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Dean Haspiel on Act-I-Vate and being the “dean of Web comics”

Dean Haspiel recently was interviewed for an article in the New York Times. He talks about how he ended up founding the Act-I-Vate collective, building a loyal fanbase, and the misconception that just because you’re willing to give something for free online, no one will ever pay for your stuff later. I’m copying and pasting the article here. (I have no idea if this is falling under the curtain of the New York Times subscription service at a later date.)

It’s always heartwarming, by the way, to see a highly reputable newspaper like the New York Times cover webcomics. Can an economic analysis of digital comics from rival Wall Street Journal be far off in the future?

DEAN HASPIEL, a 41-year-old resident of Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, is not your stereotypical comic book eccentric. He is charming and funny, and he enjoys bringing people together, whether to talk about comic books or knock back a sociable Scotch.

Mr. Haspiel’s credits include illustrating “The Quitter,” the autobiographical tale of his fellow comic book maven Harvey Pekar, and Jonathan Ames’s graphic novel “The Alcoholic,” about life under the influence. His art is defined by bold lines and figure work reminiscent of the legendary comic book artist Jack Kirby.

A native New Yorker with dark hair and a scruffy beard, Mr. Haspiel has lately become something of a champion of Web comics. His work can be found online in “Billy Dogma,” a noirish tale of love and redemption; at Act-I-Vate.com, an online cartoonist collective that he founded three years ago; and at “Street Code,” his semiautobiographical anecdotes of city life, at zudacomics.com.

Mr. Haspiel works out of an art studio in Gowanus, a space that screams “aspiring artists at work,” which he shares with a group of like-minded Brooklyn cartoonists. The décor includes dog-eared reference material, drawing materials, and a microwave and an electric coffee pot, which have both seen better days.

Starting Friday, Mr. Haspiel will be signing autographs and talking comics in appearances at the New York Comic Con, a pop culture show at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center. During a recent chat at a cafe near his studio, Mr. Haspiel spoke about his art, and his life, in New York. GEORGE GENE GUSTINES

When I moved to Brooklyn in 1997, there was a certain cultural polarization in the neighborhood, which is some of the stuff I write about in “Street Code.”

The bearded dean of web comicsBecause I grew up on the Upper West Side, I was the new guy. Some old-school Italians looked at me as if I was some kind of yuppie, which I’m not. It was really kind of gratifying to eventually be accepted by the tribes.

I definitely enjoy community. I worked alone at home for the five years I was first in Brooklyn, and when I discovered blogging, I realized it was like having office mates. It was a good distraction, a good way to talk or complain. And when I realized you could show stuff on these sites, I got excited because I could post a preliminary sketch or a finished piece and get a response.

After a while, I realized there were a bunch of cartoonists online. And so I thought, why not create a comic blog of creator-owned stuff and create this online anthology? You own the material, you post on a weekly basis, and you piggyback off each other’s fan bases. So I started this comics collective called Act-I-Vate. I wanted a buzzword. When I looked up the name online, I found that it had been taken by something else, so I added the dashes.

I did Act-I-Vate and “Billy Dogma” while doing print work. The difference between the two is for a printed graphic novel, you know the beginning, the middle and the end of the story when you get the script, and you take a year to draw it. Not many people see what you’ve done, except for the editor and the writer. It’s printed and marketed, and you hope a bunch of people see it and weigh in. What’s cool about doing “Billy Dogma” is that every week people tell me what they like, or don’t like, or “keep drawing!”

Over the years, the free “Billy Dogma” comics that I was posting have led to me making money off of other Web comics. I joked about being the “dean of Web comics,” but I don’t know anybody else who could say that.

And the comics still exist. It’s not like there’s an expiration date. You can still click on them. You don’t have to go into the back-issue bin. All you need is a link.

The more interesting thing is, O.K., I gave my stuff away for free, and you’d think no one would want to buy my stuff when it became available in print. That’s not true. In a weird way, you’re building loyalty and a fan base.

I think books haven’t lost their luster yet. Print is still alive, despite the hard times. I believe that comics won’t ever go away, for one reason: They’re affordable, budget-orientated art and entertainment. When times are tough, people need to escape.

I think being a New Yorker informs the types of stories I tell and how I draw them. I’m trying to decide if you could tell if an artist was from Michigan, say, by reading his comics. I don’t know, but I feel that because New York is so analyzed and admired and criticized, there’s a lot of creative energy that goes into the work of New York comic artists. Like Will Eisner or Jack Kirby, for instance, you can tell by their work that they were born and bred New Yorkers.

In a small way, Brooklyn reminds me of those great Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns, only the vistas are bordered by brownstones and churches and a magnificent park. I was born in Manhattan, but I found my art and my heart in Brooklyn.

(Thanks to a link from CBR’s Robot6.)

Posted in The Webcomic Overlook, webcomics   Tagged: Act-I-Vate, Dean Haspiel