An original graphic novel by Jonathan Ames (Bored to Death, Blunt Talk, You Were Never Really Here) and Dean Haspiel (The Red Hook, Billy Dogma, Bored to Death) was released by Vertigo ten years ago. It took on taboo subject matter, but was grounded in humor and pathos. It also challenged market perceptions about what kinds of stories the comics medium could tell at that time. Ten years later, we are becoming much more familiar with semi-autobiographical graphic novels, or even comic stories that reflect the real world, without necessarily relying on elements of fantasy or science fiction to speak to readers. With this ground-breaking work now out of print, Karen Berger decided to bring The Alcoholic back to print for an all-new edition via her imprint Berger Books at Dark Horse.
The 10th Anniversary Edition arrives in shops in September in an affordable softcover, and Dean Haspiel sat down with us at SDCC a few weeks ago to talk about this milestone, as well as the genesis of the book.
Hannah Means-Shannon: The Alcoholic is a book that was pretty odd and interesting book when it came out. Was it edited by Karen Berger originally?
Dean Haspiel: The Alcoholic was originally acquired and edited by Jonathan Vankin, but greenlit by Karen Berger. I did three books with Vertigo, including The Quitter with Harvey Pekar, and CUBA: My Revolution with Inverna Lockpez. So, I felt like I was on a good track illustrating other peoples’ semi-autobiographical life stories. With titles like The Quitter, and then The Alcoholic, I insisted that the third one should be called “The Lover”. (Hah) But it turned out to be Cuba. Later on I produced and collected some of my own semi-autobiographical comix called Beef With Tomato, published by Alternative Comics.
But I had wanted to work with Jonathan Ames since the moment I met him. I was a fan of his writing. It turned out that we lived in the same neighborhood at the time. I went right up to him, and one of the first things I said to him was, “We’re going to work together”. It turned out to be a good thing that he had read comics. You never know with literary people, since some shun comics. Ames was an old fan of The Avengers, and Nova.
Comics were never taken seriously when I was growing up. They were mocked. In general, comics were seen as power fantasies for 12 year old boys. Then there were books like Art Spiegleman’s Maus, and other underground comix, but those were more focused on the holocaust, or drug culture. Harvey Pekar writing memoirs, and being able to write about anything, really broke the idea of what comics could be. Even though the history of comics had originally included other genres like Westerns, War, Romance and Crime. But I think that what comics did especially well were superheroes because of the unlimited budget of the blank page. But little by small, TV and movies have caught up via technology and the ability to visually convey what comics could do best.
HMS: Yes. That’s part of why we have all the shows and movies now that we didn’t have ten years ago.
DH: Traditionally, literature and independent films address real-life issues, like alcoholism, but not as much in comics. We all know Green Arrow’s sidekick Speedy did drugs, and Iron Man got drunk. And, that’s about it.
HMS: That’s the famous one. Demon in a Bottle. It’s the only big example.
DH: I think that’s the only main example. I can’t remember if Hank Pym was a drunk. Maybe he had a psychotic breakdown. So, we didn’t have comics like that. Credit to Jonathan Vankin and Karen Berger for saying, “Let’s try this at DC Comics”.
So, going back to me throwing down the gauntlet with Ames and saying that we were going to work together, we developed a friendship first.
HMS: What did you think of him as a reader before you knew him as a person? You said you’d read a bunch of his essays in the Berger Books panel here at the show?
DH: I’d read a bunch of his essays in NY Press. I thought he was very funny, and what was interesting about his essays, when I thought about it later, is that he was usually the loser in the story. And the way that he attracted you and made you care for him was by being vulnerable. When meeting him, he kind of did that, and I realized that’s who he was.
HMS: Were you surprised by that?
DH: I was surprised, because you never know if it’s a character. Maybe it’s a little bit of a character, just like I have a public face. In this case, he never wanted to hurt other people in his stories, so he would take the brunt of it. He once described himself as “a clown with cancer”.
HMS: Is his storytelling empathetic, then?
DH: He’s definitely empathetic. Ames didn’t want to hurt people, and he didn’t want to judge people in his stories. So, he would meet all kinds of misfits and maybe he was kind of like the straight man, who would enter a situation, and events would unfold. But if anybody got hurt, it was usually him. It wasn’t like he would go on an adventure to get hurt. I don’t think he was masochistic. But when you make yourself available to weird situations, there’s a good chance that you will come out of things a little damaged.
HMS: Sure, that happens when you open yourself up to all these other people. That kind of reminds me of some of the things I see you doing in The Red Hook where the main character learns to care about others almost against his will.
DH: In a more hyperbolic, fictional way, yes. But the root of that stuff is one of my mantras, which I often say to comic book people, “Show up to your own party”. I feel like that’s true of life. I was thinking about that the other day. I live in Brooklyn, and I’m a native New Yorker, and I don’t use New York as much as I should. It’s expensive, but there are so many ways to enjoy NYC without spending a dime. Like sitting on a stoop somewhere and observing and/or engaging with people. I don’t do that anymore. I used to. That’s the way I came up with a lot of my stories, by making myself available for things to happen.
