The Middle Ground #119 | Open the box

One of the best things about comics -- about any media, really, but for some reason it always feels more special when it happens to me with a comic -- is when you're reading something that you already had high expectations of, and end up bowled over by how easily those expectations were beaten.

I remember being so stupidly nervous about Scott Pilgrim's Finest Hour, for example, convinced that my anticipation of the final chapter and love for everything that had come before was somehow dooming the book to an entirely unearned doom, and the feeling after finishing it that it had, somehow, been better than I'd expected. Or the fourth issue of Kevin Huizenga's Ganges, with Huizenga playing with the iconography of calendars and time in a way I couldn't have imagined in the middle of a story about insomnia that felt bold and inventive and completely unexpected. There's something about that realization that, hey, this thing called comics can hit you on all these different levels at once and leave you dazed and amazed as a result.

The reason I'm telling you this, dear reader, is because I found myself clicking through to Dustin Harbin's Boxes this morning after reading an exchange he had with Dylan Meconis on Twitter. I've been a somewhat lax follower of Harbin's comics in the past, mostly because of my now-traditional, shameful forgetfulness with webcomics (Short version: The Internet is full of lots of things that distract me and make me forget that there's a lot of comics on here that I really, really enjoy, and I find myself dropping off of all manner of things I actually love in a way that I don't when something is in print, tangible in front of me and having to be paid for), but I knew when I clicked through that I'd likely enjoy it; I find Harbin's writing to be funny and smart in a way that is really charming to me, and his art has a similar lure, being cartoony enough to be attractive but specific enough to be interesting.

Boxes, though, read like Harbin-Plus to me. At turns beautifully honest, appealingly silly (The "That's not what I wanted to talk about" running gag is something that I really enjoyed, and felt like something that could only be done in comics; the same with the "We can hear you" joke, when it comes) and wonderfully uncertain (I mean that as a compliment; there are times, when dealing with the Big Questions, that I find little as worthwhile as "This is what I'm thinking, but I don't have the answers" as a reader), it's Harbin responding to aging, and the realization that he's not someone that he particularly wants to be, but doesn't know what to do with that information. He may describe it, humbly, as "a longish, rambling story about time and perception and boxes" -- and it is all those things, complete with appearances from Albert Einstein, talking about perceptions of time -- but it's also about anxiety and discomfort and vulnerability and openness and and and … I'm gushing, I know; I'll try to stop.

Boxes is one of those things that is both achingly personal and clearly universal, and makes you appreciate the bravery of the author in sharing it, if that makes sense. It's also, and perhaps this is something I'm not pointing out enough, just great comics: There's not even one panel that doesn't look great, and Harbin's pacing is truly impressive throughout the whole thing -- which, considering the four-panels-to-one-page format of his diary comics, is even more worth praise.

Wait, I said I was going to try and stop gushing, didn't I? Okay, then, I'll leave it as this: Boxes is the kind of thing that you should use to introduce people to comics, and then apologize for afterwards, saying "You know, there's not that much out there that's as good as that." And it's all available for free. Go and read; as you can tell, I really loved it.

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