Ursinus College presents ‘From Flash Gordon to Billy Dogma: Collaboration in Graphic Novels’
By Paul Lucas
With the creation and success of Marvel Studios and the record-breaking triumph of “The Dark Knight,” graphic novels and the comic book world as a whole are finally getting the respect they deserve. It’s been a long time coming. The irony is that Batman both giveth and taketh away.
While “The Dark Knight” may have finally opened the world’s eyes to the creative medium of comics, it was “Batman” the television series, that almost single-handedly pigeonholed them as silly kiddie stuff in the first place. Which explains why the majority of mainstream articles about comics all have headlines like WHAM! BAM! ZOWEY! KAPOW! or any number of other bad Adam West clichés.
“I think film studios both embrace and distance themselves from the comic book audience,” says writer and literary manager Brendan Deneen. “It’s not always going to work — especially when you’re talking about guys in tights.”
“In the last bunch of years, The NewYorker, The New York Times and even The Guardian have given comics the nod. Which means that all of the lemmings have started to follow,” says artist and writer Dean Haspiel.
At first glance, you might see Deneen and Haspiel as just a couple of New Yorkers working in the world of comics. But just like the stock and trade of their industry, they come from very different worlds.
Deneen (who looks like the poor man’s Gerard Butler) has worked in publishing, television and film for the last 10 years. He has worked with the William Morris Agency, the Weinstein Company, Dimension and Miramax Films and producer Scott Rudin (“No Country for Old Men,” “There Will Be Blood,” “The Queen”).
Since 2007, he has worked in midtown Manhattan as a literary manager representing novelists and comic book writers for publishing, film and television. And if that isn’t enough, he is also a comic book writer himself.
“‘Scatterbrain’ and ‘Flash Gordon’ are so different in terms of style and content. ‘Scatterbrain’ is kind of my R-rated superhero story, while ‘Flash Gordon’ is my all-ages adventure book,” says Deneen. “I’ve been trying to write comic books since I was 12 years old when I would send ideas into Marvel and DC. I originally sent the idea for ‘Scatterbrain’ into DC Comics when I was 19 years old and never heard back. So I held onto the idea.”
Fifteen years later while working a film deal with a UK publisher, Deneen had the opportunity to pitch “Scatterbrain” again. The publisher loved it.
Where Deneen may have enjoyed a certain uptown high gloss to his career, Haspiel is the gritty Brooklynite poster child. His work philosophy says it all.
“Suffering and struggling makes great art. I wouldn’t be half as interesting without great pain. You have to live through some dark stuff to be able to see the other side of it,” says Haspiel. “There are the trappings of what influences you and what you add to it with your own experiences that creates art.”
Haspiel (who doesn’t look anything like Gerard Butler or Charles Bukowski) has drawn superheroes for Marvel and DC Comics and Michael Chabon’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Escapist.” He is probably best known for his collaborations with Harvey Pekar on “American Splendor” and “The Quitter.” He is a frequent collaborator with Jonathon Ames (“The Alcoholic” and the new HBO series, “Bored to Death”) and is the creator of the webcomix collective ACT-I-VATE and the Eisner Award-nominated “Billy Dogma.”
“True-life stories have become such a trend recently and memoir does really well in comics because I think people are just voyeurs at heart,” says Haspiel. “The thing about working semiautobiographical, for me, is that life is a seamless stream of stories. Your job is to find an entry and exit point that makes sense and is plausible. You have to be accountable because art provides that 20/20 hindsight. To me, ‘Billy Dogma’ is more true to who I am than if I told you a true story that happened to me verbatim.”
Haspiel adds, “That’s what I did with ‘Immortal’ and ‘Fear, My Dear.’ None of that stuff happened to me, but it totally did emotionally. It’s emotionally true.”
Sometimes, Joe Public’s first taste of comics is in the movie theater — “Batman,” “Iron Man” or even Paul Giamatti as Harvey Pekar in “American Splendor.”
“I think the comic book movie is here to stay. You’re always going to have your bombs. You’ll have your Joel Schumacher ‘Batman,’ but as technology has caught up with the comic book artist’s visions, it’s just gotten bigger and better and cooler. So even small comic books like ‘Surrogates,’ which is a fairly small publisher, becomes a really big movie,” says Deneen. “I think the spandex super-hero movie is always going to be the big draw. The reason ‘Surrogates’ works is because you see that trailer and you can’t tell it was based on a comic book. It almost looks like a Philip K. Dick story.”
Deneen adds, “There are only so many ‘Spiderman’ and ‘Iron Man’ movies you can make. I think we need new ideas and new characters.”
Haspiel and Deneen are both skilled storytellers and have an unsurpassed passion for the medium. They will be joining forces for a limited edition and highly collectable night of all things comics (especially, the graphic novel) on Oct. 1 at Ursinus College.
If you are a comics lover or are new to the medium, come on out. If you are a writer or an artist or even if you just like the films, come on out. It’s free to the public. And like the comics they will be talking about, anything is possible. Who knows what will happen. After all, Deneen ended our phone interview by saying, “If your article is headlined ‘Holy whatever,’ I’m coming after you!”
“From Flash Gordon to Billy Dogma: Collaboration in Graphic Novels” takes place in Main Gallery, Berman Museum of Art, Main Street, Collegeville, PA 19426.
Thursday, Oct. 1, 4:30 p.m.
Info: 610-409-3000 or www.ursinus.edu.
For more on the world of entertainment and beyond, visit Paul at paullucas.blog.com.