Last week, I chatted with Dean Haspiel about his latest New Brooklyn Universe webcomic, Starcross. Now, Dean is back and is joined by his good friend and fellow cartoonist, Josh Neufeld, to talk about their new podcast, Scene by Scene with Josh & Dean.
Scene by Scene is a fascinating examination of the 2003 Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini directed film, American Splendor, based on the life and comics of music critic, underground comic book writer and Veteran’s Administration Hospital file clerk, Harvey Pekar.
And friend and collaborator to both Josh and Dean.
Both cartoonists made some time to discuss not only the podcast, but also working with Harvey and what made him such a unique voice.
* * * * *
FOG!: You both were collaborators with the late Harvey Pekar. How did you both come to work with him and what was the experience like?
DEAN HASPIEL: Josh and I discuss every aspect of our working relationship and friendship with Harvey Pekar on the podcast. So, you’ll get to hear us tell all. But, I’ll tease that the first time Harvey contacted me on the phone, I thought it was a prank, and it ended with Harvey telling me to go fuck off. Listen to the podcast for the rest of that story. Bottom line: it was a pleasure and an honor to collaborate with Harvey Pekar, a sensitive and unique innovator of the comix form.
Josh Neufeld: Dean’s story of first contact with Harvey truly is a gem. (You might call it “American Dilemma”…) My own tale is a little more mundane. Although I had been writing & drawing comics since I was about 4 years old, it wasn’t until my early 20s that I “discovered” alternative comics like Peter Bagge’s Hate, Dan Clowes’ Eightball, and, yes, Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor.
Pekar’s stories of “ordinary life” were complex and compelling — they re-energized my love for the potential of comics and all the stories it could tell. After reading a couple of issues of American Splendor, I got it into my (overly confident) head that I could draw as well or better than other Pekar collaborators.
So I looked up his address in an issue of the comic and mailed him a selection of my stuff. Lo and behold a short time later he called me on the phone and offered me some work!
My first piece for Harvey was a one-pager, then I illustrated a long piece for his wife Joyce Brabner, and from there became one of his regular illustrators. I ended up working with him over a 15-year period, pretty much until his untimely death in 2010. It was an amazing journey working with Harvey, getting to know him, and getting to contribute to his epic, 30-year memoir.
I also learned A LOT about writing comics from illustrating his. Because of him I started writing and drawing my own nonfiction comics; first autobiographical stories (collected in A Few Perfect Hours), and then moved into comics journalism (culminating in A.D.: New Orleans After The Deluge) and the many short pieces I’ve done for publications like The Boston Globe, Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy magazine, and Al Jazeera America.
Harvey’s American Splendor featured some of the greatest cartoonists of all time. Why do you think they were drawn to work with him?
DH: Harvey Pekar wasn’t afraid to write about real life. Real life is complicated and confounds a lot of artists. But, some artists really want to draw real life, even if they don’t feel comfortable sharing their own stories.
So, American Splendor attracted a certain type of illustrator. And, as strict as Harvey was about making sure every word he wrote was published, he seemed to trust the various interpretations of his character and gave an artist like me a lot of latitude. Granted, there were bumps in the road, but that’s why he liked to talk it out with you. Bring out the best in the story. I feel Harvey’s best comix were illustrated by artists who were also writers, too. You could always tell the difference between an artist who basically drew the story versus the ones who excavated the narrative gold from Harvey’s script.
JN: I agree with Dino’s thoughts 100%. In addition, I think the reason artists like R. Crumb, Joe Sacco, Drew Friedman, Spain Rodriguez, Ed Piskor, and the list goes on were so eager to illustrate Harvey’s stories was because they recognized how revolutionary his work was. He really did add a whole new stream to the comics storytelling river (sorry for the bad metaphor!).
You both are currently working together on Scene by Scene with Josh & Dean, a weekly podcast that dissects the award-winning film American Splendor scene by scene. What was the origin of this project?
DH: I yield to Josh on this one who conceived the initial idea for the Scene by Scene podcast and is doing all the heavy lifting.
The thing that was most important to me was that we focus on ourselves as much as we did analyzing Harvey and the movie. Josh and I spent our formative years together and I wanted the podcast to also reflect and document our trials and tribulations creating independent comix from our days in high school til now.
Let the podcast also serve as an educational tool.
JN: My original concept for the podcast was to emulate Star Wars Minute, hosted by cartoonist Alex Robinson and former comics retailer Pete Bonavita. Now there are a whole slew of these “movie-by-minute” podcasts (more than 150 at last count), where they break down a single movie minute-by-minute, one episode at a time. Most of these are daily podcasts, and they cover pop culture franchises like Star Wars, the Harry Potter films, or the Back to the Future series. They delve deep into the weeds: talking about behind-the-scenes details, the actors involved, background characters, the toys, and just about every other bit of nerd marginalia you can imagine.
