There were giants in the earth — or at least “Marvel Earth,” and Earth 2 — when Dean Haspiel was growing up reading comics. It was his book of myths, with heroes from the apex of American self-assurance who bestrode the pop imagination like direct descendants of the brand-name gods, and Haspiel’s own characters — and his own persona — attempt to follow that line and take the world those gods left onto new shoulders.
His signature characters Billy Dogma and Jane Legit define a new day from the market mastery of previous pop, colliding the universes of 1940s-‘50s romance comics and 1960s-‘70as action ones by being lovers, not fighters — a power-couple whose barely-costumed encounters shake their city like the brightly costumed battles of old. They speak like mod deities reciting scrambled psalms, the secret of the universe one cry away and their eyebeams and forceblasts the transcendence we feel when chemistry ignites.
In this lovely volume, half of which (“Immortal”) longtime admirers will recognize from Haspiel and Michel Fiffe’s Image anthology Brawl and the other half (the title tale) from activatecomix.com (all of it remastered revelatorily for the holy technology of handheld tomes), Billy and Jane learn a thing or two about the reality they come from — a creation myth that helps us all look back to how we can be new people. Haspiel tells it in a masterful maelstrom of animated imagery that dances on solid air from the cliffside of cartoons past into the mix-and-mash of digital visions yet to be.
In his introduction, A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge author Josh Neufeld can’t help quoting Billy’s bizarre catchphrases at length and I don’t blame him; eschewing the commonplaces of a less-complicated era, Billy’s exclamations are more like shaggy-dog free-association (“Give a crippled crab a crutch”); Billy will not come up with the next “Great Caesar’s Ghost!”, but no one will ever be able to duplicate what’s his.
Comics, like sex, is a language, but to only speak it is missing more than half the point. Haspiel operates at the event horizon of understanding, chiseling prophetic malapropisms that are like the first translation of some lost utopia, dead alien race or basic equation of existence. In one particular masterstroke of the literally unseen but deeply understood, an epic, transcendent lay between Billy and Jane is described from outside the scene Haspiel is actually depicting; a survival struggle between a colossal squid and the giant whale the couple are biblically traveling in (and I meant to day “stroke” and “deeply,” at least once I’d written it).
Haspiel remembers back to when our gods were not so solitary or circumspect, and would engage in creative acts of attraction between world and sky when there was barely yet an Earth to move. Long before a “Word” started existence, we read of it springing from giants’ loins (something we see metaphorically enacted in one scene toward the end of “Immortal,” though I won’t spoil and probably couldn’t describe it).
Mother Earth and Father Sky were the golden-age deities, and word and image are the divine parents of comics’ unnamable combined sense, its third-eye candy; the avatars of those facing pages, the impulsive, muscular Billy and the strategic, light-footed Jane, are like action and thought, meeting in the physical as one perfect being, which is to say far from a finished one, but one who is whole.