Looking back on an indie comics classic: Keyhole Comics 25th Anniversary

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Ah the 90s, a giddy time of making mixtapes, going to Blockbuster, reading Age of Apocalypse and obsessing over Ross and Rachel. It was also a fertile time for indie comics, as cartoonists found more outlets for personal expression, and showcases like the Small Press Expo gave rise to a new generation of stars.

Among the books that made a splash: Keyhole Comics, a collaboration between longtime friends Dean Haspiel and Josh Neufeld that featured quotidian slice of life comics, travel tales and the unforgettable character Billy Dogma.

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Neufeld and Haspiel c 1996

And now Haspiel and Neufeld are celebrating a quarter-century of collaboration with a new issue of the comic that started it all.

This week Keyhole #7: 25th Anniversary Edition debuts at Baltimore Comic-Con with new contributions from Haspiel (The Red Hook) and Neufeld (A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge). Below is an exclusive preview that includes a history of the series by Whitney Matheson, who is debuting her first minicomic at the con (Diary Comix 2021).

Grab Keyhole #7 and other items from Haspiel, Neufeld, and Matheson at Booth #3210. The trio will also attend the Ringo Awards ceremony on Oct. 23, where they are nominated for Best Anthology for Pandemix: Quarantine Comix in the Age of ‘Rona.

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In 1981, Dean Haspiel and Josh Neufeld were high-school pals in New York City who dreamed of working in comics. Little did they know what awaited them…

By their 20s, Dean was working with DC Comics and Caliber Press, while Josh had gigs with DC, Fantagraphics, and Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor. But as the self-publishing revolution exploded in the mid-90s, they longed to publish their own stories—and so Keyhole was born.

‘Keyhole’: The early years

Taking a page from indie comix like Eightball, Optic Nerve, and Love & Rockets, Keyhole mixed “slice of life” and nonfiction (mostly from Josh) with genre and semi-autobio tales from Dean. Their motto was “We’ll Tell Our Stories and Maybe They’ll Be Yours Too.”

Keyhole Mini-Comics #1 debuted in March 1995. That year the guys produced four issues, with Josh now in Chicago and Dean in NYC. They brought in collaborators like Larry O’Neil, Rob Walker, David Greenberger, and Linda Perkins, and their “Letters’’ section included kind words from a bunch of their heroes, like Peter Bagge, Matt Feazell, Peter Kuper, Walt Simonson, and Garth Ennis.

From mini to full-size

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In 1996 Dean met Paul Davis of Millennium Publications and convinced him to publish a full-size version of Keyhole—even though Millennium was mostly known for publishing pulp and horror properties.

Millennium published four Keyhole issues from June 1996-August 1997 that included Josh’s travel stories, Dean’s first Billy Dogma comics, and collaborations with Chris Cliadakis, R. Walker, Sari Wilson, and others. Keyhole received lots of positive reviews, and nabbed an Ignatz Award nomination for Outstanding Comic in 1997.

In 1998 Top Shelf Comics published Keyhole #5 and #6 with a reduced 6”x9” size and artsy production by a young Craig Thompson. Unfortunately, it was also the comic’s swan song.

Still on the scene

In the post-Keyhole years, Dean and Josh have had acclaimed careers on their own: Dean with The Quitter, The Alcoholic, The Fox, The Red Hook, and an Emmy Award for HBO’s Bored to Death; and Josh with A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge, The Vagabonds, and The Influencing Machine.

But they have remained collaborators. From 2001 to 2004 Josh and Dean published Lionel’s Lament, a narrative corpse webcomic which got its start in Keyhole and was collected in print as Because of You. In 2006 Dean created webcomics collective ACT-I-VATE, and Josh was a founding member.

In 2019 the guys debuted Scene by Scene with Josh & Dean, a podcast about Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor film and Dean and Josh’s lives as cartoonists. In 2020 they worked together on Pandemix: Quarantine Comics in the Age of ‘Rona, a Ringo Award-nominated digital comics anthology. And that brings us to…

‘Keyhole’: The return!

Twenty-five years after the publication of Keyhole #1, Josh and Dean have produced the extra-special anniversary issue.

“Ever since we met, Dean has pushed me to improve my chops and broaden my range,” Josh says. “I love competing and collaborating with him. Here’s to 25 more years!” Adds Dean: “Back in the early days of Keyhole when I faxed my comics to Josh, it was his high-five that made me feel like a professional way before they ever saw print. I feel the same way today.”

Whitney Matheson

 

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…and in 2017

 

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