New Brooklyn Dreams: Dean Haspiel’s The Red Hook

Dean Haspiel’s new graphic novel The Red Hook Volume One: New Brooklyn is out from Image Comics.  It assembles together the web comic originally presented on the Line Webtoon portal, along with several shorter chapters that previously saw print in Dark Horse Presents, Psychotronic Comics and Savage Dragon.

The Red Hook cover

In the past I have observed that Dean Haspiel is a creator who appears to effortlessly leap back & forth between the spheres of independent and mainstream comics.  The Red Hook is an effective distillation of those two poles, an action-packed super-hero saga possessed of oddball indie sensibilities and a distinctive authorial voice.

The first segment, the three-chapter “Emotional Ebola,” introduces the titular Red Hook, real name Sam Brosia, a Brooklyn-born boxer turned masked thief, and his girlfriend / partner in crime, Ava aka the Possum.  Their vivacious romance brings to mind both the eccentric banter and tumultuous misadventures of Haspiel’s kooky couple Billy Dogma & Jane Legit, as well as the postmodern costumed escapades of Paul & Mae Patton from The Fox: Freak Magnet and Fox Hunt miniseries.  “Emotional Ebola” is a somewhat languidly-paced extended prologue, although Haspiel does seed it with tantalizing hints of both what has come before and what is just around the corner.

Events quickly accelerate with the “New Brooklyn” story proper.  The borough of Brooklyn, exasperated by the twin scourges of skyrocketing rents and gentrification, becomes sentient and physically secedes from America, literally breaking away from the other four boroughs.  (I’m sure the “Heart of Brooklyn” wasn’t at all happy about the whole Donald Trump thing, either.)  The residents of the newly independent island of New Brooklyn have set about establishing a new economy, one where art is a vital part of commerce.  The birth of New Brooklyn has also resulted in the manifestation of numerous beings possessing super-powers.

The Red Hook pg 35

Initially the Red Hook and the Possum attempt to continue with their usual second-story shenanigans, lifting priceless paintings and locking horns with rival criminal Benson Hurst.  However life soon takes an even more unexpected turn for the Red Hook, and Sam finds himself forced onto the path of altruistic heroism.  Initially both leery of and resentful towards this development, Sam eventually decides to embrace his new role, regarding it as an opportunity to amend for the past transgressions that still haunt him.

The Red Hook, and the larger New Brooklyn Universe, are very much an expression of Haspiel’s love for New York City.  A native Manhattanite, Haspiel was forced by rising rents to relocate to Brooklyn in the late 1990s, only to see that same pattern repeat itself a decade later, with various friends fellow artists having to move out of the city entirely within the last several years, and numerous local businesses going under.

(Believe me, having lived in Queens for over a dozen years now, I can certainly relate!)

As Haspiel laments in his introduction:

“NYC is no longer interested in underwriting the avant garde and cultivating soothsayers. It got bamboozled by real estate developers more concerned with leasing empty spaces that hemorrhage money and often stay empty. An evil shell game of dog-eat-dog, while local bodegas and art spaces vacate and resurrect into a deluge of banks and all-purpose pharmacies, where cultural and culinary institutions of the past vex us with their historical significance like ghosts.”

Haspiel conceived the New Brooklyn Universe not just as a setting for fantastical stories, but as a representation of the cultural mecca that NYC once was, a mythic remembrance of a time when the city may have been dangerous & grimy, but also pulsed with life and vitality.

The Red Hook pg 59

Haspiel’s writing is simultaneously humorous, strange and poignant.  The plot is compelling, as are the characters.  Haspiel has always been great at scripting couples.  Sam and Ava’s romance possesses a tangible authenticity.

The artwork in The Red Hook Volume One is breathtaking and dynamic.  This is some of the best work that Haspiel has done in his entire career.

Recently I had occasion to read for the first time in a number of years Daydream Lullabies, a trade paperback collecting Haspiel’s Billy Dogma stories that were written & drawn in the mid-to-late 1990s.  Haspiel was, of course, a good artist two decades ago.  However, comparing the material in Daydream Lullabies to his work in The Red Hook, it is readily apparent that Haspiel has grown tremendously over the past twenty years.  He is definitely an artist who has consistently grown, never sitting still, instead working to continually improve his craft.

The Red Hook is a one-person production, with Haspiel writing, drawing, lettering and coloring.  That last aspect is especially striking.  Haspiel’s color work for this graphic novel is vivid, his hues and tones effectively complementing his dynamically weird linework.

The Red Hook pg 114

Haspiel has clearly put a great deal of thought into the New Brooklyn Universe, having worked with several colleagues to devise it.  Among these collaborators is talented writer Vito Delsante, who pens a two page prologue for his own New Brooklyn Universe creation The Purple Heart, illustrated by Ricardo Venancio.

Another pair of creators who have dipped their toes into the New Brooklyn waters, so to speak are writer Adam McGovern and artist Paolo Leandri.  Their four-part Aquarian story recently ran as a back-up in Erik Larsen’s Savage Dragon #229-232.  Having now read The Red Hook Volume One, which establishes the New Brooklyn Universe, I’m planning to re-read that Aquarian serial.

I’m looking forward to seeing what Dean Haspiel and his collaborators do next in chronicling the weird, wonderful world of New Brooklyn.  Hopefully future editions of The Red Hook, as well as the various companion series, will not be long in coming.

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