Dustin Harbin’s “Boxes” Is Real Talk

September 11th, 2012 Posted by david brothers

Last December, I started a draft for a post. The working title was “guts,” with the loose idea being that I would talk about or around a few different scenes that rip your guts out, emotionally. I went back and forth over it a few times and never came up with anything that I thought particularly worked or had the effect I wanted. But it stayed in the back of my head and I wanted to make it work.

I think I was inspired to do it by Frank Ocean’s “There Will Be Tears,” particularly the first verse:

My grandaddy was a player
Pretty boy in a pair of gators
See I met him later on
Think it was 1991
The only dad I’d ever know
But pretty soon he’d be gone too
Hide my face, hide my face
Can’t let ’em see me crying
‘Cause these boys didn’t have no fathers neither
And they weren’t crying
My friend said, “It wasn’t so bad
You can’t miss what you ain’t had”
Well I can

Which is maybe the roughest moment, emotionally, on Ocean’s Nostalgia,ULTRA.. The album’s full of these little moments of sharp, burning resonance. Some of them are warm, like when Ocean explores what guys do to trick girls into liking them on “Songs for Women.” Others are darker, and the darker ones stand out for me a little more. But they’re harder to describe, to explain why you like them, because that involves talking just a little bit more about yourself than I’d like.

I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know comics artist Dustin Harbin via Twitter over the past… year? Six months? I don’t know. Some amount of time that is shorter than five years and longer than two weeks. He’s a cool and funny dude, so it feels like I’ve known him longer. He’s been doing a strip called Boxes since June, beginning here, and I’ve greatly enjoyed it. Boxes is a lot of things, but the simplest way to put it is that it’s about how we perceive the passage of time — long, drawn out periods of time suddenly flashing to their end point, moments that stretch into infinity — and how we perform our personalities.

(It’s a pretty book, too, of course. Harbin sticks to a neat four-panel grid, two by two, and when he breaks the grid, it’s to great effect. He’s using watercolors on the background, I believe, which gives the comic a cool soft appearance. Harbin’s self-caricature is great, all ears and beard, and while it takes some of the sting out of the emotional content Harbin is writing about, it doesn’t decrease the power of the points he makes at all. It turns his comics musings into a scalpel, instead of a knife. [Maybe that only makes sense in my head, but I sure do mean it.])

Boxes is good. It’s harrowing. He talks about asking questions, instead of volunteering information, and how that’s a sign of (his, but really “our”) introversion and nervousness. He talks about feeling stagnant while his friends proceed apace. He talks about when life makes sense and when it stops making sense, and what we do to cope. He manages to do all of this while tying in physics (astrophysics? I am not a Scientist), Albert Einstein, and what it feels like to be a part of the comics industry.

I read Boxes and I get that weird bad/good feeling that you get from watching movies or reading books that make you cry. It’s sort of like the feeling I associate with horror movies, a “Bad things are about to happen” type of foreboding, but with the benefit of knowing there’s an answer at the end, or if it not an answer, confirmation that you aren’t alone. A creeping/comfortable feeling, maybe, or brutalized/validated.

The bad feelings that you get from the work, the lumps in your throat and identification you feel, hurt, but they also confirm that someone else is feeling what you feel.

Do you remember this bit from Casanova: Avaritia, by Gabriel Ba, Matt Fraction, Cris Peter, and Dustin Harbin? This is what I mean.

I can’t do this stuff. I’ve tried. I recently wrote a piece about not grieving over on my pal David Wolkin’s objects & history & feelings blog. It took a lot out of me, and a different kind of “a lot” than writing about race, which is something else that’s hard to do sometimes. The level of introspection required to not just identify your feelings, but track why you feel that way, come to an answer that doesn’t totally destroy you, and then put all of that in front of other people… that’s tough.

It’s tough because you essentially have to look at yourself and, instead of hiding it like we all do, put exactly what’s wrong with you on display for yourself and others. And that’s terrifying. I always feel like I’m held together with duct tape and spiteful stubbornness, and doing anything that would upset that balance would inevitably lead to my ruin. Isn’t that stupid? But it’s true.

