Interview: Dustin Harbin Pt. 3

Categories:  Interviews


It’s a theme that invades my interviews more often than I expect: the anti-social nature of cartooning, and, by extension, cartoonists. My own experiences have largely been to the contrary, though, to be fair, I generally encounter cartoonists more or less in their environments—comic conventions, comic book shops, comic-themed events.

There is certainly something to be said for the general personality type that compels someone to sit alone in a room for eight hours a day—or at least helps facilitate that compulsion.

At the same time, however, as Dustin Harbin points out in this portion of the interview, there’s something inescapably vain in the idea of producing a long, on-going comic about one’s life. “Only an almost pathologically vain person would spend the amount of time it takes to make a comic about himself,” he tells me. “Comics take an awful long time to make, even little, stupid, shitty ones.”

Self-deprecating and warts-and-all though it may be (and most good or great auto-bio comics are both of those things), what is it, if not a bit of vanity, that convinces a person that his or her life is fascinating enough to be broadcast on the Internet.

Maybe Harbin knows. If so, he’s not letting on, because the moment you press him on the subject, that self-deprecation kicks in, and he says things like, “I have very little respect for my own autobiographical strips.” Maybe. But if the shirt fits…

[Part One][Part Two]

I was listening to an interview with Michael Chabon recently. In it, he said something along the lines of, “I know it’s really good when it hurts me to write.” It’s little hyperbolic, and obviously your strip is humorous, but do you find some truth in that statement?

I don’t know. I’m of two minds for that kind of stuff. I have very little respect for my own autobiographical strips. The ones that are current, people kind of comment on it, and my friends say stuff like, “you were so wasted that night!” They get more attention. And it’s very good practice to do a cartoon a day, but I don’t particularly like them. I haven’t decided yet if they have any real value as art, beyond the development of technique.

On the other hand, it’s a challenge to make them interesting—which I have not succeeded at yet, but taken together, there’s something there. But one at a time, they’re a little too slight to put too much thinking into. The ones that are more enjoyable are the ones from when I was a kid. I put a little more thought into those. They are sometimes a little painful to write. Or if I write about struggling with depression or some girl thing, or something like that.

Those are a little different because you’re sort of throwing your stink up someone’s nose, a little bit. It take—I don’t know if “balls” is the right word, but it take hubris, at least, to decide, “someone gives a shit about what my balls smell like.”

The stuff of yours I know the best is autobiographical. And you’ve got a—I guess somewhat infamous now—t-shirt with your face on it for the site. If that’s not the crux of what you do, what is?

Well, there’s something stupid about that shirt. I think it’s from an old sketchbook—the drawing that picture comes from is not even an inch tall. It’s very tiny, and it’s been blown up. I think I scanned it at 4,800 dpi to blow it up big enough to put it on a shirt. And it says, “I love him,” in my handwriting, it’s drawn by me, and it’s a picture of me. That’s pretty much my artistic statement, right there—a hopelessly vain, and still somehow self-deprecating. It’s self-deprecation taken to an extreme abandon.

Only an almost pathologically vain person would spend the amount of time it takes to make a comic about himself. Comics take an awful long time to make, even little, stupid, shitty ones.

That’s a unique combination that’s seemingly required to be a cartoonist. It seems like many of the cartoonists I’ve met either dislikes themselves on some level, or have at least had some sort of issue in the past. But, like you said, especially in the case of auto-biographical strips, some manner of vanity is required.

Yeah, yeah—on an enormous level. I would say that, even someone like Chester Brown—when you meet him, he doesn’t seem like a vain person at all, and his strips are so naked and amazing, but the time it takes, it’s like if you said, ‘I am going to spend a few years of my life constructing an autobiography. I’m going to spend eight to 12 hours a day drawing myself.’ In order to make your peace with it, you have to be incredible self-involved.

I think, in order to be a cartoonist, you have to be at least a little self-involved. It’s so lonely. Unless you’re Jeff Parker, working in the studio with 25 people in Portland, you’re probably alone in a room, listening to some comedy podcast.

On some level, one of the thing that defines you to me, at least in the interactions that’s we’ve had, is that you’ve taken it upon yourself to be something of a facilitator, a host of sorts. You bring a lot of what are, ostensibly, anti-social people together, whether it’s in the context of Heroes Con, or something smaller like a hotel room party at SPX. You’re something of a comics party planner.

What’s funny about that—first of all, I would say the same about you. But I am not that into hotel parties, at all. That party at SPX this year, which was amazing and super-fun, was obnoxious to me. Me and Scott Campbell were sharing that room, and before-hand, we were talking about if we were going to have roommates or not, and I said, “all I care about is no snoring and no parties. I just want to be able to go to bed.”

But I was having as good or better of a time than anybody else for three days. But that’s that how I normally am. Anybody who knows me will be like, “that guy’s a stick in the mud.” After midnight, I’ll be like, “I’m tired! Who starts a show at one of that the morning.”

And any facilitating I do, that comes from Shelton, my boss from Heroes Con. What’s interesting about that show, and what maybe dooms it on some financial levels, is that Shelton is extraordinarily hospitable. He takes a huge amount of pride in welcoming people. We’ll pick up all of these people at the airport—not even just famous people, pretty much anyone who says, “hey, can you pick me up?” And we’ll pick them up—even if it’s someone who just got their first coloring gig at DC. We’ll go an treat them like Jerry Robinson, or something.

He’s really good at that. It’s to me one of the animating sparks of that convention, his ability to create something like an SPX hotel room. We’re all having a good time. We’re all a team. It’s, “let’s have some fun,” instead of, “how can I squeeze the most money out of you?” Or, “how can I sneak 1,000 copies of your hot comic to get signed, so I can sell them on eBay, the next day?”

There’s none of that stuff. In fact, he wastes money. We argue about it every year. “Man, we should try to turn a profit this year. That would be amazing! Imagine if we had an appreciable amount of money, after the show.” And he’s like, “yeah, that would be great. So listen, we need to take these guys out to dinner.” He’s in party mode. It’s good though. It’s a good thing to learn from somebody.

[Concluded in Part Four.]

–Brian Heater

2 Comments to “Interview: Dustin Harbin Pt. 3”

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