guttergeek formerly discontinuous review of graphic narrative; now just discontinuous

A Comics Reader's Diary 10/30/16: Dustin Harbin's DIARY COMICS

I love diary comics. I have read all the strangely angry diatribes out there about how diary comics are 'self-indulgent,' 'narcissistic,' and/or 'boring' (as if there's anything more self-indulgent, narcissistic and boring than a blogger ranting about diary comics). For me, they are fascinating reading. Maybe part of it is that I meet so few people these day—being a 50-year introvert married to someone even more introverted than myself doesn't make me a busy butterfly on the social scene, and health issues make social planning a game of russian roulette in which I more often lose new friends than make them by having to cancel at the last second. So, diary comics are my window into the lives of others. I read their lives, or what they choose to share of them within the constraints of the comics form and the often-gruelling disciplines of the diary routine, and if I am lucky, I eventually get to "meet" them at a comics festival ("will you sign my book, Ms. Diary Cartoonist?"), keeping to myself the fact of our 'friendship.'

Actually, that sounds pretty creepy when I write it all down like that. Pretend you didn't read that, and let's start over, shall we? {Cough}

All of this is to introduce a new 'feature' in this on-again/off-again review site, in which I try out for myself the daily disciplines of diary comics, albeit in my case not making comics but briefly sharing my thoughts on the comics I have read each day. As my memory starts its long process of flickering out to blank, this will help me remember what I read before I am half way through it ("gosh, this seems familiar: where have I read something like this before?"), and allow me to share some impressions to compensate in a small measure for no longer regularly reviewing comics.


I somehow missed Dustin Harbin's Diary Comics when Koyama Press published it, so it was an unexpected treat to get to catch up with it a year later. Harbin's diary comics are some of the most gentle, generous and understated in the genre. This volume selects from a series of mini comics Harbin compiled from 2010-12, a period in which he was struggling with depression, beginning and ending and restarting a relationship, and struggling with the daily pressures of life as an artist: deadlines, self-doubt, conventions, and money challenges. And yet despite all of this raw material, Harbin never shares more than he is comfortable with, and never more than we need to know. Even when his relationship ends, we are not privy to the reasons why: it is a private matter and not for this public diary. The same is true of the depression clouds that hover always at the back of the panel: their root cause, even the precise triggers that sets them free, are not matters for discussion.

But Harbin's restraint—both in his art and his text—does not have the effect of keeping the reader at arm's length. Quite the opposite: the lack of specifics in these cases functions as an openness that allows the reader to see their own life in the details not filled in, making the whole more, not less, personal and social. Against the stereotype of the confessional diary cartoonist exposing their every wart and hangnail (which is true of almost no diary comics I can think of, despite jeremiads to the contrary) Harbin knows that there are limits to what we can or should know about another. That is after all what keeps us coming back to learn more about each other—the hope that in testing the limits of what we can know about another person we might begin to push the limits of what we can hope to learn about ourselves.

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