My pal/cartoonist, Bob Fingerman was the person who revived Jonathan Ames’s work for me. Fingerman had bought his first essay collection, What’s Not To Love?, and he would read some of the stories over the phone to me, and we would be dying laughing. Bedtime stories narrated by Bob Fingerman by way of Jonathan Ames.
HMS: And, of course, for the readers: Bob Fingerman is best known for his long-running work Minimum Wage, and now he’s part of Mad Magazine. He’s incredibly interested in human beings and the human condition. That totally fits his personality to be into Ames’ work.
DH: Totally. Then you meet your heroes, and you collaborate with them, and it becomes more expansive. In a very different way, I’ve gotten into Doug Stanhope, the comedian, and I went to see his standup recently. A soothsayer for the 21st Century. I gravitate towards these outliers like Harvey Pekar, Howard Chaykin, Frank Miller, and hell, even Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby.
HMS: Have you read this famous book called The Outsider by Colin Wilson, from the late 1950’s?
DH: I know that name, but no.
HMS: It was really groundbreaking for pointing out that some of the most influential ideas in literature and culture have been generated by these kind of lone-wolf figures.
DH: That’s like Emil Ferris, who won so many industry awards this year. She’s a total outsider. People worry about their work, wondering if other people will think it’s weird. Will people like it? That doesn’t matter. Make something you care about, and make it authentic. I think what we’re seeing now, in our culture, is that it is good to put yourself out there, and be honest and authentic about it. It’s not about winning awards, but it is about being acknowledged for your work, whether that’s in sales, people talking about it, someone wanting to option it for other media, whatever. The point is that it starts with you and a blank page, asking “What is it I want to do? What do I need to say?” If you can invest in yourself, maybe others will invest in you, too.
HMS: The starting point needs to be yourself, rather than what seems to sell or what other people are doing. A lot of recycling isn’t going to help anybody over time.
DH: Yes. I respect that companies like Marvel, DC, Dark Horse, IDW, who have these franchises and wonder, “How do I perpetuate them? How do I make them fresh every year?” Which is nearly impossible. But they also publish a lot of indie stuff at Dark Horse, IDW, Top Shelf, etc., and they are testing the waters constantly. Image Comics alone is changing the face of comix. And, don’t ignore LINE Webtoon, either. They’re taking what I started at ACT-I-VATE in 2006 and blowing webcomics up!
HMS: And in some ways, as everyone was discussing on the Berger Books panel, you and Ames were ahead of your time with The Alcoholic. Because now it is a little more common to see these confessional, different experiences in the comics medium. I would still say The Alcoholic is a challenging book, even now. That’s why bringing a new edition out right now is a good idea. Because now you’re swimming with your own kind. The book is coming out into a world where there are other books like this.
DH: Thank you. That’s why I’m so glad that Karen Berger decided to dust it off and give The Alcoholic a new coat (beautifully designed by Richard Bruning). Plus, for me and Jonathan, our stars have risen a little more since the original version debuted a decade ago, so maybe that’ll draw a little more attention towards the book.
In fact, when it was first pitched, Jonathan was assuming it would be a comic series. He imagined it as a 22 page series, with cliffhangers…
HMS: Like Bored to Death, more episodic?
DH: Yes. One of the comics we gave to Jonathan to update him, since he hadn’t read comics since he was younger, was Y: The Last Man by Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra. He was so entertained by the cliffhanger aspect of that, he loved it. So, Ames was thinking, “Maybe this issue could end with him on a fire escape, and he doesn’t know where his pants are. Is he going to find his pants?”
HMS: Did that work its way into the chapter set-up?
DH: It didn’t really, since once he realized it was a graphic novel, the pacing changed. What he was concerned more about was not boring me, as an artist. Since he knew there would be a lot of scenes with people talking, like visiting a therapist, or pining after somebody. And how do you show that? That can be a little challenging to draw. Every five pages or so, he’d create a scene with a little more action happening.
HMS: Like with something more outrageous going on?
DH: Definitely outrageous.
HMS: Last question: what’s different about this edition compared to the previous edition of The Alcoholic?
DH: Besides my new cover, Jonathan wrote a really fun essay about the origin of the book, and our meeting. And what that meant in context of his life at the time, and even what the 2018 update has meant to him. I drew a new illustration for the essay. And also, there is a bunch of behind-the-scenes art of the DVD extras variety. Other than that, we didn’t want to do too much more. I feel that this book has one of the best endings, not only for the author, but for the reader. I won’t spoil it, if you haven’t read it, but go and read it.
Big thanks to Dean Haspiel for taking this trip down memory lane with us and giving us a fresh perspective on The Alcoholic. The Alcoholic 10th Anniversary Edition arrives in comic shops on September 12th, 2018, and is pre-orderable right here.
Both Dean Haspiel and Jonathan Ames will also be guests of Long Beach Comic Con on September 8th and 9th (though Ames will only be there on the 9th) if you’d like to talk to them about the new edition of their book.