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.

Comic book reviews: Stray “Who Killed the Doberman?”

Stray is a project that writer Vito Delsante has had in the works for a few years now.  Following the completion of a successful Kickstarter campaign, the four issue Stray miniseries was published by Action Lab Entertainment, with the conclusion released last week.

Stray 1 cover

Delsante and artist Sean Izaakse tell an interesting variation on an old superhero formula.  The protagonist of Stray is Rodney Weller.  When he was in his early teens Rodney was the costumed crime fighter the Rottweiler, partner to the vigilante known as the Doberman.  There are certainly parallels to the classic Batman & Robin relationship here, although Rodney is the Doberman’s actual son, and the Doberman did not become a masked hero until after his wife died.

Through a series of flashbacks Delsante & Izaakse show Rodney becoming the Rottweiler and fighting at his father’s side.  We also see the eventual, biter break-up of their partnership.  Rodney becomes convinced that his father regards everything in stark terms of good and evil, and is unable to recognize that some criminals are not actually bad people, but have been driven to break the law by economic desperation.

The disillusioned Rodney leaves home and becomes a sought-after organizer of parties & raves.  Along the way he becomes something of a criminal himself, peddling the addictive drug Gsmack to club-goers.

Unfortunately for Rodney his latest girlfriend kills herself while under the influence of Gsmack.  He is hauled in by the cops for drug possession and manslaughter.  At the police station Rodney then receives more bad news courtesy of Detective Brooks: the Doberman has been murdered.

Stray 2 pg 5

Although the “Who Killed the Doberman?” story arc is ostensibly a murder mystery, it is really concerned with examining Rodney and his ambivalent feelings towards his father.  With the Doberman dead, Rodney is left with a great deal of unresolved anger towards his father as well as his former allies.  He is also uncertain if he should follow in his father’s footsteps and assume the identity of the Doberman in order to track down the killer.

I know that I often complain about decompressed writing in comic books, so perhaps it’s odd for me to suggest that this story might have worked better if it had been an issue longer.  At the end of part three Brooks informs Rodney that he’s figured out the identity of the murderer.  I was surprised because I didn’t think that Delsante had presented any real clues, much less actual suspects.  When I bought issue #4, though, I first re-read the previous three issues, and this time I did notice that Delsante had sprinkled in a few subtle clues here & there.

It was also odd that Delsante never gives the murderer any sort of motive other than good old fashioned insanity.  It felt like there should have been an explanation for why the killer specifically chose the Doberman and the other victims.  There seems to be some sort of history connecting them all that Delsante just barely hints at.  Well, at least it gives him something to explore in a subsequent miniseries.

Delsante is perhaps overly ambitious in these four issues of Stray.  He introduces a large supporting cast and alludes to various complex relationships and past events without having the room to really delve into any of them.  However, Delsante is nevertheless successful in the primary focus of his story.  He develops Rodney into an interesting, three-dimensional character (although he never explains how Rodney got into dealing drugs).  And, again, all of that background material lays the potential groundwork for a number of future stories.  I really would like to find out more about all of these characters and their histories.

Stray 3 pg 9

I was previously not familiar with Izaakse.  So naturally I did the Google thing.  It appears that Izaakse is relatively new to the biz.  Before Stray he worked on Pathfinder, a fantasy series published by Dynamite.  For someone who has only been doing comics for a few years, Izaakse work here on Stray is very good.  His action sequences are definitely dynamic and exciting.  There is also a great deal of detail to his art.

More significantly, in a story such as Delsante’s, which is very concerned with character development, there are a number of lengthy scenes of dialogue.  Izaakse adeptly handles these “talking heads” sequences.  He lays out those pages very well, turning in some strong storytelling.  The narrative definitely flows well from panel to panel.

Stray 3 cover

A number of artists contributed covers to Stray.  The prolific Mike Norton illustrated the cover for the debut issue.  ChrisCross, a really dynamic artist whose work I definitely enjoy, drew the cover for issue #3.  Hold on a sec, is that an actual pit bull behind the wheel of that car?!?  Man, that’s just too cool.  Yeah, I think that future issues of Stray should have Rodney going out on patrol with his dog Sam.  Maybe Sam really can drive a car!

There were variant covers for Stray as well.  Khary Randolph, Shawn McGuan, Paige Pumphrey and Julian Lopez each drew a really cool variant, and I wish that I’d been able to get copies of them.

In conclusion, while there are several hiccups to Delsante’s writing, on the whole he does quality work on Stray.  I really hope to see more from him in the near future.  Rodney is too good a character not to be featured again.  The letters page in in issue #4 announced that Stray will be co-starring with Molly Danger and Midnight Tiger in a special scheduled for release in November, which is good news.

Stray TPB cover by Dean Haspiel

I certainly recommend this miniseries.  It’s a good read with quality art.  If you missed these issues then you are in luck.  In what is an extremely fast turnaround, Action Lab is releasing a Stray: Who Killed the Doberman? trade paperback on June 10th.  The amazing Dean Haspiel illustrated a brand-new cover for this collected edition.  So there’s your second chance to pick this one up.