‘Diary Comics’: Dustin Harbin on the art of autobiographical comics and lettering

May 14, 2015 | 9:43 a.m.

Comic books have proved to be an exceptional medium for autobiographical material, allowing creators to interpret their lives through a combination of words and pictures unique to their individual perspectives.

After a few years working on one-off gag comics, cartoonist Dustin Harbin began exploring more personal storytelling by chronicling his life from 2010 to 2012, a project that began as a creative exercise and ultimately became a valuable, therapeutic part of Harbin’s life. Choice installments from those two years are collected in “Diary Comics,” from Koyama Press, which debuted at this past weekend’s Toronto Comic Arts Festival and hits comic stores this month.

A native of North Carolina who grew up just outside of Charlotte, Harbin says his introduction to comics came from his mother, who would pick up random issues from yard sales.

“If there was one with Spider-Man in it that had a cliffhanger, I would never ever know how the cliffhanger ended,” Harbin said.

Living in a Christian household, most of the comics Harbin read were very safe, and he was a big fan of Harvey Comics characters like Richie Rich and Hot Stuff the Little Devil. It wasn’t until high school that Harbin became more engrossed with superhero comics, primarily through friends who were reading Marvel Comics at the time.

“They’re so overwritten,” Harbin said, recalling Chris Claremont’s issues of “Uncanny X-Men” in the ’80s. “Tom Orzechowski, the letterer on a lot of those, I can’t imagine him having to cram all those letters over John Byrne art over and over again every month.”

The cover for "Casanova: Acedia" No. 1, by Matt Fraction and Fábio Moon. (Image Comics)

The cover for “Casanova: Acedia” No. 1 by Matt Fraction and Fábio Moon. (Image Comics)

Harbin’s taste would continue to evolve, with a major change happening when he discovered Charlotte’s comic book shop Heroes Aren’t Hard To Find, one of the largest in the country. He would eventually work there for 14 years, during which time he made valuable connections in the industry. One of his fellow employees was Matt Fraction in the days before he became an award-winning, commercially successful writer at Marvel and Image Comics, and the two would direct readers away from lackluster ’90s Image titles like “Youngblood” toward more substantial books like Vertigo Comics’ “Preacher.” Harbin’s friendship with Fraction would later lead to an opportunity lettering Fraction’s creator-owned series “Casanova,” which is currently in the middle of its fourth volume, “Acedia.”

Harbin also built a strong relationship with Heroes Aren’t Hard To Find owner Shelton Drum during those years. He worked directly with Drum as an organizer of Charlotte’s Heroes Convention, which proved to be immensely helpful for Harbin’s creative development.

“One of the luxuries of working at comic shops and later running HeroesCon with Shelton was having a lot of unfettered access to pros in a nonfan way,” said Harbin. “I could chat with them or even overhear them chatting amongst themselves about things without needing to stand in line or having that fan/artist relationship, which is always a little stilted. It was a luxury because I got to quiz a lot of people and ask questions about things in a one-on-one setting. Or just watch them ink. Or hear them complain about how certain printing processes work. Their little tricks or whatnot. So by the time I started drawing more seriously, I had a good number of legs up on another person.”

Harbin specifically mentions Paul Pope, Joe Lambert and John Marks as key creative influences, but he also considers them his personal friends.

“I got to ask [Pope] a lot of questions about brushes and about paper and about approaches,” said Harbin. “He’s just a smart guy who is very good about talking about what he does in a way that is encouraging rather than exclusive. He was a pretty good guy to know early on. [Lambert and Marks] are both friends of mine, but they both have different from mine but similar approaches. Of course better. I think about them a lot when I’m working and drawing and trying to figure out basic problem solving. Just drawing the picture, let alone making a comic out of it.”

Harbin doesn’t look back fondly at those first comics he created.

“I’m finding some of them that I thought I had lost or already sold and they are terrible,” he said. “They are so bad. They’re thin jokes and really overdrawn. It’s like if you had a really beautiful doghouse with hand-cut shingles on the roof and a little tiny pool out back. Just a weird amount of work to put into a crappy set-up.”

