Wide World of Webcomics: CASANOVA Letterer Goes Solo

CASANOVA Letterer Goes Solo in Webcomic

A (very) early strip A (very) early strip

Welcome back to Newsarama’s Wide World of Webcomics, our continuing look at some of the best comics on the web. Today, we’re taking a look into the autobiographical journal of a creator who might be familiar to fans of Marvel’s Icon line.

In the last year, Dustin Harbin has earned acclaim for hand-lettering every issue of the reissue of Matt Fraction’s creator-owned series Casanova, which he’ll continue into the new series. But he’s also been doing a variety of hilarious and insightful comic of his own, chronicled on his daily site www.dharbin.com.

Harbin was previously known among comic fans and pros for his work at the comic shop Heroes Aren’t Hard to Find in Charlotte, NC – and for helping organize each year’s Heroes Con, which is coming up June 3-5. Harbin, who recently did a stint as diarist for The Comics Journal’s website, spoke with us via email about going from retailer to creator, the unique challenges of the industry, some of his favorite books and more.

Newsarama: Dustin, you've been doing comics full-time since last year -- what have you learned so far, and what advice would you give creators looking to make comics their “day” job?

Dustin Harbin: Well, the main thing I've learned is that it sure is nice to have a weekly paycheck. Also, all the rumors of it being impossible to make a real living as a cartoonist: totally true! I guess that's why they call it conventional “wisdom.” Advice I would give to people thinking of making that move would be “save up $50,000 first.”

Nrama: What made you decide to go full-on into comics?

Harbin: I guess it's mainly a question of focus--it's easier to develop what you're doing when you're doing it full-time. And working at a comics shop and on a big convention is so time-demanding that it's just impossible to be much more than a hobbyist, no matter how seriously you take it.

Nrama: So you have a slight presence at Marvel with the re-lettering gig on Casanova. Have you found this has brought you more fans, and what do you try to bring to the book with the re-lettering? Embarrassing stories about Matt Fraction's misspent youth will likely improve this piece's blog-links. I am a bad person.

Harbin: Matt's a pretty cool customer, I don't think he's ever done anything embarrassing. And if he had, I wouldn't tell Newsarama, I don't think. Not for free, anyway.

I'm not sure if I've gotten more readers from lettering Casanova, but I have learned a ton about lettering. Plus slowly reading and recopying everything Matt writes every month has definitely taught me a lot about writing, in case one day I decide to write a comic for someone else to draw.

As to bringing something to Casanova, I think I mainly bring my hands—Matt and the twins are into the organic look of hand-lettering. I liked the original letters just fine, but I also am a fan of hand-lettering on books, especially with artists who are as stylistically rich as Gabriel and Fabio.

Nrama: You worked directly with creators for years as part of Heroes – what did you learn from that experience?

Harbin: Oh man. I probably learned most of what I know about comics from working for Heroes. I never really told anyone I did my own comics until a few years ago, so I rarely picked creators' brains for tips. But I did learn a ton about how to interact with people at conventions, how that strange fan-culture works, etc. But mainly I just met a lot of amazing people.

Nrama: One of the niftier things you did last year was the newspaper-format comic -- what was the unique challenge in putting this together, and why do you feel newspapers work as a format for comics, classic tradition not withstanding?

Harbin: I'm not sure that newspapers work in the long term for comics like mine—you can't really make money on them--who's going to pay anything for a newspaper, you know? But there are some things you can do in the newspaper format that you can't do other places, especially in terms of having BIG COLOR PAGES without paying a billion dollars for printing.

There weren't any design challenges at all though--that part was pure pleasure. If I find a way to make money doing newspapers, I'll do another one one day.

Nrama: Do you have plans to do more experiments like these in the future, and if so, what can you tell us about them?

Harbin: I don't have any immediate plans for experimenting--my next few projects are all pointed at either working with creators I want to collaborate with or my own stuff.

Nrama: When you're doing autobiographical comics, what's the biggest challenge for you in distinguishing your work from the pack, and in knowing what to reveal and what not to reveal?

Harbin: I don't bother distinguishing myself from “the pack;” I'm different enough naturally from other people that just doing my own thing will be its own thing. The diary comics I've been doing aren't something I intend to do in perpetuity at all though, so I just sort of “do” them, you know?

a more recent edition

The autobio comics I like are so good that if I worried about comparing myself to them, I'd never get anything done.

