Heed The War Cry – Dean Haspiel Discusses A Person Of Mass Destruction

by Hannah Means Shannon

The Ringo Award-winning webcomic The Red Hook debuted in 2016 from Dean Haspiel, and with it a New Brooklyn Universe of heroes struggling within the sentient borough of Brooklyn after it secedes from New York City. It was the first time Haspiel had worked with the scrolling format of LINE Webtoons, but only the next step in digital comic art from someone who has worked heavily online in the past with his Billy Dogma comics in projects that appeared on both ACTIVATE and Trip City.

The Red Hook embraces many of the Silver Age elements that have garnered Haspiel a following through comics like The Fox at Archie Comics, but winnows down the excesses of the Silver Age of comics into their most imaginative and imagination-stretching elements. Featuring a thief who is forced to become a hero or die, The Red Hook has captured praise for its acrobatics, the transfiguration of heroic concepts, and the emotive core of Red Hook’s relationship with his paramour, The Possum. But The Red Hook leaves us hanging at its conclusion, poised on the edge of tragedy for The Possum and an uncertain future for The Red Hook.

Haspiel’s direct sequel War Cry debuts today on LINE Webtoon with the release of the first three chapters, and will be delivered in weekly installments for free reading hereafter. In it, we’ll witness the birth of a new hero born of disparate elements, and see how this will affect the fate of The Red Hook.

Dean Haspiel joins us today on Comicon.com to talk about The Red Hook, War Cry, and his penchant for Silver Age heroics.

Hannah Means-Shannon: War Cry starts with a homeless orphan and a transformative experience of finding others. It reminds me of elements of classic super hero narratives, but at the same time, it seems new to me among the works you’ve created. Is this new ground for you?

Dean Haspiel: I’m definitely exploring new territory with WAR CRY. A kind of emotional conflict I’ve been thinking about for many years. And, with today’s politically charged climate, one could hazard that I’m not the artist that’s “allowed” to write and draw a story like this because it features a teenage African-American boy named Rajak who shares a body with a cosmically resurrected African-American woman; The Red Hook’s dead-girlfriend who has become a Human of Mass Destruction!

But, I was careful in finding a way to tell the tale while respecting boundaries. And, even though I didn’t have access to consult a war goddess (relying solely on my imagination), I did grow up with a diverse group of friends, including Mike Hueston, my best friend since we were 12-years old, and I got to observe and share in his plight as an African-American growing up in the 1970s/80s NYC.

HMS: What is the appeal (and I feel it too) of the weird, wild, and wacky heroes and villains from the Golden and Silver Age of comics—the ones who never became big stars? Where do you find the biggest troves of that strangeness?

It must have influenced War Cry and the whole New Brooklyn Universe. That kind of underground energy of super hero traditions without traditional super hero constraints is very compelling.

DH: Weird heroes are the best. I’m influenced by the oddities of Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Stan Lee, C.C. Beck, Alex Toth, Will Eisner, Ramona Fradon, Irwin Hasen, Wally Wood, Gil Kane and a bunch of Golden and Silver Age cartoonists. But, as much as we love the more popular superheroes, there’s something undeniable about the off-beat heroes that skate the outskirts of normality. I’ve written and drawn Marvel’s Woodgod. I’ve drawn DC’s Wildcat, and, I’ve plotted and illustrated Archie’s The Fox. More recently, I’ve created a gallery of absurd yet meaningful characters for New Brooklyn because that’s how I wrestle with the world and those are the kinds of misunderstood monsters I’m attracted to. It’s their stories I wish to convey.

HMS: If you were a Silver Age comics artist, what would you draw and why?

DH: My gut answer is The Fantastic Four. But, I would never dare interfere with the perfection of Stan Lee & Jack Kirby’s magnum opus. I believe the first decade of Marvel is near perfect. So, I would never mess with their core lore. And, with the exception of Shazam!, I didn’t read much Silver Age DC Comics, but I probably wouldn’t wanna touch those either. Besides, my art and ideas are too zany. I think I could’ve produced a fun run of Archie Comics’ The Mighty Crusaders in the 1960s. Alas, the creatives assigned to the book during the Silver Age only produced seven issues and that superhero team wasn’t revived until the Bronze age. I could’ve squeezed out a good few years outta those characters. I swear! However, I view The Red Hook, War Cry, and my New Brooklyn Universe as Silver Age characters with a modern twist.

HMS: There’s a big development in War Cry in terms of the use of color, whereas Red Hook had a limited palette and interesting experiments in that. Now, with a full palette, what do you think that brings to the story, and how were the colors chosen and used so far?

