Talking Comics with Tim | Dustin Harbin

Dustin Harbin is a cartoonist who considers his craft and the comics industry from a pragmatic vantage point. I say pragmatic, because, to be perfectly honest, the first few questions I fired at Harbin were skewed a tad negative, completely on my end. I think it's to his credit that rather than going the easy, negative or defensive routes, he offered nuanced, yet candid responses to my questions. We dispensed with those questions fairly quickly and from there got into the meat of why I wanted to talk to him: his ongoing work as letterer of the relaunched Matt Fraction/Gabriel Ba & company's Casanova (Icon/Issue 4 set to come out on October 13) as well as his own Diary Comics #1 (Koyama Press) [48 pgs | b&w w/ color covers, endpapers {$6 ($10 w/sketch)}], which premiered at SPX. Harbin describes Diary Comics 1 as "this–THIS!–is your opportunity to splash on in to six months of one dull dude’s life, as originally seen in the daily DHARBIN! diary comic. Covering topics including girls, dharbins, other girls, more dharbins, depressions, some conventions, more depressions, tons more dharbins, AND MUCH MORE!!" On the con front, Harbin will be at APE this month (October 16-17), then BCGF in Brooklyn in December. My thanks to Harbin for indulging my questions.

Tim O'Shea: Is it me, or judging by recent tweets, are you pulling the kid gloves off in terms of your opinions since you are no longer a HeroesCon official?

Dustin Harbin: Haha, well while not being part of the public face of something besides myself DOES free me a little bit opinion-wise, I think I've always been fairly vocal about my disgust with some of the crappier blog sites out there. Not working for HeroesCon just means that I don't have to worry about it reflecting on Shelton Drum. That dude is super-friendly, he would never publicly run something down, he's too classy, unlike me.

O'Shea: And on a related note, what's your issue with the Hooded Utilitarian?

Harbin: I'm not sure I have an ISSUE with the Hooded Utilitarian; it's just another hateful, pseudo-intellectual comics blog where someone (or in this case, a few someones) try hard to sound smart about something, usually at the expense of something else. It's like an all-Napoleon mutual appreciation society. Distilling the vitriol, smugness, semantic chicanery, and snark of the Comics Journal messageboard into a blog is a service that the comics industry could probably do without.

O'Shea: Back when we talked in October of last year, you said " 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..." That dayjob's over, so hit me with your top three negative ideas.

Harbin: I've been getting in trouble for negative ideas lately--or not trouble, but… well, on the internet, when you espouse a viewpoint, the immediate response is take a binary view of that view, meaning you're either passionately for or passionately against it. Before SPX I got this rep as an SPX-hater because I spoke openly about things I disagreed with about the show, mainly from a business standpoint. Stuff like that really itches my ass--why can't I wish that SPX was cheaper to exhibit at, or charged less at the door, or was in some place besides Rockville, Maryland, where it could attract some kind of larger non-comics traffic? These are all valid criticisms, and each has any number of valid arguments against it. But in Internet-ese it's simpler to just assume that disagreeing with something means you hate it--that's an easier position to state in 140 characters or less, is it not?

Stupid internet, that's one negative. I'd say that most of my negative opinions start there. There are way too many really amazing, positive things going on in comics to yak about negative stuff more than that, you know? "Stupid internet" is enough for now.

O'Shea: What's the biggest challenge to the Casanova lettering gig, and what storytelling lessons are you taking away from the Fraction and company? Finally, what's been your favorite scene to letter so far?

Harbin: Easily my favorite scene to letter in the book is--well, maybe it's not that easy. Most of issue #3 was really good--to me it's the issue where Casanova really pulls its feet under it and starts to get something great going. Lettering that book has been extraordinarily englightening, holy crap--if you think about it, I'm essentially close-reading every issue at a glacial pace--I write everything down twice, once in pencil, then in ink. In effect I'm almost meditating on the book, just slowly sounding out every line in my head for weeks. So I have tons of time to think about the pacing, the language, dialogue--especially dialogue. Matt's got really great dialogue, especially when he's going pop-pop-pop sharp and fast.

Plus, looking at Gabriel Ba's art with Cris Peter's coloring every day is incredible--being the least-talented person on a team is pretty humbling. And it's not like I have NO talent or anything, you know? Pretty amazing team.

O'Shea: Ruminating on Fraction's dialogue; what bit of dialogue stays in your brain all of the time?