Page 93 of "Diary Comics," by Dustin Harbin. (Koyama Press)

Page 93 of “Diary Comics,” by Dustin Harbin. (Koyama Press)

The daily format of Harbin’s autobiographical comics forced him to work faster and looser, particularly in the early installments, but over the course of the project, the art becomes more refined as the story gains emotional depth. It’s a poignant, richly detailed account of the cartoonist’s life and his struggles with creativity, finances, relationships, and depression, and represents a significant turning point in Harbin’s career.

Hero Complex readers can view covers and pages from “Diary Comics” and “Casanova: Acedia” in the gallery above or in larger versions via the links below.

‘DIARY COMICS’: Cover | Page 93 | Page 151 | Page 152 | Page 192

In a recent telephone conversation, Harbin spoke about the challenges of creating autobiographical comics, the therapeutic element of putting his personal obstacles on paper and the process of lettering a comic book.

What was the biggest challenge you had starting “Diary Comics”?

There were no challenges when I first started. Diary comics, or journal comics, and certainly the kind I was making at the time, in that first six months to a year, it’s very easy to make them terrible. To make them boring and self-absorbed in a way that isn’t valuable in any way. And the further I got into them, the more frustrated I got with that, basically not choosing well what to talk about. Or having a concept where I want to make one of these every day, but if something happens and you don’t have anything to say, you end up making this stupid piece of art. There’s no real reason for it. You didn’t get any better at anything during that except drawing. So when I was putting that book together, that was a huge challenge, because the things at the end of that diary collection that are more serious and are more valuable both to a reader and to myself in terms of having made them, it was a real challenge in balancing that stuff and other things that I thought were worth saying with the lion’s share of the banality that the first half of the book is really consumed with.

Those early ones, it’s like, “This sandwich is great. Oh, this sandwich isn’t very good. This sandwich was better.” And then later it’s much more serious. Annie [Koyama] and I had a lot of talks when I was putting the book together of whether or not to include everything, so it was a totality document. But there were like 408 different diary comics. Or to trim them and try to make a somewhat leaner thing that pointed toward the eventual point of the book. And we decided to go the latter, which I’m very happy that we did. Because otherwise it would be a $25 book that only two-fifths of was worth anything. The biggest challenge with diary comics is just deciding what is valuable, why, to whom. Basically, crossing that line between “a regular human life is not very exciting or interesting” and “my particular human life is exciting and interesting.” It’s the only one I’ve got, these are the things that matter to me. Making that compelling to a reader and valuable to an artist is somewhat of a challenge. Probably not as much of a challenge as making up a story out of whole cloth, but as much of a challenge as you’re going to get with memoir.

That’s the thing I like about autobiographical comics, especially ones that start as an exercise for the cartoonist. You can see an evolution over time regarding how people put their lives on paper and find different ways to make it more engaging and narratively stimulating. As a reader, I wonder what has inspired these changes. For example, the art style changes significantly at a certain point in “Diary Comics.” Why?

Page 151 of "Diary Comics," by Dustin Harbin. (Koyama Press)

Page 151 of “Diary Comics” by Dustin Harbin. (Koyama Press)

You’re right that the art style changed quite a lot. The early ones I was just doing in a little 3-inch by 5-inch, not a Moleskine, but a Moleskine knock-off. And then by the end I was doing them on nice Bristol and so forth. I bet that part of the big life change is that I just got more vain about what I was putting out there. I’m a pretty fussy person anyway. It’s a thing that I’m grappling with now, because I’m starting to do them again. I’ve had a bunch of life things going on in the last year and I’m looking forward to some more and I wanted to talk about them. And figuring out a balance between doing a thing that’s autobio but then — if you let telling your own story dominate your life, then that’s all your story is after a while. Just telling your own story. It doesn’t sound too recursive a statement to make. It’s valuable for me as an artist, as a person not only saying something but trying to improve or think about his own place in humanity and so forth, it’s valuable for me to select and think about talk about these things, but it’s not valuable if that’s all I do.

So I’ve been struggling to find an art style that maybe doesn’t have a bunch of ink wash in it and maybe is a little scratchier and fast. Because the distance between that ink wash version and a faster drawn but not terrible one — it’s not like I’m using crayon — is not that far to a reader. The whole work would be better if I spent less time worrying about surface elements and more time worrying about the foundational elements. Which is a problem with most comics. It’s real easy to polish up that turd with lots of fancy cross-hatching and gradients and lens flares and all this kind of stuff, but the comic doesn’t get noticeably better without that foundation being really strong.

