Dean Haspiel’s comic career, like many indie cartoonists, is not easily summed up in a single phrase or even a single sentence. However, there is a commonality to his works, both in an out of comics, that does make it feel recognizable when you encounter it. There is usually a central semi-heroic figure, or a couple, and the world around them often feels alien, changeable, given to upheaval. For that reason, his Billy Dogma character, “the last romantic anti-hero” who populates many of his self-published works, looms large against gargantuan struggles. Imperfect, emotional, overtly confused and prone to sharing his mental processes aloud for the reader, Billy nevertheless casts a bold shadow in the face of a hostile environment.
In Haspiel’s series The Fox at Archie Comics, resurrecting a classic character, he nevertheless brought a lot of the same quizzical humor and oddball struggle to the character. And most recently, working on The Red Hook, available to read for free at Line Webtoons, and its soon to be published sequel War Cry, Haspiel crafts a Brooklyn out of joint, and a time of heroes who only half-understand their purpose in life (and that “half” may be generous).
One thing that’s also a common feature of Haspiel’s works, alongside a perplexed but struggling anti-hero, is an exploration of connection—also a warzone—that runs parallel to outward conflict, or through trippy overlap, becomes outward conflict. In Billy Dogma stories, there’s his counterpart Jane, and in War Cry, the Red Hook loses his girlfriend to a superheroic transformation that makes them both estranged and connected.
Haspiel’s second play, Harakiri Kane, Or Die! Die Again!!, ran throughout the latter part of October and into this week at The Brick Theater in Brooklyn, New York, following on from Switch to Kill, which was performed as part of a festival in 2014. Switch to Kill followed the noir lives of gangsters, and explored the tension between violence and personality. Harakiri Kane pursues the fate of a boxer whose own ending has been mysterious, now elevated to a position as an Angel of Death, and the end-of-life experiences of others that he plays witness to.
At first glance, it might seem like a departure from the characters and themes that interest Haspiel, but in fact it proves to be a fruitful development. Though we don’t get a lot of backstory for Harry (played by Alex Emanuel), our boxer, now living an un-dead existence as an Angel of Death, we can assume that a man who makes his career through violence, even a kind of sanctioned violence, might carry some of that wrath with him into another state.
But Harry, rather, is not a man of violence. His new role dictates that he feels ill every time he knows a human death is impending, and that seems to stand as a proxy for extreme empathy or at least sympathy. A dread for the ending that his fellow beings must face. Harry is a fairly literal reading of John Donne’s sermon “For Whom the Bell Tolls”, wherein we should not ask who the funeral bell is for—it is always for us–because we are all more connected than we like to acknowledge.
So, a non-violent hero with a violent past, observing the vagaries of human lives drawing to a close, unable to avoid empathy for their suffering, is also one who is faced with the problem of connection. He never mentions loved ones or regrets, except for wishing to break through his amnesia about how his life ended, but he does become connected to strangers through his new job.
We gradually become aware, through the course of the play, that there’s a more experienced Angel of Death around who seems to be pulling strings. She, Sharon (played by Jessica Stoya in her stage debut) seems to be looking for her own sense of connection. She encourages Harry to “have a little fun” with his job of taking souls, something he can’t much comprehend, but Harry becomes the object of her study. The goal of her attempt at connection.
Though Sharon cannot touch him, she has some degree of romantic interest in Kane, however, the real connection between them is simpler, more delicate, and as brief as a few lines of a story that she has written which she deigns to read to him. It’s enough to show that even in death, the human quest for connection lives on.
Harry’s role, and the mode by which Sharon tries to reach him, emotionally, is a development upon the more gruff and bombastic approach of heroes, even sympathetic heroes, in Haspiel’s work. Here we see a boxer who has set aside his gloves, a soul adrift, and one who’s kind and receptive enough to forgive Sharon for her manipulations, and still give her the gift of empathy. In this new post-death role, Kane has changed, too. He’s now someone who can visit his old boxing coach (played by Tarik R. Davis) at the appointed hour of his death and handle that with greater grace and understanding than he could have during his mortal days.
The play is obviously built upon plenty of mythological allusions and traditions, though shot through with a New York flavor that you can’t fail to recognize. One of the more interesting through-lines concerns an obsessive cook (played by Ian W. Hill) who, auteur-like brings his creations to the world at the cost of the lives of others. Descending into grotesquery to cheat death, he believes that the fresh human hearts of others can shield him from the arrival of an Angel meant to take him away. Once Harry final does confront him, this heart-stealing becomes the key to Harry’s choice to “die again” and leave behind this role which many covet.
I mention the mythology since it’s an aspect that would’ve been rewarding to develop further in the context of the narrative. Within a performance limited to 90 minutes, and conveying a great deal of information in that time, the play had to pass over those elements fairly quickly. And yet, the idea of hearts as identity, as something that can determine our fate after death, has interesting implications, possible drawing on Egyptian and Central American storytelling and rites pertaining to the afterlife.
The interpretation and performance of Harakiri Kane was highly committed to the exploration of emotional states, to bringing to life the incisive personas that people Haspiel’s own myth-scape, and to planting a few new ideas in the minds of the audience for them to ponder.
Haspiel has mentioned elsewhere that he’s hoping to develop this story of life, death, and connection, as a comic someday, and here’s hoping we see that. Though the performance of the play itself was an achievement, it would be very interesting to see how Haspiel’s art style might interact with a world familiar in many ways from his previous works, but also both darker and more hopeful than territory he’s yet explored in comics.
Full cast for Harakiri Kane included:
John Amir*, Rolls Andre, Philip Cruise*, Ivanna Cullinan*,
Tarik R. Davis, Alex Emanuel*, Lex Friedman, Eli Ganias*,
Linus Gelber, Ian W. Hill, Christopher Lee*, Derrick Peterson*,
Alyssa Simon*, and Jessica Stoya.