The boxes that Harbin is talking about are what we hide behind. At one point, he says that he’s “trying to be real, to be actual, to be present and engaged… to populate my world with real input, rather than endless projections, status updates, possible tweets, and bullshit.”

And that is true. There are definitely several types of David, from pseudo-scholar 4thletter! to glib and annoying twitter David to whatever personality it is I put forth on tumblr David. They’re all a pose, to an extent. They’re all true, obviously, but they aren’t the True David, right? They’re what I choose to show you, in an attempt to make you like me and feel good about myself.

Boxes is good because Harbin is cutting through all that stuff and trying to be real on the page, as in his real life. So he’s frank and honest about himself and his emotions, and that scares me a little, but it also drew me in. I can relate to what Harbin’s going through and trying to work out. He’s able to do it in a much more public and compact way than I ever could, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t just a tiny bit jealous of that fact.

You should read Boxes. Harbin nails an ending that’s actually usually pretty tough for me to buy, which is awesome. If you can afford it, you should definitely pre-order Diary Comics 4, which includes Boxes and fifty more pages of comics. Diary Comics 4 is debuting at SPX this weekend, and he’ll be shipping out print copies after that.

Pick it up if you’re at the con, if you like comics like the ones I like.

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“number five said it ain’t worth being alive” [casanova: avaritia]

September 21st, 2011 Posted by david brothers

Y’all read Casanova: Avaritia 1 yet? Two bucks online, get on that. Matt Fraction, Gabriel Bá, Cris Peter, Dustin Harbin.

People (meaning people I follow on Twitter, really) thought that this page was real clever and mind-blowing:

(i forget who said that actually, but it was several people and I love all of you)

And it’s cool–the art is fantastic, obviously–but it’s pretty Jim Starlin-y and a little too “Ha ha here’s a cowboy monkey ninja ape kicksplode whoaaaa” for me. It works in context, but it didn’t knock my socks off. You know what did?

We’ll get there. First:

Remember when Bendis said this?

“So, on top of having a cool team and some cool stories to tell, I thought, ‘If I’m going to be the writer of both books, they both should feel very different.’ They shouldn’t just be the bi-weekly Avengers titles. It should be two unique writing styles and the one I’m using for ‘Mighty Avengers’ has new usage of thought balloons and narrative. It has first person and omniscient first person narrative, which I never do. I want to make sure that each character has a unique voice and point of view that gets across to the reader as well as their actions in the story. I’m not using these techniques to be retro or cheeky. I want to try new stuff with more modern [storytelling] techniques.”

CBR, 2006

The result was this (no context, sorry, but drawn by Mark Bagley):

They weren’t thoughts so much as interjections, insults, brief comments, half-thoughts, and things like that. They’re nowhere near as purple as Claremont’s balloons during his heyday, which is my main benchmark for balloons, but they don’t work for me at all. They aren’t thoughts. They’re internal monologues, caption boxes transferred to fuzzy balloons. No one thinks like that. I get what Bendis was trying to do, which was approach real life a little closer, but he got a bit too close and his wings melted. Or something. The point of that metaphor is that it didn’t work, and also Bendis is Kid Icarus.

Okay, this isn’t the part in Casanova that knocked my socks off, but I liked it a lot:

The balloons coming out of their mouths are great, and super creepy, as if the words (which we can’t see because Cass isn’t paying attention) are parasites. It looks evil, yeah? Like something you cough up. But that’s not it, either. It’s panel four, where Cass is looking at Sasa Lisi’s domino mask. In the scene before this one, Sasa tells him that his father is dying of cancer. He rejects her verbal reassurances (I think she was going to say “Cass, it’s going to be okay” and he stops her, saying, “Don’t. …just don’t.”) and they hug.

