Talking Comics with Tim: Dustin Harbin--the Sequel Interview

A few months back when I interviewed Dustin Harbin regarding this year's HeroesCon, I made a mental note to follow-up with Harbin in another interview, where we could just discuss his creative projects/process. This interview was conducted via email several weeks back. Late last week, Harbin let me know that while he's remaining as Creative Director at Heroes Aren't Hard To Find and Heroes Convention, he will be reducing his hours at the store and has "gone full-time with cartooning". My thanks to Harbin for another interview, I'm happy to say this one was even more fun than the last.

Tim O'Shea: How much are you paying Tom Spurgeon to pimp your work? Seriously, Spurgeon praises many talented storytellers, but he seems to be your number one fan. Did you buy him a lot of meals when he came to HeroesCon in 2008 or what?

Dustin Harbin: I remember having to argue with Tom just to be able to bring him a water: I tried hard to buy him a drink at the hotel bar, but he was leery of my seductive ways. I think Tom is like a lot of us--he's a passionate advocate for people he thinks deserve wider recognition. I'm not basing this just on the very VERY kind attention he's showed my comics so far, but he's the reason I discovered Richard Thompson's work, who you'll agree Tom is an even more vociferous a supporter of. I don't know what attracted Tom's good feelings, but I'm incredibly grateful for them.

O'Shea: When you tackle a story like "What is with the women?"--do you ever fear alienating half of your potential audience? I'm not saying you were bashing women in the story, but anytime you put crazy anywhere near the word woman, you're risking a world of hurt (same risk that would occur if a woman did a similar story...BTW).

Harbin: Do you really think a woman would get the same flak? I'm not disagreeing, it just seems odd in my head. Probably because, ha ha, most of the lady cartoonists I know are too smart to waste their time doing comics about how men are crazy. I do not labor under the burden of being too smart, fortunately for all those who love crazy women comics.

I worried a little bit about alienating, but not too much--they're autobio strips, and to remove all the honesty from them would leave them pretty boring I think. Still, I know some of my least favorite autobio comics ever are pretty much all the muckraking negative ones, so I was more leery of just seeming petty than of alienating women in general. I did hear from a couple of ex-girlfriends, and at best their reaction was, roughly, "hpmh!" At worst, it was much louder.

O'Shea: Why do you think you're "terrible at drawing women"--or if it's easier to describe, what challenges you about drawing women?

Harbin: I don't have any real education in art, so most of the stuff I grew up drawing was just an endless progression of misshapen heads, odd stuff, and the occasional building. The last couple of years, having gotten serious about drawing comics, is really the first time I've ever had to draw outside my comfort zone. It's exhilarating and enormously frustrating.

Women, in almost every detail, are visually much more nuanced than men. You can bend a dude's head and body and hands all over the place, but if you are drawing a woman, especially one you want to at least PASS for attractive, then you have to work harder to make those curves and lines work together. By "curves" I mean less the obvious connotation, and more the curves of the brushstrokes you might use to delineate the line of a woman's jaw, or where her knee meets her calf, et cetera. Those are hard things to do right; not so hard for men.

O'Shea: Your website reveals how you're creatively plugged in on flickr, twitter and myspace. As a creator who clearly embraces technology, do you intend on trying to get your work into the platform for handheld devices?

Harbin: Maybe. On the surface it's not that interesting to me, I guess--there is really nothing I hate worse than reading comics on a screen. It drives me crazy--it's less than I'm more into print (though I am) and more that my mind just doesn't really absorb information on a screen the same way it does on paper. Though I know a lot of web cartoonists, there are only four webcomics in my RSS folder, not counting PBF, which of course is on more-or-less permanent hiatus.

And almost without exception, those are all shortform comics--I find webcomics more interesting as short strips, in the same way old adventure strips were self-contained each day, but contributed to larger plots. I'm struggling with this myself--I want to do longer stories, but the navigation of a web interface just seems so clumsy to me. And for a cellphone--whoa nellie! But every time I say something's dumb, I end up eating crow a few months later and announcing to all my friends that it's the best thing ever. "Have you guys ever heard of WEBcomics?"

O'Shea: Back in July, you gave a talk at a library about comics and cartooning. In the warm-up to doing the presentation, you wrote: "This is the second time I’ve donned a fake mortarboard (I never got a real one, having never graduated anything before) to fake teach–I enjoyed the first time, although it was both more and less difficult than I’d thought it would be." Does it bother you that you've never graduated anything (it has not seemed to impede your creative pursuits from my perspective) or did you merely write that to set up the "fake teach" line. What was more difficult about that first time you taught. And how did things go on this second round?

Harbin: Well, the first time was technically a longer class, an 8-week continuing-ed class at our local community college, and the recent one was just a talk at a library to some kids, showing them some basics, etc. So the first time was harder--I love talking to kids, and I'm CRAZY good at it.

But no, lacking a high school diploma hasn't gotten in the way of anything so far for me. I'm not dissing the idea of graduating--if for no other reason than that it's so incredibly easy. But I have also been lucky, and have worked at the same place since I was 21, where my boss has rewarded me over time for becoming better at my job. So I have been spared a lot of the challenges another dropout dummy like me might have faced elsewhere. Not to mention I've had time to foster my own interest in cartooning, in arguably the best possible place, insofar as being able to meet all the people I admire, making tons of contacts, all that stuff.