I thought it would be cool to take an admittedly more obscure film and give it a similar treatment — but from the perspective of two people — myself and Dean — actually connected to the subject. After all, besides that fact that we both illustrated stories for Harvey for 15 years, Dean illustrated Harvey’s “origin story” The Quitter, as well as introducing Harvey & Joyce to the producer who made the film! One of Dean’s own comics pages even made it into the final film, in a very pivotal scene.
And as Dino and I started discussing the idea, I’m really glad he suggested we add the personal component. Our friendship goes back to freshman year of high school (!) and we found that there was a lot more to talk about than just the film, Harvey Pekar, and his comics. Each scene of the film — each episode of our show — is a jumping-off point for talking about all sorts of issues related to our own careers, lives, and friendship. And we keep it lively and entertaining!
The film utilized both actor Paul Giamatti as Harvey, as well as Harvey himself. What did Harvey think of the film and do you think it captured the Harvey you both knew?
DH: Paul Giamatti gave a heartfelt and spirited portrayal of “our guy,” and captured a good sense of who Harvey was. A great deal of that I credit to the filmmakers who did a phenomenal job condensing the quotidian life of a complicated writer.
I don’t remember directly asking Harvey if he liked his portrayal but I’m sure I did and I know he was happy with the movie. So much so, he thanked me for sparking the idea of doing this film with producer Ted Hope, by letting me draw his origin via The Quitter, published by Vertigo/DC Comics in 2005.
JN: Giamatti did an amazing job, showing Harvey — warts and all — but still making him a charismatic, compelling character. And because the film cleverly interweaves documentary sections (and animated segments), where we meet the real Harvey Pekar, it achieved true brilliance, and truly captured the spirit of American Splendor. Because of who Harvey was, I think he had trouble enjoying anything in an uncomplicated fashion. That said, I think he was really pleased with the film. And Dino is being too modest: he was chosen to illustrate The Quitter because he was the perfect man for the job!
You’ve mentioned that the podcast will feature special guests. Can you reveal who you have planned to appear?
DH: I’ll let Josh take this one.
JN: The podcast will be featuring special guests from all realms of Pekar-world: the film’s directors Shari Springer Berman & Robert Pulcini; actors like James Urbaniak, Judah Friedlander, and Eli Genias; American Splendor artists like Val Mayerik, Joe Zabel, Gary Leib, and others; the real Toby Radloff; musician/performers like Eytan Mirsky; personalities like Jeff Newelt; and of course one-of-a-kind Pekar spouse and collaborator Joyce Brabner herself! (Actual list of guests may change.)
What are you currently working on?
JN: I’m deep-diving into the podcast, editing episodes, creating graphics, and connecting dots between the original comics that inspired scenes in the film. (The podcast will be running through October — make sure you start with Episode 1.
I’m also a teacher of comics: I’m on faculty at the School of Visual Arts, I teach online summer courses in nonfiction comics at Michigan State University; and I’m the founding faculty member of the comics concentration at the Solstice MFA in Creative Writing program.
Finally, I am working on a new book project that will be part memoir and part reportage, all told in comics form. I’m thinking I may serialize parts of it as I build the book. More info to come!
DH: I wrap production on Starcross come mid-August and then I go on a writing retreat at Yaddo, an artists residency in Saratoga Springs, NY, for all of September to finish the first draft of a novel and other stuff. I’ll be promoting The Red Hook Vol. 2: War Cry at New York Comicon, Baltimore Comicon, and the Miami Book Fair. I co-wrote a Red Hook crossover with Dave Kelly for Tales Of The Night Watchman called “The Untold Legend of Luna,” illustrated by Brett Hobson, coming out in the Fall (published by So What? Press).
I’ve also written first drafts of two new plays that I’m excited about. And, I may launch a Patreon in the Fall where I’ll bring back Billy Dogma, the last romantic antihero.
What are you currently geeking out over?
DH: I’m listening to Boy Harsher, Cosey Fanni Tutti, Vince Staples, DJ Shadow, and Alice Coltrane. Regarding comix, I’m reading Criminal, The Fantastic Four, Doomsday Clock, The Walking Dead, Savage Dragon, The Wildstorm, and Excellence.
Regarding books, I’m reading Bret Easton Ellis’ White, and Frederic Tuten’s My Young Life. I just finished watching Castle Rock, Kidding, and Ray Donovan. About to watch Better Call Saul, Season 4. Recently I watched the movies Dragged Across Concrete, The Mule, and John Wick 3.
JN: In comics: Emil Ferris’ My Favorite Thing is Monsters, and The Nib’s anthologies on Death and Empire. On television it’s The Looming Tower, The Handmaid’s Tale, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan, Losers, Supergirl, The Great British Baking Show, and looking forward to Stranger Things 3! As for movies: Avengers: Endgame, Captain Marvel, Shazam!, Tolkien, and looking forward to Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker!
I’m also listening to the podcasts: Star Wars Minute, Mad About Movies, On the Media, and The Daily.
For music, it’s whatever Spotify sends to my “Made For You” feed, inspired by my love for eclectic pop, from funk musicians to classic rock to new singer-songwriters.