Harbin: Well, if you read volume one, there's a LOT going on, not only in terms of what's actually on the page, but also--maybe even moreso--the overall plot of the book. And by "the book" I mean just the first 4-issue arc. I've spoken to Matt about his plans for the book, and while I tried to steer clear of any true spoilers (I'm a fan after all, even if a somewhat better-informed-than-normal fan), it was clear that Matt has the entirety of Casanova plotted out from start to finish. More I think I'd better not say just in case.

Oh wait you said dialogue. Some of my favorite dialogue is in issue #4, which comes out next month I believe, and which is already at the printers, nervous as a new bride. I'm not sure what I can say about it, although those of your readers who read the book in its original incarnation may remember the fight scen between Casanova and young Kaito, custodian of a giant robot left over from World War II. The combination of Casanova and Kaito's differing levels of sophistication makes for some pretty hilarious dialogue. Not to imagine a really obscure joke revolving around the name of the robot, which I had to ask Matt about just to make sure it was right. Once I'd had it explained to me… well, I'll leave it for you to figure out.

O'Shea: What does the inclusion of color on Casanova add to the book?

Harbin: I don't want to run down the old book--I liked it then, and I still like it. And I liked the balls of doing a low-priced book--I was ordering comics for Heroes Aren't Hard To Find back then, and to me a new story at a $1.50 or $1.99 or whatever that original price-point was--I loved it. I was shocked when Matt told me that retailers complained all over the place about that format. We sold tons of Fell's and Casanova's at Heroes. Anyway, oops, tangent. Having said all that, I like the new colors 100x better than the monochrome palette. I'm into the original idea, but you just can't fade the gorgeous Technicolor touch the new ones have, especially the really out-there scenes. Or if you flip through the new issue, issue 3, the scenes on the island are just SUBLIME, all oranges and reds and umbers, just gorgeous. When I do my sound effects, I color those myself, and in general I try to make them as little of a distraction as I can. It's like if you started singing along with an opera from your seat.

O'Shea: When you write a post like this on politics, do you fear alienating your readers--or do you think your core readership shares your political perspective?

Harbin: Oh, I don't care about that. I'm not super interested in talking about politics, and certainly don't feel a "need" to talk about that stuff on my site--if anything, it's a distraction. But I AM trying to post random opinions a little less on Twitter--it's easy when you're at a computer all day to just start dumping every random thought you have into whatever social network you use. Besides the obvious annoyance to your readers, the inevitable discussions that pop up around that kind of stuff just clog up the stream for everybody.

But yeah, if someone reads my blog and gets offended that I think opposition to gay marriage is moronic… well, I can afford to lose that reader, probably.

O'Shea: Take a strip like this, where you have a friend shooting daggers at you, do your friends ever get annoyed when you feature them?

Harbin: My friends get annoyed when the cartoon versions of them don't look enough like them. Seriously, it comes up all the time. ESPECIALLY the breasts. I try to tell them, "no one knows what your breasts look like, the shape of your breasts is not the point of these strips." It always comes back to the breasts, Tim.

O'Shea: OK, tell me the story of Loopy Horse. I want a whole book built around this bastard.

Harbin: There's no story there! That's just a goofy sketch I did. I hate it! There's your story. "Cartoonist Loathes Self."

O'Shea: What attracted you to using Chris Pitzer's AdDistro?

Harbin: Chris Pitzer is one of the best people in comics, period. Anything with his name on it somewhere is of the highest possible quality. WOULD DISTRO AGAIN.

O'Shea: Why is "a carpenter/seamstress union, possibly the best union for a cartoonist to decant from"?

Harbin: Imagine the engineering and religious significance of being the son of a carpenter, combined with the functional-but-charming aesthetic of a seamstress! Imagine the possibilities! I do!

O'Shea: Just how much do you love Koyama Press, can you count the ways?

Harbin: The ways I love Koyama Press, publisher of my new book DIARY COMICS #1, are without number. I can't overstate how inspiring and enabling Anne Koyama has been for me this year, not only in terms of making art, but in being able to AFFORD to make art. Just an amazing lady and a great publisher.

O'Shea: What's next creatively for you other than your Casanova work and Diary Comics 1?

Harbin: More Casanova for sure, and I'll continue daily Diary Comics through the end of the year. Other than that the next thing for me is getting caught up on freelancing and then starting some longform memoir work, possibly with an eye towards a longer book publication at some point. In the short term I'm on the hunt mainly for money and cred, the latter of which I'll trade at some point for more money. How's that for an artistic statement?

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