Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Diary and Autobio Comics: Harbin, Kelberman, Taylor

Dharbin #1-2 Collected Edition and Diary Comics 2, by Dustin Harbin. The former minicomic is a collection of older work; the latter is Harbin's latest collection of diary comics and is published by Koyama Press. The difference between the two books is striking in a number of ways. The former book is a mixed bag in terms of content, mixing some great gags with some duds as well as several excellent autobiographical stories. The collected edition shows Harbin as a cartoonist just starting to get a handle on his talent and understanding of what is possible when he started to amp up his ambitiousness. Harbin's line is delicate to the point of wispiness and his character design is imaginative and funny. At times, he lays it on a bit too thick; his line sometimes gets fussy and overworked as unnecessary hatching and detail clogs up some strips. Harbin is at his best when he draws himself as a little kid, with a huge head and a single snaggletooth, looking like a weird cross between a Bil Keane kid and a James Kochalka character. His stories about his mother are all on point, as he reins in some of his fussiness to tell some of his clearer, more focused stories.

His SPX diaries are true treasures; while they tend to be a bit on the "inside baseball" side, Harbin's focus is really on the joys, pressures and sheer craziness of attending a con. Cartoonists are a naturally solitary lot, so the opportunity for compressing several months worth of partying and socializing in just three days is clearly intoxicating for Harbin, especially as this mini documents his slow integration into the small press community. Harbin's Diary #2 carries the common hallmarks of a diary zine, with a four panel grid constraint, quickly-drawn stories, a focus on quotidian and work details and a certain sense of repetitiveness. Harbin himself refers to diary strips as "the lowest form of comics", yet it's clear that these daily exercises have had a powerful effect on him as an artist.

Harbin's lively wit and whimsical nature inform these strips, adding life to the usual quotidian detail. Harbin is also bracingly honest, talking about the ways he battles depression while coming up with clever graphic solutions in depicting it. His strips about his girlfriend are playful and endearing without being treacly, as Harbin's m.o. of always keeping things light leavens any potential sentimentality in the happier strips, while preventing the heavier subjects from getting too morose. Harbin does occasionally go in for the quick and easy laugh a bit too often, though he does seem to be leaving behind some of the easier scatological gags that dominated his earlier work. More than anything, the sheer energy and enthusiasm Harbin has for comics is palpable in his work. He's still more of an artist that writes rather than a writer that draws, but drawing and writing dozens of pages of his own material is starting to hone his voice as a writer. His best work is clearly ahead of him, but he's already produced a lot of worthy comics.

Crocus, by Whit Taylor. Taylor introduces this comic as material she came up with after "a particularly rough and unproductive 1st winter in Boston", invoking the crocus as the first flower that blooms after winter. While there is certainly charm to be found in Taylor's voice and a certain energy in her character design, these comics definitely have the feel of an unpolished first crack at creating after a long hiatus. Taylor's line is crude but expressive, though I get the sense that she would like to be a better draftsman given the sorts of things she tries to draw. The way she overdraws and overscribbles at times is a common tell for young artists who aren't yet confident in their line. In that regard, Taylor needs to simplify her line; indeed, the pages that are talking heads are the most expressive and effective. Taylor has a knack for relating the juiciest, funniest parts of party conversations, and these are her best strips in terms of content. One story is about Taylor relating a weird comment she got after giving a blow-job; another is about Taylor and some female friends suggesting a "Princess Fantasy Wedding Party", going into great detail about cakes, clothes, cheesy party favors and bad music, only to get shot down by her male friends. Her "Shit I Won't Do Anymore" series is also pretty funny, though this was one area where I hoped for a funnier, clearer image and lettering to go with the gag. I'd be curious to see more of Taylor's work, especially since her sunny but sarcastic tone is a winning one.

The Regular Man #17-21, by Dina Kelberman. I thought I'd save a few of these for a stack so I could see the progression of ideas and images by Kelberman. While these comics are not explicitly autobiographical in terms of using her actual name and likeness, Kelberman has stated that these odd little comics emerge from her everyday life. #17 is really clever, as Kelberman draws on top of a schematic drawing of a series of shelves, drawing herself on shelves from top to bottom as though they were panels. Each of these comics finds Kelberman's tubular, tousled-haired stand-in struggling once again with engaging the world. She worries when it's a nice day and friends don't contact her. She resists going out on nice days and ignores a thirsty friend on a hot day when she creates art. Her other stand-in of sorts apologizes to a friend after she got drunk and then learns that learns that it was no big deal, but worries that if she's no longer an asshole, "then who am I?" Finally, she mockingly pats herself on the back for reading a book instead of tooling around on the internet, only to have the internet take on a fuzzy personification that hectors her.

Kelberman uses a dizzying array of styles, splashing color across panels in an almost abstract expressionist manner to alter each strip's emotional tone, drawing over other material, varying paints on the page (and sometimes using paint for scrawled lettering), or changing the very background of the comic (in one issue, we see Kelberman's sketchbook laid out on a table, her hand at the bottom of the page as she takes a photo of it). Kelberman's comics are constantly fascinating to me because decorative, narrative and formal aspects all have an equal standing on the page. There's a story she's telling through dialogue, she tells it using all sorts of crazy visual devices, and each page has a half-dozen odd decorative flourishes. That's especially true of the lettering, which often rolls into little circles and other shapes, bursts on the page in vibrant colors and also gets across Kelberman's feelings. The series will end soon and Kelberman will collect these strips into a book, which is exciting because more readers will have a chance to get their hands on this.

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