It has to be especially hard finding something meaningful to say when doing a daily autobiographical comic.

You run the risk of convincing yourself that your particular brand of [junk] is really delectable, and that people need to experience it. … I think that’s the problem with anyone that has an audience. The more people that you think are listening—I always think, when I hear or watch artists interact with their audience on Twitter or at conventions, you know the part in “The Princess Bride” when Prince Humperdink comes out? Whenever he gives an address he says, “MY PEOPLE!” Like he’s an opera singer. Incredibly self-important tone, which I’m very guilty of as well. I don’t mean to sound like I never do this, because I do it all the time. That’s why I notice when other people do it and I choose to poop on them instead. That’s a danger for any artist, but when you’re talking about yourself, then it’s like triple. Because you have to convince yourself first that what you’re saying is worth wasting all your time on, and then you go around social media-ing it everywhere and being like, “Look at this thing!” If it’s not important, why are you talking about it? Why waste all this time making this book? It’s like a little house of cards thing going on there where you need to believe that every single thing you say is important or the whole thing collapses. This is a very uplifting interview so far.

And I’m about to make it even more uplifting because my next question is about your depression, which comes up a few times in “Diary Comics.” Is there a therapeutic element to putting that aspect of your life on paper?

Page 152 of "Diary Comics," by Dustin Harbin. (Koyama Press)

Page 152 of “Diary Comics” by Dustin Harbin. (Koyama Press)

Absolutely. And that’s possibly one of the most beneficial parts of making this comic. It’s one of the first things in that book that is worthwhile to talk about and had some kind of level of metaphor and art making around it. Figuring out how to talk about it, what to say about it, that kind of stuff. Using visual metaphors, which of course comics are super good at. But it’s one of those things where the more you say it out loud, the less mysterious it is. The easier it is to look at it as a problem that needs a solution rather than a never-ending miasma that you’re doomed to play around in until you die. It’s not only therapeutic, but just straight-up helpful. In fact, it’s one of those things where the more you talk about it, the more that it comes up, just like it’s coming up right now. And the more you realize that whatever your version of this problem is, it’s not nearly bad as many, many other people’s versions. It’s not even a “you’re not alone” thing. It’s like, “You’re not even in the 98th percentile of people that suffer from this.” Not to delight in others’ misery, but it is the kind where you’re like, “I need to get my [stuff] together because other people have worse challenges than I do.” Which seems petty, but for me, it’s one of those things that forces me to start to take action and hunt down medications or other therapy. It was very helpful.

Even if somebody’s life isn’t especially exciting on a daily basis, you’re getting that universal experience of just living a life, which can be interesting if the person brings a unique perspective to it.

It is one of those things where if you’re listening to an interview with someone you admire and they say something like, “I really don’t like spicy food.” And you’re like, “I really don’t like spicy food! Wow! This hero of mine is just like me!” But it’s one of those things where someone will have allergies and you might have allergies and you’re like, “This is an equalizer.” This person gets all snotty and terrible for a couple months in the spring, and has to blow his nose and takes pills and avoid cats and whatever it is that you do. Which is humanizing and brings the heavenly bodies in your firmament a little closer into touching range, in a non-touching way.

How did you devise the framing sequence when you were revisiting the book? What was that experience like going back? You mention it was a challenge putting everything together, but when you went back and added new material, how did what you read and experience shape what you were doing to fill out those moments?

That’s a good question. I’m ambivalent about a lot of those strips, especially the early ones. And when Annie and I were talking about the book, it was important to me—Annie’s very supportive, so I’m sure if I had some lame-brain idea, something weird, she wouldn’t let me do anything I want, but she’s very supportive. I wanted to try and make a book that maybe transcended those original strips a little bit, or at least framed them in a way that put them between this dishwater idea of “I’ll just make a comic every day” and by the end it being an important part of my life and dealing with more important issues and so forth. So I wrote and drew that introduction to basically slide the reader in, and then broke the book up into five chunks based on events. And to reset each time. Create a spine for the book, so that there was some—like the supports in a bridge. There was something to get someone from here to there and have them see that there was an end in sight and maybe it was different from where they were at the time. There’s a million strips in there about preparing to go to conventions and being at conventions, and at some point rereading them I was like, “If you read this, you would think that all I do all year is just go to conventions and get wasted and have a hangover and come home.” Which is of course not the case, but it’s more fun to talk about than making a sandwich.