Nrama: What do you feel the biggest advantages and disadvantages are of publishing on the web?

Harbin: This question is a little broad, Zack. I think other people smarter than me have covered this territory over and over again through the years. The most obvious thing is that the bar for entry is comparatively low--you just need to be able to stick your comic up somewhere and then hope someone likes it, rather than waiting for some publisher to see enough potential for sales to give you a platform.

So the biggest benefit is probably just leveling the playing field a little bit for new artists, making things more egalitarian. That's certainly the case with my work--posting it online has given me a set of goals, an audience to feel responsible to, and a reason to practice doing my thing.

Nrama: Something I'm asking a lot of people -- and I'm particularly curious about your take, given your background in comic retailing -- is what opportunities you feel have been opened by such new delivery systems as the iPad and mobile phones, and what you feel both creators and larger companies can do -- or could be doing better -- to realize these opportunities.

Harbin: I'm not sure--I've never read a comic on an iPad or my phone, other than looking at webcomics through a Safari browser window or whatever. I think right now we're in that new technology phase where everyone professes REAL EXCITEMENT! and BOLD NEW DIRECTIONS!, but no one is really doing anything that wild yet.

I know that the first block I'd have to buying digital content through an app like Comixology or the Marvel app or whatever is the cost. I think the current model of renting comics licenses is a stupid one, and it's only going to hold back development for awhile until companies give up on it. Or drop the cost of the content to something more in line with a rental--which is essentially what you're getting if you buy a comic but don't have any ownership of a file.

So for now I see a period of stagnation while these companies get over their initial excitement and then start thinking about how to refine things for larger and larger audiences.

Which in the short term gives better comics shops the chance to shore up their business models so they're not caught sleeping when the tipping point is reached and most comics are digital or in true book form, as opposed to monthly pamphlets that so many shops depend on for their “nut.”

Nrama: Conversely, you've done hard copies of Diary Comics -- do you feel a hard-copy volume is a necessary (or at least desirable) end-product of a creation originally posted online, or that there are things you can do online that you necessarily do in print?

Harbin: I don't at all think it's a necessary end-product--but at my level, my book has given me some revenue and a great reason to press the flesh at conventions. Many thanks as always to my publisher Anne Koyama of Koyama Press--a better lady you could not hope to meet.

Nrama: OK, you've organized a fair number of cons and have a solid network of creators. I consider you “in the know,” even if you don't. So on that note -- what are some of your favorite current comics, reprints and new creators, online and off? 

another more recent strip

A lot of my favorite creators lately are people I discovered through Twitter, including Anthony Clark, Phil McAndrew, and Sarah Glidden.

Anthony and Sarah are fairly well-known, but Phil is still comparatively new on the scene, and for my money is one of the most unique people doing comics right now, his stuff has just enough old school in it, but is super fun--highly recommended.

Nrama: How do you feel doing the daily diary comic has helped you evolve as a storyteller, both as a writer and an artist?

Harbin: Oh, it's been huge. I'm not really proud of my diary comics, but you just can't fade a year's worth of practice doing anything. Recently I've been doing “real” comics again, working at a decent size (my diary originals are about 4 inches wide) and it's like I've been running with weights all year.

The big lessons have been 1) draw as simply as possible, 2) stop crosshatching all the time, and 3) use less words. Words are the great, great enemy of comics.

Nrama: What would you like to have accomplished a year from now?

Harbin: I'd like to be most of the way toward having a book-length project in the works. I'd also like to be paying more of my bills through comics, as opposed to illustration, lettering, etc.

Nrama: What's next for you?

Harbin: Fame, Zack. Fame and fortune. Fortune and glory. Glory and hosanna. All hail the Dharbin.

Check out Harbin’s work at www.dharbin.com. And tune in tomorrow for a trip to the world of Nedroid with Anthony Clark! Then, James Anderson introduces you to Ellie on Planet X! Only here on Newsarama!

And check out our previous Wide World of Webcomics entries at this all-new Topic Page!

Visit Newsarama on FACEBOOK and TWITTER and tell us what you think!

Twitter activity