, embarrassing, and predictable gimmicks. Don't get me wrong; I enjoy a healthy dose of gratuitous blood and cum, but by having the sex and the violence be essential elements to the function of both Brawl stories, the reading experience will have maximum effect.

TOS: How long have the characters and plot of Panorama been rolling around in your mind?

MF: My main character, Augustus, and his supporting cast have been kicking around in my head for a couple of years. I had all different types of stories for all of them, but with Panorama I found a way to include them in a single tale. I wanted to have a story where I could draw incredible scenarios yet tell personal stories informed by my own experiences. The overall story went through a couple of drafts and the core personalities of the characters were rough and not fully realized, but I eventually created an environment for them to develop.

TOS: What motivated you to do convey almost all of page six in white ink on black panels?

MF: The "negative effect" was done primarily to show Augustus' specific point of view: the shift from normalcy to anxiety-driven meta human self-defense and the loss of control. Trying to use the advantages of the printed page, I thought a striking change of style was called for.

Rather than "reversing" the image on the computer, I rendered it by hand to keep the natural feel of the story.

TOS: The lettering on your story hooked me with the first balloon--how did you come up with that style and were you trying to emulate any letterer in particular?

MF: Thanks! I think that lettering is a very important element in comics, more so than coloring. It sets the tone for what we read and dictates how we feel about what we read. Guys like Ken Bruzenak and John Workman sharpened my appreciation for the skill, but my main intent with lettering is to be clear yet in tune with the design of the project. I get the impression that lettering is underrated to the point where most artists don't seem to find it important to master, especially hands on lettering. It's very time consuming and not glamorous at all, but it can make or break a comic story.

TOS: Given the surreal nature of the tale, were there any particular scenes that were hard to draw and prompted a great deal of revision?

MF: The most difficult part of the making Panorama was writing and fleshing the characters out. Instead of having a full script and a handle on the cast, I pretty much figured things out page to page.

Dealing with their complex personalities and portraying them convincingly was by far the hardest thing to accomplish. As far as the visual and surreal aspects of the story, I had a specific look and design I wanted to use, but it was characters' world view that I had to cultivate a bit more.

TOS: In striving "to warp and evolve the comic book reading experience" (as you said in the recent Image press release) what kind of response are you hoping to elicit from your reading audience?

MF: Well, by "warp and evolve" I really meant "stifle and dull", but something must've been lost in translation. Whatever the case may be, I would hope that our audience enjoys the unique and hilarious qualities of both our stories. Another hard part for Dean and I was trying to describe and summarize something like our stories for Brawl in that nothing like it exists in any medium. Panorama & Billy Dogma are brutal, weird, funny and above all, entertaining. Instead of offering yet another interchangeable failed screenplay with stiff artwork, Brawl will leave a very personal and lasting stamp on everyone who comes across it.

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