DH: I really liked the limited color palette I designed for The Red Hook, but LINE Webtoons editor Tom Akel advised me to employ the full color spectrum for my sequel. To be honest, I find coloring a daunting task, but I’ve taken the challenge and, while keeping within the Silver Age style I adore so much, I have pushed myself as an artist with this project. Curiously, it was studying Adrienne Roy’s colors on Batman and the Outsiders from the early 1980s that helped me figure out some stuff for War Cry.

HMS: War Cry will raise some eyebrows in terms of gender perceptions, since our hero is a teen boy who becomes a female hero when he transforms. And as he seems to express, some of his proudest moments happen as a woman. What did you want to express about gender here? How do you hope fans will respond to it?

DH: Everyone knows women are more intelligent and more powerful than men. I’ve admired women all my life. Most of my best friend’s are female. My mother is my mama but she’s also a great pal. So, when I realized in War Cry that the boy was gonna transform into the most powerful hero of all, he had to become a she. Who’s kidding who? And, anybody who has a problem with that, well, they’re just thinking with their dick.

War Cry is influenced by Jack Kirby’s O.M.A.C. (One Man Army Corp), C.C. Beck & Bill Parker’s Shazam (the original Captain Marvel), Gerry Conway & Al Milgrom’s Firestorm, and Steve Ditko’s Hawk & Dove. Think of a black Billy Batson shouting “War Cry” instead of “Shazam,” and, instead of transforming into the world’s mightiest mortal, he turns into a female version of O.M.A.C. (or O.W.A.C.) where she is Hawk to his Dove with a Firestorm complex. You’ll have to read the damned comic to understand what I’m going for.

HMS: Is this the first female hero you’ve focused an entire series on? Do you think that changed the dynamic of your work at all?

DH: Not really. Female protagonists have always bolstered my male protagonists. Jane Legit is the smart one, the empathetic one who helps Billy Dogma find his way in my “last romantic antihero” series. Ava Blume aka The Possum aka War Cry is the emotional foundation for Sam Brosia aka The Rascal aka The Red Hook. But, I usually tell my tales through the male perspective because I’m a man. It’s no secret that my art, and my life, is profoundly affected by women.

HMS: This is a super cosmic-feeling series even though we’re still dealing with New Brooklyn. What of cosmic comic tradition did you want to bring in? How does that all work into the bigger story?

DH: In The Red Hook, Brooklyn reveals itself to be sentient when it physically and literally secedes from New York, ergo America, because its heart is broken by the apathy and indifference of the world. It becomes New Brooklyn where new heroes and villains emerge and art becomes currency, something you can barter for food and services.

I lightly touch upon what happened to Brooklyn in The Red Hook and a lot of that was covered in The Purple Heart, another New Brooklyn character I co-created with writer Vito Delsante and artist Ricardo Venancio. In War Cry, I explore New Brooklyn a little bit more with the various gangsters who run the underground. And, since The Red Hook used to be a super-thief, he has access to these people and helps influence their next steps with the help of Rajak, the peaceful side of War Cry. It’s at this meeting that we meet a new kind of hero, one that piques Rajak’s interests.

HMS: Tell us about how Red Hook operates in this story. How much of his legacy is still present? I mean, he’s got some serious unresolved issues to deal with, surely. Not least that his [semi] deceased girlfriend Ava is now more powerful than him.

DH: The Red Hook is a bruiser with an uneasy past who was forced to become a superhero against his will or he would die. By the end of the first story arc, he embraced his fate as a fighter for good, but his world’s been turned upside down by the proposed death of his lover, The Possum, who has now been resurrected into a teenage boy. It’s a cluster fuck that’s only compounded by the fact that The Red Hook’s semi-psychotic mother has become a vigilante who calls herself The Coney. In War Cry, this sequel will reveal new things about The Red Hook’s family and challenge ideas of how to rekindle romance with a cosmic war goddess who shares a body with the opposite sex.

HMS: Working on Red Hook as your first Webtoons comic, what did you learn in terms of creating a “scrolling” narrative, and how have you applied that knowledge this time around for War Cry?

DH: In creating a vertical scroll from a traditional comic book layout, I basically abandoned inset and landscape panels. I lean towards taller, portrait-sized panels whenever possible. I strive for narrative reveals to occur at the bottom of a panel while considering cliffhangers every five or so pages for dramatic impact. At the end of the day, story is king, no matter the delivery system.

Many thanks to Dean Haspiel for sharing so much of his comics lore with us today.

Head on over to Line Webtoon to read the first installment of War Cry.