This is the first installment of Artist at Work. Essentially, this will be a conversation with a comics artist about the craft and his or her process. I'm happy to say we're launching this with New York illustrator Dean Haspiel, who has done exceptional work in recent years on projects such as "The Alcoholic" with Jonathan Ames and "The Quitter" with Harvey Pekar.


In October, Haspiel will be one of 18 creators featured in the hardcover collection "The Act-I-Vate Primer," which brings to the printed page the inspired spirit of Act-I-Vate Comix, the routinely outstanding Web-comics collective. Haspiel's contribution is a story with his signature character, Billy Dogma, who this time around is reeling from a broken heart. It was a challenging and special story for Haspiel to put together but not a pleasant one. Last December, Haspiel's girlfriend of seven years boarded a flight to spend the holidays in her native England and ended up reuniting with an old flame. As you might guess, the pain of all that is splattered on the page in this new Billy Dogma tale.


The title panel

This was started in blue pencil on two-ply Bristol board, then inked with Micron pens and brush pen.

"All cartooning is a reduction of sorts," said Haspiel, who plans his layouts with thumbnail sketches no bigger than 2 or 3 inches across. "If you can understand what's happening in a panel that small, it will totally make sense when it's bigger." His artistic compass points include Jack Kirby, Alex Toth and Will Eisner, and he said that as his career moves forward his quest is for images that are simple (as in elemental, not easy) and pages that have the irresistible rhythm of storytelling achieved by, say, Eisner or Harvey Kurtzman. He finds himself less concerned about fashion and pulled toward graceful narrative. "I know it sounds funny, but if you look at old Archie comics, there's a playfulness there and and an understanding in the way the story is presented."


The inked version

Here's the fully inked stage of the picture.

Haspiel has done semiautobiographical work and reportage pieces in which he himself is the clear voice and visage (such as "Snow Dope" for the New York Times Opinion section), but in Billy Dogma -- his square-jawed, hard-luck protagonist -- he finds he can get to more elemental truths. The guy looks a bit like Lil' Abner crossed with Kirby's Thor, but his creator sees him as something closer to a hulked-out version of himself. "He's Dean Haspiel to the second power, with a little 2 over the L," Haspiel said with a chuckle. "There's a sort of truth you get to in the real fantasy pieces. Hey, I've cried at the All-Star Superman stories . . . and with an avatar, you have the advantage of 20-20 hindsight and you don't have that accountability to some semblence of the facts, which sometimes get in the way of the truth."


The finished product

In the final version, Haspiel has used a digital brush treatment in Photoshop that has "a slight crayon pull to it" that he designed to recall some of the "cool, dry-brush effects" he has achieved on watercolor paper in the past. Also, he said, "I like the crayon feel because I think of these as children's stories for the adults in us." This opening shot in the story did not come easy to Haspiel. "I really did struggle with it, as much on an emotional level as in the actual art you see. After I got this one down, the rest of the story was something I could have fun with. It was like vomiting: It can make you feel a lot better afterward."


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