New York City – the Carroll Gardens neighbourhood of Brooklyn, to be precise – comes to life in all of its quirky, garish glory under the watchful eye of native son Dean Haspiel, who displays his talent for finding the magical in the mundane in his new semi-autobiographical book.
After spending a few years away from the genre, critically acclaimed artist and writer Dean Haspiel (The Fox, Opposable Thumbs) returns to the graphic memoir format with Beef with Tomato, a collection of short stories and prose essays dedicated to his beloved hometown of New York City.
Curated over a period of sixteen years, from 1997 to 2013, Haspiel’s collection of graphic shorts and prose essays chronicles his transition from his native borough of Manhattan, across the Hudson River, to the Carroll Gardens neighbourhood of Brooklyn.
As I recently noted in my coverage of Patrick Atangan’s autobiographical Fires Above Hyperion, an artist’s relationship with his home informs their work in myriad ways, colouring the way they view and interact with the world around them. This couldn’t be more true of Haspiel’s latest book, in which we witness the artist come to terms with New York City’s fickle, ever-changing character.
Haspiel’s wears his feelings for his city on his sleeve without apology or illusion. He loves the place, warts and all, unable to deny its deep, lasting impact on his development as an artist and his maturation into the man he is today. He casts an unflinching eye on the city’s triumphs and tragedies alike, often discovering through his graphic documentation a corresponding truth about his own character.
In ‘Doored’, Haspiel’s encounter with a pugnacious line cook in the wake of 9/11 evokes the realization that despite the injuries sustained during his unfortunate and unexpected introduction to a car door, he was nearly guilty of greater ignorance during the catastrophe than his adversary’s callous disregard for human life.
Nothing is as it seems in Haspiel’s experiences of the Big Apple. Large, seemingly menacing black men turn out to be healthcare aides for the physically challenged; hard-ass gangsta-wannabes show genuine human concern for an elderly woman struck down in traffic; a local waterfront dive reveals itself to be a rich repository of strange, beautiful stories told by strange, beautiful people.
Haspiel unveils his city’s wondrous eclecticism. His New York is infused with a hard-boiled magical realism. He refuses to turn a blind eye to his hometown’s shortcomings but can’t ignore its singular gritty charm and steadfast heart. There’s magic in these streets and Haspiel teaches us how to see it.
By using innovative page layouts and decompressed time, Haspiel allows the reader to see and experience New York through his admittedly skewed filter. There’s a comfy urban claustrophobia evident in his densely packed, atmospheric establishing shots, where backgrounds ooze ink against a jagged skyline of squat low-rises and battered brownstones.
And although the observant reader will find elements of both Jack Kirby and Will Eisner in Haspiel’s style, he never loses his own artistic voice. His art is robust and brash and powerful, like the King’s best work, but filtered through an Eisnerian lens of emotional nuance and refined technique.
It’s a finely tuned balancing act between spectacle and substance that perhaps gives readers their clearest, most unimpeded glimpse into the mind of the artist. There are few creators working today whose artistic style embodies who they are as people so completely.
This might sound like a bold statement coming from someone who’s never met the man, but there’s an undeniable transparency and honesty in all of Haspiel’s work (including his fantastic collaboration with Mark Waid on The Fox) that welcomes his audience into his rough, bear-like embrace. We get the sense as readers that the Dean we meet in Beef with Tomato isn’t so different from the real deal.
Genuine, visually stunning, insightful – these are all adjectives that aptly describe Beef with Tomato. However, the real power of Haspiel’s graphic memoir is its ability to resonate with readers on a deeply emotional level, encouraging them to consider their connections with their own hometowns in a new light, and maybe even celebrate their magic just a little bit.
Dean Haspiel (W/A) • Hang Dai Editions/Alternative Comics, $14.99.