But here, though, he’s zoned out, he’s gone, and he’s looking down at her mask and the mask is thinking what she represents. “you’re not alone” is heavy, and I like that an inanimate object is what’s thinking it. It feels like when you look at something with a lot of personal history and you sort of flash over what it has been over the years. “I got this from Sarah, the day after she told me she loved me for the first time, and she’s gone now, but I held onto this thing.” Does that make sense? The domino mask isn’t thinking at Cass. He’s thinking about it, and we’re seeing the result.

“you’re not alone”

It’s not enough though. It never is.

It’s stupid to talk about Casanova as if it were “Matt Fraction’s Casanova.” That’s woefully incomplete. It’s Matt Fraction, Gabriel Bá and/or Fabio Moon, Cris Peter, and Dustin Harbin’s Casanova. The whole team goes in. They’re animals, man. Collaborative savages. Look at these pages. Harbin’s letters are especially great in an industry that often seems to under-sell the importance of lettering, but Peter’s colors are dead on, and blah blah blah it looks great. Best looking Marvel comic? Probably.

I’m getting to what knocked my socks off.

Fraction found a way to do thought balloons, though these are technically captions, that actually feels like real life thoughts. They’re raw, unfiltered, and the sort of thing that actually fits in between speech. They’re the voice of the lizard brain, mean and ugly. I love how Harbin (or Peter?) colors the angry thought caption to red. It comes across like a blast of hate, the sort of thought that makes your eyes narrow and your lip curl before you can make it stop. And then the next caption–petulance.

Colored captions: lizard brain. Regular captions: forebrain.

(or, as a commenter points out, it’s actually Cornelius’s caption and I’m slightly wrong.)

This page is so sad. Cass comes off kind of pathetic and lost. Small.

Here it is:

Lotta build-up for a little nothing, yeah? It’s not even a full page. It’s just one panel from early in the book, and it’s been almost entirely stripped of context by me pulling it out from its page and scene. On the page before, a janitor asks, “Was it the cancer? Lotsa folks dyin’ of cancer these days.” Cass’s response: “It’d take something worse than that. I’m afraid.”

Page two of the comic.

This is one of those things that comics can do that movies or books or whatever can’t. That space between the two balloons speaks volumes. Say Cass’s line aloud and you hear “It’d take something worse than that, I’m afraid.” Somber, yes, but the sort of thing you say with a sad smile. A deflection, kind of.

The space changes the tone of the sentences, though. “I’m afraid” is a complete thought. Taken in context, he’s saying that it would take more than cancer to kill him, and he is literally afraid of that fact.

There were a few phrases that echoed through Gula: “What thing can kill me?” and “No one ever dies.” Those are paraphrased, maybe. Cass said “What thing can kill me?” early in the first issue, and it was a bit of mid-fight sass, something to show off and strike a bit of fear into Dokkktor Klockhammer. Panache.

Now that we’re in Avaritia, “What thing can kill me?” has become “What thing can kill me? Because I would like to die.” He’s suicidal, maybe overtly, maybe latently, and he wants out. And he’s afraid of what he has done, what he has to do, and what he’s become. He’s the greatest killer mankind has ever created, and it… chafes, to put it lightly. He’s beyond burned out. He just wants everything to be different, but he doesn’t know how to make that happen.

“What thing can kill me?” has become a plea. All of his swagger has paled in the face of the murder of billions. It’s tough to spit wisecracks when you’ve got the taste of coppery blood in your mouth.

And the… the ease with which Fraction and Harbin slip this in there, and Bá and Peter give us this sad, dejected, and slumped super-sexy super-spy with Xs for eyes (what do dead men have in comics?) knocked me off my feet. Or my socks off. Whatever. It’s panel two of the entire comic, of the entire series, and I instantly got it.

Imagine “What thing can kill me?” echoing off the walls of eternity, warping and shifting until it becomes “Fuck your future. Nothing is sacred. Harm everyone. Save yourself.”

Casanova Quinn went from super cool to broken, and you can see it in that little strip between (“It’d take something worse than that.”) the balloons (“I’m afraid.”).

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