• Cuba by Inverna Lockpez and Dean Haspiel, offers a unique view of Castro’s Revolutionary-era Cuba from the point-of-view of one of its dissident artists.
• Haspiel offers a visual interpretation of his interview with PP writer Rachel Aydt and discusses the challenges of interpreting with such a highly-charged and personal story.
Interview by Rachel Aydt
Some 20 years ago, Eisner prize-nominated and Emmy-winning comic book artist Dean Haspiel heard about a family friend, Inverna Lockpez, who escaped from Fidel Castro’s revolution-era Cuba and began documenting her story. Now comes, Cuba: My Revolution, a graphic novel by Inverna Lockpez and Dean Haspiel, published by DC Comics/Vertigo, that tells the story of a young revolutionary named Sonya who struck out from the beliefs of her family and friends for a greater ideal — it just didn’t turn out the way she thought it would.
Here, Haspiel has offered a visual interpretation of his interview with our writer Rachel Aydt and discusses the challenges taking a friend’s delicate story and giving it a fictional and visual voice:
Publishing Perspectives: How long have you known your collaborator, Inverna Lockpez?
Dean Haspiel: I met Inverna Lockpez through my mother and have known her for over 25 years. She’s a longtime friend, an extension of my family, and has become like a second mother to me. The whole time I’ve known her, she’s been this gregarious, amazing person and painter. She’s an artist and curator, and organized INTAR, a Spanish arts gallery in Manhattan. I always knew her in this context, and thought she was a very interesting, albeit, mysterious woman. Over the years she would reveal stories about Cuba, the things that happened to her.
PP: How did you and she settle on turning this into a graphic novel?
DH: I became fascinated with the fragments of her story as I would hear them, and began knitting a narrative together from the pieces that had drifted out of her. I’d illustrated The Alcoholic by Jonathan Ames, and I’d worked with Harvey Pekar on American Splendor, and The Quitter, and Inverna became fascinated with the power of the medium. In our discussions, I said to her, ‘I feel like there’s a full narrative here that we should explore.’ She hesitated because she’d been burying information and keeping it back for so many years. It must have been extremely difficult for her to leave Cuba and to find a new home. I imagine her coping mechanism was to block it out until I encouraged her to open that door.
PP: It must have been difficult to illustrate the more nightmarish parts of her story…
DH: Well, in the book she gets tortured by the very ideology she’s representing. And in the making of the book she remembered some things from her past and, honestly, she nearly had a meltdown seeing Sonya’s character emerge from the comic book art. She was reliving memories that she’d literally buried. She knew the facts, but began reliving the emotions. If you’ll notice, I cast myself as one of the torturers of Sonya, because my being a torturer could protect her in a way, if that makes any kind of weird sense. Other things surfaced that we didn’t even put in.
PP: How did you get a publisher interested in this project?
DH: Usually, when you pitch something to a comic book publisher, you do artwork and condense the story into plot form… I believed so much in this story coming from the original source that I called up Karen Berger, the Editor-in-chief of Vertigo, and said ‘I think there’s a story you need to hear. Would you entertain listening to this friend of mine tell her story?’ So we arranged a meeting. It was like a Hollywood meeting, but instead of a film company it was with a comic book company. I have this habit of talking a lot [chuckles], and I literally covered my mouth and had Inverna start her story. An hour or so later I looked at Karen and she had tears in her eyes.
PP: How were you able to help each other?
DH: My job is to show stories. We try to find signature moments to connect things to; to communicate ideas that otherwise could be lost. It’s important to me to create images so you can feel the story as it’s happening. I knew I was going to have a tough time illustrating it. With comics, art is also text. I was able to use my comic expertise to help Inverna realize scenes. She would write a scene, and the points of action and dialogue and I helped break them down into panels and pages.
PP: How did you approach illustrating such a specific time in Cuba?
DH: This was such a daunting challenge for me. The story is based in an era I’ve never experienced and a country I’ve never been to, and I had to create the verisimilitude of authenticity. Thankfully, Inverna had pictures and books for me to work from. She had filled a huge notebook bursting at the seams with photo reference and scenes numbered. She couldn’t take much of anything with her when she escaped but she’d accumulated some images over the years. Except for a small collection of pieces she was able to smuggle, most all of her Cuban-centric artwork was left behind.
PP: Can you tell me a bit about Sonya’s dream sequences in the book?
DH: Have you ever read Spanish authors? Their dreams are reality. Their dreams are often magical. Dreams are feelings. In America, we’re taught that feelings aren’t fact, but in the Spanish community feelings can be factual. In one of the dream sequences there’s a monument that has doves tethered to it. The idea is that they’re tethered and they can’t fly beyond the perimeter of Castro… There is one that’s escaping, and that’s the foreshadowing of what will happen… it’s like it’s the emergence of Sonya the Artist.
PP: Did you ever feel frustrated with Sonya’s character? She seemed so stubborn.
DH: Cuba is about a young, gregarious teenager. You know from reading the book that Sonya was the last person to leave among her family and friends. Even after being tortured she was still championing the ideology of the revolution. In the end, even she broke and had to leave.
PP: She really bought the dream, didn’t she?
DH: The power of the Revolution and its ideology; she truly believed in it. The Revolution changed everything. One night, Sonya’s going to a fancy restaurant in a nice dress. That same night, you see Castro and the Revolutionaries walking down the mountain. To think, this charismatic lawyer comes down the mountain and says we’re going to change things -– and does! The intention starts out well; Batista is overthrown. But the revolution starts to corrupt the country in a different way. For Sonya, it meant she had to abandon her dream of being an artist to be a surgeon for Castro’s initial cause.
PP: What do you think the final straw was for Sonya?
DH: Her way to revolt was trying to find a free form of expression. Over time, Sonya realizes she’s just a technician for the Castro regime, not an artist. That’s what finally made her leave. She realized ‘Wow, I can’t be an artist in my own home.’ Just look at the old lifestyle and architecture of Havana. They were living in beautiful homes and had these fancy cars, and among all of these gorgeous material things they’re making pancakes out of canned mushrooms and baking powder so they can eat in their supposed splendor. Everything breaks down.
PP: You still managed to eek some humor out of her story…
DH: The pictures of Sonya’s mother trying to get out were poignant but hilarious. They were ridiculous, but severe. My only real concern was I felt like there wasn’t as much levity as I would have liked. Levity, like the court jester, allows people to absorb truth. The conflict of drama… it turns people away… it becomes almost claustrophobic.
PP: Has your understanding of Cuba changed?
DH: One thing I have learned from Cubans I’ve met from Cuban born to Cuban descendant; the subject of Castro polarizes people. Whether you are for or against him — even I have a conflicting feeling after doing this book. There are a lot of good ideas there at the root, but in one way he’s too proud. Pride is, of course, one of the seven deadly sins. So I don’t know what exactly happened there… I don’t fully understand… I try to put myself in his position, ‘What if I took over a country from a dictator? Who’s ever going to be prepared to take that job? Maybe that’s why we hesitate at voting time. Unfortunately, you and I have lived through the worst presidential terms with the Bush regime. It brings a huge question of what it takes to be a leader. This book is not about Castro, it’s about her, it’s about Sonya.