It was a really fun challenge to try and—those strips, a lot of them are five years old, so it was fun to try and bring them forward in time a little bit to where I am now and set a context for the whole thing that felt valuable and good. I was talking with someone the other day about this book and working with Annie in particular, and one of the things was when I was thinking about making this book and making the cover and what not, I was literally imagining sitting next to Michael DeForge at a Koyama table at a show and being appalled at how much nicer his books are than mine. Or how much better the comics are than mine. So I was like, “I need to at least rise to the level where I can not be squirming in my seat with discomfort over sharing a table with him.” I think I barely accomplished that. I’m a huge fan of his. The things that he does and the things that he says are some of the most interesting things to happen in comics in years and years and years. Him and Jillian Tamaki together.

Page 1 of "Casanova: Acedia" No. 1, by Matt Fraction and Fábio Moon. (Image Comics)

Page 1 of “Casanova: Acedia” No. 1 by Matt Fraction and Fábio Moon. (Image Comics)

One of the things I find really exciting things about him and his work, but him in particular, and the same way I find Jillian Tamaki exciting not only as an artist but as a human and as someone striving, is they will just turn their styles on their head. Jillian’s illustrations are gorgeous. And then she’ll go and do something like “SuperMutant Magic Academy” that’s in a totally different style and almost willfully a throwaway style. I think a lot of it is just digital on a tablet really fast, there’s computer lettering. There’s not a lot of polish, and it’s just her flexing. Being like, “I’m just gonna build chops in a different direction. I wanna be a little more round as an artist and not so hyper in a single style.” And Michael, I don’t know if he’s ever done two things that were—from year to year, his style changes so much. Now it’s totally different from “Ant Colony.”

My favorite thing about his work is that I often don’t understand it, and I often am slightly put off by it. It’s not that I find the figures alien, it’s that I find them slightly discomforting. And I think that is such a rare choice for an artist to make in comics. I think comics has very few people who think of the image as a thing that doesn’t have to be pretty. That the prettiness is separate from the effect the image has on a person, which is a pretty normal conceit in regular art, in fine art or whatever. But in comics it’s rarely used, even though comics is such an emotionally driven medium. A lot of the Fort Thunder guys and a lot of the more abstract cartoonists do it, but Michael works in this weird world where he has such a spare, lean, stylized approach to writing, and his images are incredibly idiosyncratic and impactful. The space between those two is really exciting. I love it. I could talk all day about Michael DeForge.

‘CASANOVA: ACEDIA’ No. 1: Cover | Page 1 | Page 2 | Page 3

You’re also the letterer on “Casanova.” When did you start actively practicing lettering and what did that practice entail?

Page 2 of "Casanova: Acedia" No. 1, by Matt Fraction and Fábio Moon. (Image Comics)

Page 2 of “Casanova: Acedia” No. 1 by Matt Fraction and Fábio Moon. (Image Comics)

I never started practicing lettering. I think Matt [Fraction, “Casanova” writer], when he was redoing “Casanova”—I lettered my own comics, so I definitely thought about lettering, but I had no aspirations to be a professional letterer or anything, and still do not. I rarely take work in that zone. The only jobs I’ve done were “Casanova” and then “Seconds” I lettered for Bryan Lee O’Malley last year, and I’ve done little one-offs. I did a thing with Paul Pope once and stuff like that. But it’s one of those things that is not fun enough or lucrative enough to do unless you’re really into the work. Lettering “Seconds” was stressful because I am a huge fan of Bryan and didn’t want to be the weak link in a strong book, but it was really pleasurable to do. Matt just came to me and said, “Hey, do you want to letter this comic book we’re doing?” And I said, “Huh! O.K., alright.” And then we did it. I had to figure out how to do that.

In “Diary Comics” you mention that you’re getting better at lettering “Casanova”? How do you gauge your improvement with lettering?

As a comics reader, you read comics. You review comics. What is a good letterer to you?

