Outside of his involvement in Heroes Con and his own cartooning career, Dustin Harbin has also been a long-time employee of Charlotte’s Heroes Aren’t Hard to Find, the comic shop that gave rise to the convention of similar name. Like Heroes Con, the shop strives to be something of a focal point for the city’s burgeoning community of cartoonists.
In this second part, we discuss the ups and downs of trying to recruit customers–and friends–to the world of sequential cartooning.
You mentioned that Charlotte isn’t really much of an artistic hub, but as you’ve increased the focus on indie cartoonists, have you seen more local artists come out to the show to table or just attend?
Yes, especially this year. We tried to woo some local people. And also, when we have customers who get into making comics, we try to treat them extra sweet, so we’ll give them real nice spots. Because you know how it is, if you don’t know anyone at a comic convention, it can be pretty demoralizing, people endlessly not looking at your stuff, or picking up your comic and setting it back down, like, “meh, no.”
So there’s been more of that, but Charlotte still has a ways to go, so far as building a “scene.” But we did pretty good, we had a little Adam Hughes party at the store. Adam, of course, is from Atlanta, but a lot of cool artists came out, and it felt very scene-y. We were all just chumming it up and drinking beer. It felt a little more like when you go to a larger city and there’s a whole bunch of people talking about comics, and they’re talking about their problems. I’m like, “oh man, that must be awesome, just talking about comics.”
It’s better than the alternative: just venting all of that on the Internet.
Right, exactly, flame wars.
Is the store reflecting that focus on indie comics? Are you attempting to make it something of a gathering place for cartoonists?
We’ve always been pretty forward facing on that sort of stuff, though only in the last few years have we really started carrying mini-comics, which are a lot harder to retailer. But we’ve always carried indie comics. I discovered Yummy Fur at that store and Cerebus and all of that in the—I guess it couldn’t have been the 80s. Must’ve been the early 90s.
But yeah, we’ve been doing more mini-comics, which take a lot more attention and man hours, but they’re cool. And you know what’s funny is, we’re always trying to trick more women into coming in the store. Famously, comic shops are run by awful people who make their female customers creeped out.
The Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons is really the archetypical comic store owner in American culture.
It’s not outlandish portrayal. And we’re all pretty cool. We’re always trying to figure out how to get and keep more enthusiastic female customers. And they love mini-comics. Instead of going over there and trying to sell them on whatever you think they’d like—you always end up sticking your foot in your mouth. Or at least I do. I’ve got big feet and a big mouth.
But when girls come in and browse, they tend to go right over to the mini-comics. It’s great.
Have you ever considered moving to an area that really is more of an artistic epicenter?
I think about it all the time, but I really like Charlotte. I bitch about there being a lack of cartoonists, but it’s also really nice place, and I grew up around here, and my family’s here, and I have an extraordinarily tight group of friends, but they’re just not into comics. But they’re very kind to me, and when we have guests from out of town, they’ll very often show up and pretend that they’re interested. “Oh, what do you do? Superman? Oh, is he the one with the cape?”
I think about moving somewhere, but I’ll wait until Charlotte has lost all of its charm for me, and then I’ll give up.
Or until it becomes a cultural epicenter, and then you’ll find some other place where no one like comics.
Yeah. Then I’ll get snarky—“you know, I liked Charlotte a lot better, back when.”
As someone with a lot of friends who don’t like comics, do you often find yourself in the position of trying to convert people? Are you that guy, or have you given up on that?
I never try to convert people to comics. If someone displays an interest, especially if it’s a girl I’m seeing, I will make anything they like available to them. But it never seems to work, if you try to. It’s like kids with books. No one ever got into books because they were assigned them. They just picked them up and started reading them, and were like, “whoa, pirates!”
It’s easier just to be available and friendly if someone has an interest in comics, but it’s too weird a medium with its own rules to try to put on somebody. It would be like trying to push opera on somebody.
Sure, but at some point the conversation comes up, “I write a comic about my life, and at some point there’s a chance that you might appear in it.”
Yes, yes. That has actually come up a lot lately, with all of the girls that I know complaining that I draw—it’s a recent hot topic of late. “You made my all pointed and round. They’re not all pointed like that.” And I’m like, “I can’t spend too much time drawing your breasts. That’s a little creepy. I just kind of threw them in there.”
Is there a conversation ahead of time? Do you tell people that you’re going to draw a specific incident? Do you ever get shot down?
No, no. I don’t do that. For someone who’s really vain and who does a comic that’s their name, two-thirds of which is about me, I’m actually really super-private. I’m very careful about who I stick in there, what it says, who looks stupid in it. In the case where friends of mine show up, they’re either close enough that I can handle it when they get pissed, or it’s very innocuous material, like someone saying something silly when they’re drunk, but it’s not like, “I cheated on my wife.” There’s nothing truly damaging.
[Continued in Part Three]