O'Shea: Am I correct in thinking you're experimenting with a new art style of late--what prompted the switch and how is it working out for you?

Harbin: I am always trying to find a style, but have pretty much locked down a particular one for my autobio strips, pretty much exactly like the one I just finished, the one about all those wang-dang-doodle crazy ladies. Mainly I'm trying to work as small as I can, because I have some sort of low-impact OCD that makes me want to fill everything up with lines and details and cross-hatching and all that stuff that ruins a lot of otherwise good comics. It's a struggle! Plus I've recently been reading all the Jaime Love & Rockets stories for the first time, so that's really crushing my spirit as far as spotting blacks and composition goes.

O'Shea: Judging by this piece, you love coming up with absurd sound effects, don't you?

Harbin: Yes! One of the sound effects in that strip was originally "SPELUNK!" but I had to change it because it didn't make real sense. I'm reading Kevin Cannon's awesome FAR ARDEN right now, and he does a hilarious thing where pretty much everything has a sound effect, but it'll be like "PREPARES TO PUNCH" or "KICKS RIGHT THROUGH!" Sound effects are one of the weird meta-jokes you can only pull off in comics, and I love those meta-jokes.

O'Shea: Am I correct in thinking that you listen to music while you work? Does music help keep the creative juices flowing when you're putting long hours in the chair?

Harbin: I do listen to music, but only when I'm planning the comics and maybe pencilling. All the brainless stuff like inking and coloring I like to listen to audiobooks or podcasts or what-have-you. Although I've found that listening to jazz, especially really deep stuff like Coltrane, while inking is pretty deep--you really get into it, you can really fall into that music more because only a small part of your brain is thinking about dragging a brush across the paper, and the rest is wishing John Coltrane was still alive.

O'Shea: Given your work as a comics retailer, as a creator what big lessons have you learned of what NOT to do when trying to sell your work?

Harbin: Haha, I almost never sell my work! Or do you mean just selling books to people? I haven't learned anything, actually. In the store I almost never mention that I even draw, let alone that I have two or three comics right there for sale. And at conventions I act like a carnival barker, greeting anyone who gets within three feet of my table, then watching dejectedly as they notice Joe Lambert next to me. It'll be even worse tabling with Scott Campbell. It's hard to have such talented bros, Tim. It's hard.

O'Shea: How did the poetry reading, on the occasion of your 35th birthday, go?

Harbin: It went great! Thanks for asking. Writing poetry is not something I really do except for once in a great while, but it's fun to burn off that urge by reading a bunch of it in front of a big audience. Everyone had a good time, I didn't even get a hangover, although I DID wake up the next day as a 35-year old. You win some, you lose some.

O'Shea: The last time we talked you said: "I have a lot of ideas about comics." Care to share any remaining ideas? What do you want to talk about?

Harbin: Sure I have a lot of ideas about comics, but a lot of them are negative, and I hate to get into that stuff sometimes because of my dayjob (as Creative Director at Heroes Aren't Hard To Find and Heroes Convention). Plus negative stuff--well, it's easy to talk smack, less easy to talk nice.

But it seems to me that the gulf between good comics and bad comics is growing wider; or at least that the no man's land of mediocre comics between those poles is becoming more vast. All these grim/gritty superhero stories lately, which still feature a bunch of guys wearing tights and strippers with their boobs hanging out--it's just impossible to take that stuff seriously, isn't it? Sometimes I want to--I read that Marvels Project comic a few weeks ago, and it was just a cool WWII-era intrigue story, no strippers yet. I don't mind superheroes per se, but the more adult and realistic we try to make them, the dumber they seem--it's a lot easier to enjoy All Star Superman because Morrison and Quitely didn't try to set the story in anything like the real world. It's in that wacky 50's era Superman mythos, and everything works and he's able to explore issues that start with capital letters.

But these current stories that seem to want to cram as much murder and death and rape onto a page as possible, crowding it in their with the weird power fantasies and boobs and all that--it's kind of a gross pastiche I think. None of those elements are served by being mashed into a big stew together like that.

I like genre storytelling, I think it's cool. And it's incorrect to think that comics writers shouldn't ASPIRE to doing something really adult and amazing with superheroes, a la Watchmen or All Star Superman. But I think it's a high bar, and regular mainstream comics--especially the big "event" books that are aimed at the widest possible audience--may not be the best laboratory to try out those ideas.

But what I LOVE about comics lately is the growing--even mushrooming--community of DIY and indie creators, a lot of whom are connected via Twitter or Facebook or their various sites and blogs. Being connected to that is incredibly energizing--it's easy to get down on your stuff when you've been looking at it for ten hours and wrestling with it and it's weeks from being done. But getting a kind word from someone whose work you admire is like opening your wallet and finding a gold brick in there. These young indie creators are going to be the Bendis's and Morrisons of tomorrow too--it's in THEIR laboratories, in their cramped little studio apartments in their various cities, where the next big innovations in comics are taking place, and being involved even tangentially with that is enormously exciting. Excelsior!

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