During my senior year of high school and well into college, most of the comics I read were indie titles and books from small publishers. And by indie I don’t mean Dark Horse or Vertigo. While I did read a handful of Vertigo titles during this phase, for the most part the publishers I bought from didn’t get any bigger than Fantagraphics and Kitchen Sink. I was done with all that Marvel, DC and superhero stuff (or so I had thought at the time!).
As I creep my way towards 40, I can now say without a lingering trace of embarrassment that I just love comics. Period. All of them: the superhero stuff, the hard indie stuff, the big stuff, the small stuff, the realistic stuff, the ridiculous stuff – all of it.
Perhaps this helps to explain, in part, the fondness I felt for Beef With Tomato, the new collection of autobiographical short comics by New York-based writer/artist Dean Haspiel who, together with his colleagues Gregory Benton (Smoke), Josh Neufeld (A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge) and the late Seth Kushner (Schmuck), co-founded the artist collective/publisher Hang Dai Editions.
Haspiel has done a fair amount of superhero-themed work for both of the Big Two (Batman ’66, Cyclops, The Thing: Night Falls on Yancy) and for other publishers like Archie Comics/Dark Circle (The Fox). He is also no stranger to the genre of the autobiographical comic (Opposable Thumbs).
Though eclectic in subject matter, Haspiel’s visual style has been indelibly influenced by superhero comics and it shows in Beef With Tomato. It’s fascinating – and for me, deeply satisfying somehow – to see the dynamic angles, poses, facial expressions and extreme close-ups characteristic of superhero comics translated into the context of mundane, real life situations. It was almost like a vicarious reconciliation of my love for two genres that often compete for my time and attention.
This superhero influence is evident all throughout the book but most especially comes to the fore in the short story “Dumbo” in which an actual superhero makes an appearance (or more like an actor playing a superhero but you get the idea). And the perpetual bandages on the face of Haspiel’s cartoon avatar reminded me of Clint Barton in Matt Fraction and David Aja’s “My Life as a Weapon” story arc for Hawkeye – a bruised New York superhero constantly running into some sort of trouble or other in ways that are sometimes funny, sometimes sobering, always quintessentially New York.
It’s not just artistically that Haspiel has been influenced by the superhero ethos. While drawing all those heroes some part of that ethos must have seeped up from the Bristol paper, through his pen, through his veins and into his brain to inform his worldview. He’s got a knack for finding himself in strange, scary or dramatic situations (maybe it’s just a result of living in New York), and he seems to enjoy being the one to call the police or ambulance or the one to stop the gunman from reaching into his coat. Like the heroes he often draws, he doesn’t hesitate to leap into the thick of things to lend a helping hand, and in situations when he can’t, as in the 9/11 vignette “Doored,” it drives him crazy.
Ever by his side, Haspiel’s bicycle is like a second protagonist or sidekick in these stories. It’s the Rocinante in his Quixotic quest to see, absorb and understand as much of the chaotic tangle of humanity that is New York City (or at least Brooklyn) as he can. Or perhaps the Silver Surfer’s board would be a more apt comparison since Haspiel comes across as an observer orbiting people’s private worlds, sometimes stopping to help, sometimes getting into fights, all the while feeding his Galactus-like hunger for experience. Of course, the Surfer’s board doesn’t get ripped off or demolished nearly as often as Haspiel’s bike does so the analogy is admittedly a limited one!
The pieces here are short and elliptical, like variations on the theme of “slice of life.” The longest is the title story, “Beef With Tomato,” which is Haspiel’s professed love letter to New York. It’s fitting that the title of this piece is the same as that of the book because it’s the book in a nutshell: understated personal drama played out against a vast backdrop whether it’s 9/11, an imaginary zombie apocalypse or the city itself. And true to the slice-of-life aesthetic, not every story has some sort of takeaway or lesson. Often, what you see is what you get as in the one-page story “What You See is What You Get.”
The latter piece is part of a bonus section that includes a smattering of cartoons and a number of Haspiel’s essays (whether they’re actually supposed to be essays or autobiographical short stories I’m not exactly sure). Essays like “I’d Rather Be Happy Than Right,” “The Plate” and “The Last Time” are quite moving in their subdued way, and Haspiel is a sensitive and lyrical writer, though his prose can sometimes be a bit ornate for my tastes.
When reading Beef With Tomato alongside two other books concurrently released by Hang Dai, Smoke and Schmuck, by Haspiel’s friends and colleagues Gregory Benton and the late Seth Kushner, an interesting threesome emerges. These three books and their New York-based creators reminded me of a close-knit trio of Toronto artists that I followed in the 90s: Seth, Chester Brown and Joe Matt. In this analogy Haspiel would be Seth – the urban wanderer for whom others are as much his subjects as he himself is, and in the process much is revealed about both. Kushner would be Joe Matt – wholly neurotic and self-absorbed but universal in his quiet desperation. And Benton would be Chester Brown – not his own subject but revealing himself indirectly through his choice of subject matter.
Certainly, this is a limiting comparison and anyway it’s just for geeky fun, but I draw it because I read Palookaville, Peepshow and Yummy Fur at a time when I was galvanized by the realistic storytelling potential of comics after years of exclusively reading superhero material. Reading these three new books from Hang Dai Editions and Alternative Comics made me look back fondly to a time when, troubled teenager though I was, life was nevertheless so much easier, stories were the center of my universe, and anything seemed possible. That, and I wanted to live in New York.
If only for a brief moment, that’s kind of how reading Beef With Tomato made me feel again.