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Dustin Harbin


Page 45 Review by Jonathan

"In 2010 I started making diary comics on New Year's Day, in a little 4" x 5" notebook.
"They were hourlies at first.
"I remember thinking at the time...
"It's hard to have fun when I have to keep describe the fun."
"Which... looking back now... has become a major theme for me.
"Both in my work and my life.
"Maybe the major theme.
"There's a thing called the 'Observer Effect', often confused with Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle.
"Essentially, you can't measure some things without changing them.
"You see where I'm going, right?
"Observing the moment changes the moment.
"Not only that, it rounds all the corners and sharpens all the curves.
"It mushes things into a you-shaped shape, fits into a you-shaped spot in your brain, and moves on.
"Is that bad?
"Yeah, probably."

You might think lettering in comics isn't that important. It is, however, exactly how Dustin Harbin first came to my attention, by observing some, which had quite the effect on me. I happened to very much like the lettering in Matt Fraction & Fabio Moon's CASANOVA, both upper case and lower varieties, and made a mental note of who'd done it. Not the butler in this instance. I then read Bryan Lee O'Malley's awesome SECONDS and thought, hello, I love that lettering, and lo and behold, both were lettered by one Dustin K. Harbin esq.

We were then due to place a regular order of North American self-published goodness from John KING-CAT Porcellino's Spit And A Half distribution emporium and I spotted a couple of very slim diary mini-comics by Dustin. I decided to give them a go, absolutely loved them because the guy can really tell a story and draw as well as letter beautifully, and then found out there was a much bigger, albeit pocket-dimensioned compilation with both quality and width.

Unfortunately Koyama Press, who've published an excellent selection of titles over the years such as SAFARI HONEYMOON by Jess Jacobs and BURT'S WAY HOME by John Martz, are not readily distributed in the UK, at least not until recently, so I resigned myself to having to wait until we ordered again from John P. In the meantime, I was chatting with Bryan Lee O'Malley (as one does...) at The Lakes International Comic Art Festival in Kendal this year and mentioned Dustin and his lettering, and instantly Bryan said, "Have you read his DIARY COMICS? It's brilliant."

And that, dear reader, is how I came to be even more determined to get hold of this work. And, happy days, shortly thereafter Koyama Press books became available via one of our regular UK distributors! Having now digested it, I will boldly state that not only is Dustin one of the best letterers in the biz, but also one of the best comic diarists. Oh yes. For whilst he might not actually get up to a great deal out of the ordinary, Dustin successfully makes the ordinary out to be a great deal. Let's be honest, although other people's lives are typically fascinating in actuality, it is entirely as the late Frank Carson put it so succinctly, "the way I tell 'em!", as to whether they are as interesting on the page.

Some autobiographical comics creators know how to spin a yarn, and others merely start a yawn.

You'll see Dustin endlessly grapple with making comics and attending the merry-go-round of North American comic festivals such as The Toronto Comic Arts Festival (TCAF), hobnobbing and schmoozing with the likes of Seth, Chester Brown, Michael DeForge, Kate Beaton, Sammy Harkham and many more besides. He also lays bare his romantic dalliances for our delectation, which he even chivalrously lets his girlfriend have the last word on, with an absolutely brilliant, skewering punchline! Plus he bravely exposes his battles with the black dog of depression. I must say, he seems rather the stoic to me, though, with his ingenious myriad ways of combating, indeed staving off an unexpected, impending dip in the old psychological weather systems, rather than just giving in to it all and retreating under the duvet in a blubbering mess.

There are two threads running through this work which elevate it to its heights: the genuine objective insight he provides us into his inner mental workings, mainly in his solo scenes, and the observational humour he delivers, usually at his own expense, pretty much whenever he's interacting with another human being. I'll leave you with a two panel conversation with Bryan Lee O'Malley that made me howl with laughter because it's about a subject Stephen and I comment on to each other every single time we see Bryan...

"Lots of my favourite people either live in Toronto or go to TCAF..."

"Hey Bryan!"
"Hey Dustin."

"Although I'm still not very good at talking to any of them..."

"Man! You're tall. Have you always been that tall?"

Bryan really is that tall. Quite why Stephen and I are continually surprised by that fact every time we see him I have no idea, but we're obviously not alone in our misapprehension on the sheer size of Mt. O'Malley!