Some people think lettering shouldn’t stick out, but I personally like lettering that grabs my attention. Steve Wands’ work on Image’s “Descender” sticks out a lot in the way he uses different fonts and word balloons to show the sound of a robot or alien voice. At the same time, I appreciate how the lettering in “Casanova” is so much more organic and looks like the artist could have hand-lettered it.

Which probably, he should have hand lettered it. I’m a big proponent of that. Unless there’s a real compelling reason not to use it, hand-lettering by the artist is going to look the best. The pages is going to be one unit, all of the same hand. Rather than having layers of things going on. I’m the opposite of you. The lettering you’re describing, I wouldn’t try to wish it out of existence, but that “Descender” lettering where everything’s a little different is very distracting to me and pulls me out. I do like the immersive look. Not so much that lettering has to be invisible, but it’s kind of like the panel borders and the balloon tails. The more you’re thinking about those, the less you’re thinking about the important things on the page like the expressions and the composition and the actual story and so forth.

Page 3 of "Casanova: Acedia" No. 1, by Matt Fraction and Fábio Moon. (Image Comics)

Page 3 of “Casanova: Acedia” No. 1 by Matt Fraction and Fábio Moon. (Image Comics)

But I got better mainly by doing it a lot and having it take less time. Even though just a few issues ago, up to the middle of volume three, each 36-page issue would take me about a hundred hours to letter, which is kind of bananas in terms of the amount of time something takes for a job that’s not—you’re not paying a letterer very much. After a point, if I’m getting paid per page and it takes me a hundred hours to do 30-something pages, then your hourly rate becomes very small. You start to get into minimum wage territory. So getting faster is mainly what getting better means, and also getting more uniform. Hand-lettering is always going to look organic, you never half to worry about that. So making it more uniform is actually the way to control it. Making it less idiosyncratic and more legible, readable, fast. Putting your balloons in the right places so the reader’s not confused. “Well this guy’s on the left and this guy’s on the right but the balloons are switched because one of them talks first.” Compositional things that can slow down the rate of reading on the pages and give more weight to something that you didn’t want any weight given too.

Did you change your lettering approach between “Casanova” and “Seconds”?

A little bit. “Seconds” is a lot easier to letter because Bryan did all his pages and planned where all the lettering went with a font. He’s a big compositional guy, kind of in a manga way. The page reads in a very orderly way, even though there’s a lot of things happening. So he would place and draw his own balloons, and then put the letters in, so I had a pretty clear guide of what to do and how things were going to break down already. Whereas with “Casanova”, I do all that, so often there’s this thing where there might not be enough room in a panel for all the words that need to go in there in a way that isn’t distracting. Which takes a little more time. Trying and failing and maybe talking with Matt or the artist. Sometimes Gabriel [Ba] and Fabio [Moon] say, “Well what if we did this or what if we put it in this other place?” That takes time, and I rarely had that question with Bryan because he had planned everything so carefully.

I’m loving the new volume of “Casanova.” It’s so cool. It’s so different.

It’s really different, right? I don’t know if Matt has said this publicly, but I can give you a behind-the-scenes look. The current [volume] is really odd and the production process has been odd, although in a worthwhile way experimentally, because they’re doing it Marvel style. Which is to say Matt sends the plot to Fabio and says, “Here’s your plot.” And then Fabio would draw it and the number of pages might change. One issue had 29 pages, one issue had 30-something.

It does feel more artist-driven.

It feels like a little bit of a flex on Matt’s part too, because Matt writes really full scripts. They’re not precise in an Alan Moore way where it’s like I don’t want this here and that there. It’s very distinct and very much in charge. But they’re very full in terms of what he wants on the page. What he wants the feel to be, and the dialogue’s already written. And with this way—I notice the dialogue a lot because I’m figuring out where to put it all the time, so I feel like there’s less dialogue. Or maybe the dialogue is a little more spare in this one. Also the story seems to flow at a more organic pace because Fabio just figures out how pages he needs to tell and then blocks them out himself. Things feel a little less rigid, although that rigidity, like in the third [volume], I thought was perfect because it was such a crazy story and there was a good balance there. But in this current one, I really like it. I really like seeing someone like Matt, who gets more fame every day, flex a little bit for something he’s been successful with, but wants to get better at. Or wants to try new things. That’s always exciting to me, for an artist to do that.

— Oliver Sava | @LATHeroComplex

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