The first time I met Dustin Harbin, I was sitting in the backseat of his car, as he drove us back to the hotel from a small Korean bar in Bethesda, MD, for the now sadly defunct tradition of late Saturday night SPX karaoke. In the spirit of concocting new stereotypes, I’ll say that Harbin “drives like a cartoonist,” and after I emerged from his tiny car, alive but shaken, I swore to myself that I would never ride with him again.
The event, which found us driving briefly in the wrong direction down a one way road, found its way into an American Elf strip, courtesy of our fellow traveler, James Kochalka, who was seated, white-knuckled, up front in the passenger seat.
It’s hard to shake first impressions, of course, particularly those so dramatic as that of the lanky southern gentleman who, at the time, had a large gap in an area of his mouth once occupied by his two front teeth.
While it will almost certainly take a good deal of cajoling before I ever set foot in another vehicle piloted by Harbin, I’ve come to amass a good deal of respect for the artist over the past couple of years, both as the cartoonist behind the autobiographical online strip, Dharbin, and as one of the principle organizers behind Charlotte’s Heroes Con.
While Harbin (whether deservedly or not) tends to downplay his own role in the success of the convention, one thing seems for certain—without him the show would likely have received none of the indie buzz that has graced it over the past few years.
After one final successful show, Harbin gave his notice to Heroes Aren’t Hard to Find mastermind, Shelton Drum. In the next couple of weeks, Harbin will terminate his employment with the Charlotte store and convention, after nearly a decade-and-a-half, opting instead to focus on his own art and commissioned work, including a gig lettering for fellow ex-Heroes employee Matt Fraction’s book, Cassanova.
You recently gave notice at Heroes.
Yes. As of this week, or next—I mean, it’s a little cloudy—I won’t be working at Heroes Aren’t Hard to Find in an official capacity.
I was under the impression that you were just exiting the convention—this is both the convention and the store?
Yeah. I haven’t really worked for the store, as such, in a while, expect for doing some Diamond stuff. I’ve worked from home for the past year. Most of what I have done has been convention-related. There’s a pretty insane amount of leg work and stuff that goes along with that.
Did work on the convention really constitute a full year-round job?
Um, pretty much. We work on the show throughout the year. Three months before the show is a lot of work, we’re constantly adding guests, and with some of the bigger guests, there’s a lot of back-and-forth. Plus I run the site and the newsletter and the blog. And you have to be really excited about each thing, “holy cow! I can’t believe we added Mike Mignola!” And that is exciting, but you have to be excited about each one.
Obvious you play a role in the entire show, but it always seemed like “Indie Island” was really your baby.
Yeah. That is definitely my baby, insofar as I take a very personal interest in it. I’m maybe more interested in that sector of publishing than, say, superhero books. As far the full show, it’s owned and run by Shelton Drum. He started it in 1982. I think it started at a local mall, as a one-day show. And then I started working there in ’96. I started having a more important role around 2002 or 2003.
You started by working at the store?
Yeah. I started working at the store as a clerk in 1996, when I was 21. And then I moved to Kansas City for a little while, and Shelton very kindly hired me back. And then I started doing more and more stuff for the convention. And then, in the last few years—about 2005, or so—I’ve been the creative director. It’s kind of like a second in command.
Shelton is really like the guts. He still really organizes the show. He sets up the convention center itself, which is extraordinarily expensive and involves a lot of legal contracts and all that kind of smart guy stuff. I do a lot of the legwork and the nuts and bolts of organizing.
How long did take before you really felt as though you were leaving your own mark on the show?
I’d say around 2005. That’s when we started Indie Island, which was me wanting to do that and Shelton allowing me to. The thing that makes Indie Island weird, and maybe what makes it work—though I don’t know if it’s ever been truly successful yet—is that it’s right in the middle of the show. It’s like front and center.
It’s a very fitting name.
Yeah, yeah. It’s right in the middle of the Artists’ Alley section, rather than a sort of ghetto or a downstairs—the indie corner or the indie bathroom stall. We are a very, very mainstream show that is, kind of famously, superhero comics-oriented. Sticking a bunch of mini-comics and Webcomics in the middle, you kind of have to push it, if you want anyone to notice it at all. So that was kind of brave of Shelton to do, and I’m always very appreciative of that.
I’ve really started noticing mentions of the show in the indie community over the past couple of years. Was it hard to convince indie cartoonists to come to what is, ostensibly, a mainstream show?
It is still a hard sell. In 2008, I pushed hard and got a bunch of super big names and publishers and printmakers—people that weren’t necessarily cartoonists—just to create a to create a bazaar setting in the middle of the show. I brought a lot names and people had a good time, but a lot of people didn’t really sell so well.
Charlotte’s not really a major culture market in the same way that a Toronto or a New York or even a Pittsburgh is. We have a lot of comics readers, but we don’t have a huge number of comics makers, which I think is a huge part of the difference why people go to something like that. People didn’t make a lot of money, and they were very vocal about it. So I was very discourage and didn’t really push it as much last year. I was very gun shy.
And then, this year, I decided to try to go big again. I was very careful, especially with a lot of my friends. I was preparing them. “I’m not sure how well you’ll do. I really want you to come, I will do everything I can to make it easy for you.” It takes so much work to do that stuff. It’s super-discouraging when it doesn’t go well and people are super-bitchy about it.
By all accounts, it seems like this year went extremely well.
The show itself, yes. It went very well. Probably the smoothest show with the fewest hiccups, ever—at least of all those I’ve been involved with. It was a huge relief. Something always seems to go wrong. One year the air conditioner will go out, or another year two people will get into a fight. Last year someone had a seizure at the head of Artist’s Alley. They were okay, but all of these things create ripples…
But yeah, this year was very smooth and very well attended and everyone seemed to have a good time. Definitely a success.
[Continued in Part Two.]