Dean Haspiel's Red Hook Writes a Striking Love Letter to Brooklyn and Silver-Age Bombast

| By Rich Barrett

There were rumors that the “Heart of Brooklyn” was broken, wounded by a self-entitled, indifferent society spoiling the promise of a better tomorrow.

An omniscient narrator relays this devastating information as the reader witnesses bridges snap and the ground split as the New York City borough literally comes alive and secedes from mainland America. Amidst the wreckage watches a dramatic, red-clad figure who appears to foil a bank robbery only to pick up a “$”-marked sack of money to steal the bundle himself.

So begins The Red Hook, the first installment in cartoonist Dean Haspiel’s NYC-centric superhero universe of comics under his New Brooklyn umbrella. Originally created as a serialized webcomic for Line Webtoon, Haspiel collected it as a graphic novel for Image; the first collection, The Red Hook, Vol. 1: New Brooklyn, launched last week.

The Red Hook is the first of a proposed trilogy that could lead to many more comics in the New Brooklyn Universe (or “NuBKU,” as Haspiel refers to it himself). “We're exploring what it's like for a borough to reveal itself to be sentient and then literally and physically secede from America to start its own republic where art can be bartered for food and services during a cosmic dawn of new superheroes… well, we have a lot to explore,” Haspiel says.

The titular Red Hook is a super-thief who finds himself transformed, against his will, into a decent human being. In a passing of the torch before his death, the world’s greatest hero, The Green Point (anyone familiar with Brooklyn geography will find the names behind Haspiel’s ensemble endearingly familiar), thrusts his Omni-Fist of Altruism into Red Hook’s chest, where it stays permanently clenched around his heart. Acting altruistically doesn’t come naturally to the Red Hook, nor his girlfriend, the Possum, but his new chest implant drags him across the morality divide—a blurry line in Haspiel’s noir-tinged fiction.

Superhero comics have consistently held a mirror to the times and the society that created them. The Red Hook offers contemporary commentary dressed as a throwback to a simpler era that the saddened, sentient Brooklyn may be longing to return to. Haspiel merges broad, larger-than-life super-heroics with tongue-in-cheek humor and loopy pseudo-science, mixed with political messages the author says will touch on “community, gentrification, and how hard it is to make a living as an artist.”

This Brooklyn shares far more in common with the real one than representations in other comics. At one point, the fallout from a super-heroic battle is compared to the effects of Hurricane Sandy, and the comic even opens with a real-world event that inspired Haspiel to approach this project: a prank in which the American flags atop the Brooklyn Bridge were replaced with white surrender flags. The borough has remained a muse for Haspiel for decades. “I was born and bred in the Upper West Side but found my heart in Brooklyn,” he says of moving to the Carroll Gardens neighborhood almost 21 years ago.

Haspiel’s career has shuttled him across many parts of the industry, from his start as a teenage art assistant to ’80s icons Howard Chaykin, Bill Sienkiewicz, and Walt Simonson to his big break illustrating various American Splendor stories for the late Harvey Pekar to his work on multiple comics for Marvel and DC. He’s won numerous awards, including an Emmy in 2010 for creating the opening credit sequence for HBO’s Bored to Death (the Zach Galifianakis character on the show, a comic book artist, was loosely based on Haspiel) and most recently a Ringo Award for best webcomic for The Red Hook.

In 2016, Haspiel was one of the first big-name American creators to get on board the South Korean webcomic portal, Line Webtoon, where he first published The Red Hook and its companion comics, Purple Heart, The Brooklynite, and War Cry. Despite producing for a mobile platform, Haspiel designed the comic in a traditional, print-friendly format first, knowing he would eventually pursue that direction. When the cartoonist proposed bringing his New Brooklyn series to Image, he got a greenlight within 10 minutes. “Probably the fastest positive response I've ever gotten for a pitch,” he recalls.

“I couldn't do what I normally do with the real estate of a blank page, but it was an interesting challenge thinking about how to make two different reading experiences from the same source. I had to design the narrative in terms of tall panels, where story is often revealed at the bottom of a panel and pacing became a whole new consideration.”

The need to design for the smaller real estate of a mobile phone screen forced Haspiel’s hand to make his storytelling more direct and his artwork bolder and more emphatic. The Red Hook’s red costume pops against an otherwise muted color palette. Each panel has a singular focus, conveying action in broad, deliberate strokes. The return-to-basics approach resulted in something that reads with the bold simplicity of classic Silver Age superhero comics.

“There is no single panel that is more important than another panel in any given comic book or graphic novel,” he explains. “All the panels and pages are there to serve the story. So, with that in mind, I've taken a more reductive approach, drawing what is essential in order to maximize emotion and move my character-driven plot in dramatic and humorous, yet sometimes absurd, ways. My costume and character designs are honed into a graphic zenith of what makes them tick so you know who they are, close and afar.”

The Red Hook is the beginning of something big for Haspiel and New Brooklyn. “Because we're creating a new superhero universe,” he says, “some people think we're nuts competing with Marvel and DC Comics—but we're not. Our NuBKU comix can't help but be influenced by Silver Age comics, but we're still firmly rooted in alternative, outlier sensibilities. I would like to spark a NuBKU anthology, akin to ye olde Marvel’s Tales To Astonish where you get two, maybe three, serialized stories featuring our premier characters. Fingers crossed we get to launch a line of books not unlike Marvel Comics, 1961!”