“EVERY NIGHT I go to sleep, I have a panic attack and I think about the career I chose and the life I live and wonder what’s going to happen.”
Those were the words last weekend of Emmy-winning comics creator Dean Haspiel, while giving an emotional keynote speech at Baltimore Comic-Con‘s Harvey Awards ceremony. He was speaking from the heart about trying to make a go of it as a freelance artist in an urban center that has gentrified.
“At the end of this month, after many years sitting in the same room inches from my peers, creating comics and art under the banner of Hang Dai Studios, we will say our goodbyes,” shared the Brooklyn-based Haspiel, who is weighing what to do next, and where to go next, as he nears 50.
Haspiel’s illustrious and varied career has included collaborating with the late-great Harvey Pekar on American Splendor tales, which resulted in “The Quitter” for DC/Vertigo, with whom he’s also published such graphic novels as “Cuba: The Revolution” and “The Alcoholic” (with Jonathan Ames). Haspiel also helps bring artists together, through such projects as the webcomics collective Act-I-Vate and the literary-arts salon Trip City.
The story of the freelance artist compelled to leave a city or career behind because of financial concerns is an old one, and yet the tale renews itself on new soil, from coast to coast, wherever creative collectives meet urban gentrification.
As Haspiel considers his next move, Comic Riffs caught up with the “Billy Dogma” and “The Red Hook” cartoonist to get his take on the challenge of any urban artist’s freelance career:
MICHAEL CAVNA: You and I once talked about how you could win an Emmy Award one day [for HBO’s “Bored to Death"], then be back at the drawing board while eating PB&J the next day. For most artists, it’s a career of passion that can be high on the creative returns, but low on the financial returns. Is that a fair characterization of the industry now?
DEAN HASPIEL: Awards are acknowledgments that can raise awareness but don’t guarantee new work. And since I mainly work in the comic-book biz, winning an Emmy is more a conversation piece than anything else. Because of the recent popularity of superhero movies and cos-players and weekly comic-cons, one might think that making comics would be a lucrative career, but I think it’s harder than ever to make a living at. Harder to compete with spoiler-based marketing and binge-culture. At best, comics is a low-budget way to conceive big ideas. At worst, it’s a lifelong passion project akin to building castles in quicksand.
MC: In your Harvey Awards keynote, you said that New York, particularly Brooklyn, isn’t such a financially friendly place anymore for artists. Several years ago, David Byrne penned a sentiment that he thought the “1-percent” of wealth was killing New York culture. Do you see this as a transitional ill that has many symptoms?
DH: New York City is an amazing place. An incredible spectacle. Some say the center of the world. I wish I could visit its virtues. Sometimes, I want to experience the NYC that people talk about. Alas, I’m just a dumb native who decided to make art in one of the greatest melting pots on planet earth, right as the middle class split into the rich and the poor. Luckily, my currency is based on creating stories and art whether I get paid a penny or a pound. You give me a yacht and I wouldn’t know what to do with it. Give me a pen and a blank piece of paper or a spotlight and I’ll tell you a damned good story.
MC: Has this been a gradual shift in New York, or have you seen things change swiftly, even radically?
DH: I think the shift in affordability has always been a slow decline but it seems like it sped up most recently, the past five to 10 years, as more artists who cobbled together in tighter spaces, where living rooms became bed rooms, have finally priced people out.
MC: Do you see this decline slowing, or reversing, any time soon — or does it feel like lost artistic support that won’t easily be put back in the paint tube?
DH: I think the problem with the concept of designating artists spaces is that, eventually, they become too cool and woo non-artists with bigger bank accounts to live in such sections where, eventually, building owners raise rents, effectively murdering the hope for artistic growth. Check out the history of Soho, New York, where I used to live in the late 1980s, as that artists’ community transitioned into an expensive, European-inspired hot spot, pushing out most of the artists. Bottom line: You need certain services in order to live and exist and art will always be trumped by coffee, food, beer and wine. You can’t eat a Picasso.
MC: Among your network of creatives are musicians and photographers and other artists. Do you see them facing the same symptoms in New York as you?
DH: They already kicked out the musicians in the building next to ours, almost a year ago. Music bands scrambled off to other spaces or went back home to their parents’ garage. A local photographer I occasionally run into on the street basically lost his job to cellphone pictures because most companies don’t care about the art and craft when they just want the cursory snapshot. Nice if it’s in focus. I’m sure someone will develop a comics app or some kind of filter, if they haven’t already, that will make it simpler for anyone to make a digital comic. Fine. Whatever. What makes an artist stand out is their personal voice, and that can never be duplicated. It just may have to come from much farther away, is all.
MC: Anywhere else you’re considering moving to make comics?
DH: With all my gripes, I have a really hard time emotionally leaving my native New York City. It’s the only home I know. It’s where my heart is. A part of me thinks the Catskills is where I’ll wind up, boiling an old shoe to make soup like Charlie Chaplin did in that movie. Because I’ve always strove for making art, I’m otherwise unemployable. But I work hard at keeping my finger on the pulse and keeping it communal,while making an individual stamp in hopes of uplifting the narrative arts for fans of the form. Am I due for a midlife crisis? Sure. Bring it on! I’ll turn it into art.
MC: Say I’m a young comics creator weighing whether to move to Brooklyn. What advice would you give?
DH: Sorry, but there is no justifiable reason for a young creator to move to Brooklyn to make art. You’ll just wind up liquidating your savings faster than you prepared for while holing up in a corner to work all night and sleep five hours a day while subsisting on cheap food. Better to visit Brooklyn and crash couches and network; make friends with like-minded people, until maybe there is a viable way to innovate and make something sustain. Whatever that looks like in the next phase of New York City’s crumbling art scene.