Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Be Careful About What You Pretend To Be: Dustin Harbin's Diary Comics

Dustin Harbin's Diary Comics (Koyama Press) collects material that I reviewed here, here and here. Upon rereading both the book and my own critiques, I'd like to add a few more comments, especially since I've been reading a lot of different diary and memoir comics of late. Something nagged at my as I re-read his comics, and what I realized upon rereading the "Boxes" strip at the very end was that Harbin is his own best fictional character. Despite his obviously enormous talent as both an illustrator and cartoonist (especially with regard to imbuing his caricatures with so much life), Harbin just doesn't seem to have much to say as an artist. When he quit his journal comic for a while, he noted that he did so with the idea of moving on to bigger, better projects.

The problem is that Harbin's only creative project since that time has been a dinosaur book for NoBrow. As one might imagine, it looks great. It's a clever book for children. However, it's not the big project that's been anticipated for an artist of his talent. The end of Diary Comics reveals that the problem isn't so much that Harbin doesn't have anything to say beyond lowest-common-denominator humor strips, but that he has no idea how to express himself in a manner that's in any way authentic. What is revealed is that the "Dustin Harbin" we see in the strip is an invention, a character that's based on real life that is still a fiction. Often, that fictional character is a mechanism for gags, but there are occasional attempts at relating the character's depression as well. Those strips are frequently well-done and provide a fascinating visual attempt at depicting depression (as a sort of shadowy, heavily-crosshatched self), but the overall effect feels a bit off. It's bloodless.

I've read plenty of diary strips where it's clear that the artist is using them as an exercise, a way of keeping themselves drawing daily. Some have the effect of reading someone's account on twitter of eating oatmeal in the morning: a strip full of quotidian details that add up to nothing. Many cartoonists are either unable or unwilling to pour their emotions into their work, to "spill some ink" as Rob Kirby might say. The best diary strips (Jesse Reklaw is a sterling example) manage to use those mundane moments as the conduit for expressing a deeper series of emotional truths. What's different about Harbin's difficulty in being both unable and unwilling to spill that ink is that he's obviously painfully aware of this problem. A late strip where he reveals that he has trouble talking about his feelings features his on-then-off-then-on-again girlfriend Kate. While he says to her, "What about all the sweet stuff stuff I say in my comics about how I love you?", she replies "I'm sure that's very nice for that girl, but I'm a real person". It's a brutal quote and one of the few times that Harbin is able to step outside of himself and realize that in depicting his "real life" on the page, he instead created a whole separate existence that only tangentially connected to that real life. The last page, where it dawns on him that the choice in front of him is either to keep pretending to connect to others in an authentic way or else admit that he needs to change the entire way he approaches his very existence. There is no other conclusion, no neat tie-ups. It's a meta-commentary on the rest of the book.

While this is entirely a self-critique and evaluation, it does raise the question of to what extent memoir and diary comics are "real", and how much that matters. Where is the line between authenticity and artifice? What value does the rest of this book have (beyond sheer craft), given this revelation? Does it matter to the reader if it's "merely" entertaining? If one looks at this sort of comic as another person attempting to not only get across their experiences on the page, but to attempt to get readers to understand that experience, then the rest of the comic is an entertaining failure. If one views it as an ever-expanding process where the author is trying to understand what they're doing and why they're doing it, then Diary Comics is a success, albeit in the same sense that a shaggy dog story is a success. It wastes a lot of time and takes a number of distracting and ultimately meaningless detours to get there, but without that time wasted, the overall effect of the final revelation is not as powerful.

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