Diary Comics #1, by Dustin Harbin. Koyama Press.
It's always fun to watch a talented cartoonist take up one of comics' familiar forms and lend their own particular inspiration to it. We live in an era where a vast majority of the comics that matter are leaving the old formats and formulas behind -- the internet replaces the page, the annual hardcover replaces the monthly pamphlet, the original graphic novel replaces the story arc -- and while it may be a specifically inside-comics thrill when a new stab at the old ways pops up, the thrill is there nevertheless. Right now we've got Kyle Baker riding hard on the warhorse of serial superhero issues, Smoke Signal kicking out inoculation dosages of Sunday paper-style broadsheets by the medium's greats every few months... and Dustin Harbin (among others) knocking out a daily comic strip with all the tenacity and consistent brilliance of a master newspaper cartoonist. You pick the era.
While daily updates have become such a part of internet culture that it's easy to take them for granted, even when it's a comic every single day, and a generally excellent one at that, there's a tangible sense that Harbin is on an epic streak to be gotten from reading his autobiographical four-panel shorts online every day. The consistency I mentioned is a big part of that -- like with any comic built out of such small individuated units there's a variance of quality between each strip, but the benchmark Harbin has set for himself is strikingly high. Though they don't always make me laugh out loud or keep returning to them in my thoughts throughout the day, that happens a lot. And honestly, the slight differences in the amount of gratification the strips deliver each day is one of the peculiar joys of the format Harbin has jacked himself into. While there's certainly something to be said for putting forth an Ernie Bushmiller level of stoic, perfectly unchanging brilliance, it's a lot more fun to follow a strip that has its good days and its really good days. Nothing less than an element of hope comes into it -- will Harbin merely kill it today, or will he come forward with another strip exploring little corners of the comics form that have so far remained unlighted? Gotta read to find out!
But as enjoyable as following Harbin's bite-sized bursts of brilliance can be from day to day, they're trumped as a total reading experience by Koyama Press's slick pamphlet-form compendiums. Harbin's energetic, tiny panels thrive on the printed page, the dense thickets of linework spread out over them opened up for the eye to enter and rove around in without fear of computer screen-induced blindness. The tight, symmetrical clusters of the individual strips' layouts -- two panels on top, two on the bottom -- gets a neat mirror in the formatting of the comics' full pages -- four comics per, two down and two across. And of course, the reader can really stretch out into Harbin's work across 48 pages in a way the tiny flashes of daily strips can't possibly compete with. Collected dailies are an interesting reading experience that don't really have a parallel outside comics, a long-form presentation of short-form work, leaning more heavily on the power of accretion than anything else. Reading a hundred and ninety complete works laid end to end sounds daunting, and in a way it is. By the end of a Diary Comics issue, you've lived with Harbin (and his dogs, and his cat, and his TV preferences, and his furniture, and his friends, and his daily routine) for half a year. But on the page as in reality, the passage of time is so imperceptible, such a charming and agreeable feeling, that it's the easiest thing in the world to rush through the months and watch the orbit of Harbin's life subtly evolving over longer periods of time.
The sense of process, of participating in a work that is not and may never be truly finished, is an especially key component of Diary's first issue. The book begins with early strips drawn as personal, not-for-print exercises, before moving into the material drawn explicitly for Harbin's webcomic. It's fascinating to watch the strips shape themselves up from sketches into their caffeinated, stylized mature form over the first few months. If you've ever read the first volume of a newspaper comic you've seen the odd, engrossing spectacle of an artist whittling down the forms of their world until they hit the purity of form that underpins what they're doing; but Harbin starts his diary completely free, the art lacking any of the polish that publication demands. The progression from scratchy, minimal early strips to the tightly regimented bustle of the later ones is as appealing as the anecdotal, often hilarious stories powering them. There's refinements being made in almost every strip of Diary #1, certainly on every page, though Harbin never loses the spontaneity of his line or the stretchy looseness of his figures. The manic zest of his strips acts as a center point, everything tightening up around it, anchoring it to a cartooned world that brings its pop and hilarity into ever sharper focus. Harbin also makes big steps as a gag writer on these pages, moving from the random laughs peppering the early strips to a focused rhythm in the later ones, every panel a well-considered snapshot leading up to punchlines that are sometimes understated and sometimes wildly overdone, but almost always effective.
Though the daily comic strip is Harbin's big place of engagement with a lineage of previous comics artists, there are also some very interesting things being done with the mechanism of autobiographical comics in Diary. While autobio is obviously less specific to comics than the daily gag format, it's still got a long history with the medium, marked by certain tropes that have become prevalent enough to qualify as stereotypes. The depressed cartoonist, his misanthropy, his women troubles, the particulars of his engagement with pop culture (or lack thereof) -- at this point these are all archetypal constructs, and Harbin is deeply aware of what his work is doing in relation to them. Though clouds of hatchmarked depression close in on him from time to time, Harbin always beats them back, seemingly as much because he knows his audience is sick of glum, moody autobio comics as anything else. He isn't above making fun of Flavor Flav, but he's never the snooty alt-cartoonist in his interactions with media, either; Lost figures prominently in quite a few strips, and everything from the Neverending Story to Twitter get time in the spotlight. More than playing off expectations, though, Harbin innovates some fascinating new language for autobio comics, detailing conversations with friends about how he should draw them, and creating strange, hilarious meta-gags like the one above.
It's obvious Harbin knows exactly what he's doing with every element of his comic, and he only continues to improve as he puts that knowledge to better and better use. Diary is every inch a worthy entry in the index of each form Harbin uses it to engage with -- a riotously funny gag strip, an addictive webcomic, an autobio work that subverts expectations while building the same engrossing, self-perpetuating arc around itself that all the best work in that genre does. Highly entertaining work from a tireless cartoonist whose best is clearly yet to come. Until the next strip, then...