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Charlotte cartoonist lives life one panel at a time

A couple of years ago, Dustin Harbin started keeping a diary – a comics diary. Five days a week, in an effort to develop his craft, he drew at least one sketch depicting some aspect of his day.

He made a cartoon about trying to revive a cat-damaged houseplant and sketched himself watching “Boston Legal” while sprawled on his sofa. One day, he documented the presence of a big booger in his left nostril.

He drew himself getting broken front teeth replaced at the dentist, reading R. Crumb while eating oatmeal and tucking himself into bed under new flannel sheets. He depicted himself hanging out among patrons at Amelie’s Bakery with the caption, “Tea makes old ladies talk super loud.”

He sketched cartoons about chewing with his new teeth, fighting depression, buying milk at Target, drawing, tweeting, cleaning his toilet and scanning his diary comics onto his computer so he could upload them to his website.

This was all during the first few weeks.

Day after day, one frame at time, Harbin, 37, who lives in Charlotte, revealed something about his life. In the process, his drawings evolved from rough to sophisticated.

Today, more than 1,000 panels later, Toronto-based Koyama Press has published two volumes of Harbin’s “Diary Comics.” The third and final one comes out in May.

Harbin doesn’t claim these cartoons are significant. In fact, he does the opposite.

These are “the lowest form of comics, probably,” he says in “Diary Comics #2.” “You don’t really have to think up a story, and your only real challenge is to try and figure out some way to make your dumb life look halfway interesting.”

But like any good memoir, these comics add up to more than diary entries, more than Harbin’s daily struggle to make it as cartoonist.

Taken together, there’s something fascinating – and universal – about the details that make up Dustin Harbin’s dumb life.

The artist as young shoplifter

Harbin got into cartooning on the retail floor. When he was 20, Charlotte’s Heroes Aren’t Hard to Find comics store hired him as a clerk.

Until then, he’d been a precocious but underachieving kid whose past included candy shoplifting at age 8. For details, check out his comic, “True Story: The Young Shoplifter.”

Here’s the punch line: Even after being busted and facing a furious mother (“I have NEVER been so embarrassed Dustin Harbin and on the way to CHURCH on top of all that ”), he managed to keep one pocketful of sweets.

“I was a great shoplifter,” he says wistfully. “I miss it sometimes.”

As he got older, he grew into an amiable juvenile delinquent. At Union County’s Parkwood High School, he took up smoking, stopped doing homework, ran away, hopped on freight trains. He befriended, as the saying goes, the wrong crowd.

He never got around to graduating from high school.

But Harbin turned out to be one of those kids who just needed to grow up. Heroes, on Seventh Street, has always attracted employees with artists’ souls. One, Chris Hannibal, became a big-time magician. Another, Matt Fraction, is one of Marvel Comics’ top writers. In that store, Harbin found his niche.

He eventually became creative director and helped oversee the store’s annual comics convention, which attracts thousands of fans each summer. In the process, he got to hang out with world-famous cartoonists and comic-book writers. He listened. He asked questions. And he sketched, signing his creations “dharbin,” a nickname he acquired as a teenager.

“That comics shop,” he says, “was like college.”

Finally, a few years ago, he decided to get serious. He launched the daily diary comics in January 2010. Six months later, he stopped working at Heroes to be a full-time cartoonist.

Cartoonist for hire

Harbin reveals much through his art, but he also exaggerates. In real life, his beard isn’t as scraggly as it is on his cartoon persona. And his ears don’t stick out nearly that much.

The cartoon glasses, though, are pretty accurate. They look like specs your grandfather wore. He’s almost as skinny as his cartoon self, despite regular weight-lifting, illustrated in cartoons with sweat flecks flying off his body.

Also accurate is the way he depicts himself as broke or behind on rent. In one strip, he faints (“Plop!”) when he sees what he owes on a medical bill.

He’s getting by, but barely. Some freelancing jobs produce regular checks. He has taught cartooning classes. But mostly, Harbin earns his income one sketch, one print, one mini-comic at a time.

When he is cash-strapped, he announces to more than 3,000 Twitter followers that he’s having a sale on prints to pay rent.

“It’s demoralizing,” he says, “but it’s easier than pussy-footing around.”

Harbin also markets himself as cartoonist-for-hire. He has designed tattoos, a beer label and a wedding invitation. And he takes customer requests – one hour of drawing for $40. This has resulted in creations both wonderful and bizarre, including a creature that’s a cross between Wolverine and Phantom of the Opera.

Artisanal comics

If you keep up with publishing trends, you know self-publishing is booming. Harbin self-publishes, too, but unlike authors who rely on self-publishing companies, he literally makes books himself.

He prints the pages and cover on his printers, then staples and trims the edges with a guillotine paper cutter. The results look professional – the literary equivalent of artisanal chocolate or handmade jewelry. You’d never guess they were created on some guy’s laser jet.

Like many cartoonists, Harbin also displays his work on his website. His hope is that once you see it, you’ll want to buy. That’s what happened at the Toronto Comics Arts Festival in 2010, when Anne Koyama, owner of Koyama Press, discovered Harbin.

Impressed by his drawing, writing and self-deprecating humor, she bought one of everything. “I just fell in love with him and his work,” she says.

At the time, Harbin didn’t know Koyama published comics. “I thought, ‘This is an extravagant lady. Canadians are so nice.’ ”

Later, she offered to publish his diary comics. “I would not be a full-time cartoonist,” he says, “if not for her.”

A reliable narrator

In December 2010, a year after launching the diary comics, Harbin drew a series of strips announcing the end of his endeavor.

Illustrated with sketches of himself – including one mind-bending frame that shows him drawing a cartoon of himself sketching at his drawing board – he wrote that the five-day-a-week cartoon “has been a valuable stepping stone,” but it had become “of only intermittent value.”

Anne Koyama hated to see the daily comics end. “Each book sells more. I get stores asking, ‘Do you have ‘Diary Comics’?”

But she understands his reasons. They were an exercise. They served their purpose. “I’m a thousand times better at drawing today,” Harbin says, “than I was two years ago.”

He’s now at work on new projects, including a kids’ comic to be published by Koyama Press this fall.

He’s also launching a longer work, a memoir. “The Reliable Narrator” will be told from the point of view of a young Dustin, but adult Dustin will step into the frames to critique his younger self’s recollections.

“The Reliable Narrator” will be longer, more fully conceived than previous works. He plans to serialize it on his website, then sell print copies. Eventually – maybe – he’ll seek a publisher.

For diehard diary comics fans, the good news is that Harbin still occasionally posts one.

In a recent one, he’s walking his dog when he encounters a neighbor. They strike up a conversation about the unseasonable weather. Harbin attributes it to global warming. By the look on the neighbor’s face, we see that our hero has unwittingly stepped into a political minefield.

A couple of frames later, his neighbor, who knows better than to talk politics with neighbors, has changed the subject: “Hey, look at those flowers.” And then, “Zoom,” he’s trotting away, down the sidewalk: “Gottagohaveagoodmorning!”

Confrontation avoided. Another day in dharbinworld. Everyday life, delivered in eight tidy panels.