Only Love Can Save The World: Talking StarCross With Dean Haspiel

by Hannah Means Shannon

You’ll see a commonality in Dean Haspiel’s (The Quitter, The Fox, Billy Dogma, The Red Hook) creator-owned work as writer and cartoonist, whether it’s on the page or screen. His heroes have a definite outsider quality, they are tackled by their own emotions, and they dare to hope for something a little better even when blinded by a couple of black eyes. Haspiel’s lengthy work with his character Billy Dogma has taken a bit of a pause as he follows the life and times of The Red Hook, a former boxer turned thief given a heroic ultimatum that takes him through some savage, and cosmic, experiences. The first series of this saga, The Red Hook, is free to read now on the app Line Webtoons, and is even followed by season two, War Cry, also available to read, in which The Red Hook’s girlfriend becomes a sublimely powered being on a dangerous trajectory.

Today, StarCross debuts on Line Webtoons, taking us through the familiar streets of New Brooklyn, but also launching us into a love letter to cosmic comics with plenty of giant gods and stellar travel. But knowing this character and this creator, there’s also going to be plenty of emotional drama, and of course, some truly beautiful comic art.

Dean Haspiel joins us on Comicon.com today to talk about StarCross, his methods, and outlook on making comics.

Hannah Means-Shannon: Looking at the scrolling format for StarCross blows my mind, with cosmic beings falling through space. How hard are you channeling Kirby here? Are there any other influences to call out on this space odyssey?

Dean Haspiel: Thanks, Hannah. I really appreciate you taking your time to talk to me about STARCROSS.

The cosmic aspects of my comix are definitely influenced by Jack Kirby’s Negative Zone in The Fantastic Four, coupled with Steve Ditko’s psychedelic astral planes in Dr. Strange. The Monolith in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey carries profound curiosity in my mind. The outer space jockey and gardeners from the “Alien” franchise has been rattling around in my head for awhile. And, recent cinema like Moon, Interstellar, Arrival, and Annihilation hit me hard emotionally.

Pick up any other Warren Ellis comic book and he’s writing the next wave of science fiction. Alexis Ziritt is drawing the best psychotronic comix today. Check out his funky SPACE RIDERS or just steep in his Instagram. If you haven’t been reading J.M. DeMatteis and Mike Cavallaro’s Impossible Inc., then you actively despise what comics can do. And, shame on you!

HMS: An amazing thing that comics can do well, perhaps better than any other medium, is portraying weightlessness and flying. What are your strategies for making that naturalistic and believable as you frame your characters? I’ve been watching you do that for 7 years and I still feel like it’s a mystery.

DH: Some artists convey flight with balletic verve, as if the body is made of feathers. I prefer to display mass and how flight can disorient you; how a body combats the tether of gravity.

Years ago, I remember studying Curt Swan’s Superman and admired how he drew the man of steel as if he weighed 400 pounds of relaxed muscle. Which makes sense since Superman’s extraordinary powers are activated by the earth’s sun, and gravity is an important part of what makes his abilities work. I always admired how grounded (literally) Curt Swan drew Superman lifting off and flying as if he needed to take a running start. Former Justice League of America artist, Mike Sekowsky, drew his heroes like inebriated meat sacks that stumble and flounce rather than leap and bound. Most recently, Lee Weeks illustrated gravity like a boss in that great Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner inspired chase sequence in Batman #67.

Another artist I’ve leaned on for a graphic sense of gravity is John Romita Jr. It’s as if he ate everything Jack Kirby, Frank Miller, and his father, John Romita Sr. drew, and combined their catalog  into drawing the modern superhero. I’ve learned a lot from Romita Jr’s Spider-man, Thor, and Iron Man comics. His characters always feel centered.

HMS: So what’s going on in StarCross? What do readers need to know to keep up with this narrative?

DH: After defeating a deranged demigod in New Brooklyn, the Red Hook’s girlfriend, War Cry, gets kidnapped by an Omni-God and disappears into outer space. The story in STARCROSS begins one year later. The first two-chapters does an efficient job of catching up new readers. Luckily, both The Red Hook and War Cry (seasons one and two) are available to read for free at LINE Webtoon (a free App you can easily download on your smart phone, tablet and/or laptop), before folks dive into season three (or during).

The teaser goes like this: STARCROSS finds New Brooklyn on the eve of an ice age that will make all life on earth extinct. The only way to save the planet is for The Red Hook to ally with Sun Dog, find and rekindle romance with War Cry, confront the Omni-Gods, and give birth to a new dawn where only love can save the world! If only it were that easy.

HMS: Can you tell us a little bit about your color selections here? What tone/aesthetic are you going for and how did you land on such a crisp palette?

DH: I can’t color to save my life. And, because I have poor Photoshop skills, I hardly render in color. In fact, I designed a limited color palette for The Red Hook season one only to be told by editorial that I had to expand my color schema. I think they thought more fans would read my comix if I made the sky blue and the grass green. I disagreed, but the challenge made me confront some creative fears. And, I leaned towards the bold Stan Goldberg colors of 1960s Marvel, and Adrienne Roy’s team book colors in those 1980s New Teen Titans and Batman and The Outsiders comics published by DC. I discovered new ways to color code scenes and characters for narrative clarity and emotional impact.

HMS: Is StarCross going to be entirely set in space? Where are you going with things?

DH: Half of STARCROSS takes place in New Brooklyn but it gets galactic and goes places I’ve never drawn before. A sentient, heartbroken Brooklyn seceding from America is still relevant to the back story but, if I were to be honest with myself, I think I was missing producing my Billy Dogma comix (the last romantic antihero) and The Red Hook got kidnapped into the cosmic romance arena I tend to explore and express myself more naturally.

Alas, STARCROSS caps a trilogy that features the life and death and life of Ava Blume, aka The Possum aka War Cry aka…well, you’ll have to read it to find out. But, The Red Hook saga will continue.

HMS: Can you tell us how StarCross builds on the emotional core of characters in the preceding stories, The Red Hook and War Cry?

DH: Remove New Brooklyn and take away the superhero tropes, and the core is a classic story about The Red Hook’s love for his girlfriend, Ava Blume. She is his center. His inspiration to do better. Be better. Anyone who has ever been in a serious relationship can relate to this. And, what happens when the person you’ve devoted your heart to dies trying to save your life, resurrects into a human of mass destruction and then, ironically, becomes the only solution that can save earth from extinction?

HMS: Are you dry brushing this digitally? How have your inks and colors adapted over the course of these Webtoons stories?

DH: I’m still using cheap sketch paper, blue pencils, a Japanese brush pen and Jet pens for inks. I digitally color, letter, and edit my art into a vertical scroll, while keeping in mind the eventual print version. I lay out the comics I produce for LINE Webtoons differently than most other comics I create. It’s been quite a challenge. I’m still discovering a better, more succinct shorthand in my work. I’ve always maintained that my art is story-driven. Don’t waste your time ogling my illustrations. There’s nothing to see here. Just read it, enjoy it, and move on.

HMS: Since you were a webcomic pioneer, how have things evolved in your opinion for digital comics?

DH: The digital comix platform is a massive library of unlimited escapism fighting for your five-minutes of undivided attention. I believe most people who follow serialized webcomics, read them in larger chunks or wait to binge-read when completed.

Webcomics proper are probably best served up like your traditional, daily comic strip in the newspaper. 3-4 panels per strip, clip-clopping along with a nice Sunday-sized effort to end the week. What’s that equivalent to, three comic book pages per week? Twelve pages per month yielding a 120-page graphic novel in less than a year? Not bad. And, what’s great about comic strips is that they don’t have to curry constant cliffhangers to keep you on board. A general pace and tone is set and the story can dramatize accordingly.

On the flip side, I recently produced a Sunday comic for POPEYE’S CARTOON CLUB for King Features Syndicate (coming out soon). Popeye turned 90 this year and is one of my earliest influences (it’s obvious in my Billy Dogma comix). Producing a Popeye comic reminded me of how great a challenge it is to tell a whole story in five panels.

And, then there’s the Instagram comics model. One to ten square panels of comics. Same thing I did at ACT-I-VATE, the now defunct webcomics collective I founded 13-years ago at Live Journal in 2006. I realized that most of my more successful creator-owned comix launched online and I’m thinking of starting a Patreon for my next self-produced comix project. See, I’ve grown weary of creating and curating content for Facebook. I know social media has become a groundbreaking (yet questionable) part of our daily lives, but why not see if I can make a few bucks doing the same thing but with new work and make my digital footprint more intimate and qualified?

HMS: How does this work for you—composing both scrolling images for the webcomic Webtoons format, and also more static images for the later printed page? Is this like trying to see things through two lenses at once as a creator?

DH: I try my best to lay out my Webtoons-driven comix in a way that exploits both the vertical scroll while serving the traditional, left-to-right comics page for eventual print. It’s tricky and involves forfeiting wide, landscape panels for tall, portrait panels, including some surgery between the two versions, but I think I’ve done a good job honoring both models. Curiously, writing plays has started to affect the way I think about comic books. Even though the blank page has an unlimited budget, I’ve started to treat my comix like black box theater. I’m writing my scenes as if they could be performed on the stage. I never have more than 5-6 major characters in a story. I simplify the setting. I try to keep each conflict between 2-3 characters. By shrinking my cast and settings, I’m able to better develop my story and achieve themes. It’s been an interesting phase in my comix process.

Thanks to Dean Haspiel to joining us for this chat!

StarCross debuts today on Webtoons, free to read!

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