Tom Spurgeon's Web site of comics news, reviews, interviews and commentary

June 24, 2009

CR Newsmaker Interview: Dustin Harbin


I wasn't able to attend the comics show HeroesCon this year. Since CR lacks the resources to run a lot of panel coverage and the publishing news that comes out of such programming, I asked Dustin Harbin if he would answer a few questions about this year's event. That way I could focus on HeroesCon as an event on the calendar and its own unique arc these last years as it's developed a national reputation as a regional show done right. Happily, the longtime Heroes employee and cartoonist agreed t speak to me. -- Tom Spurgeon

imageTOM SPURGEON: Can you describe as explicitly as possible how much work you do to help put on the show? What's the general division of labor like between you guys? Are you specifically in charge of anything as compared to what other people might do? When does it really gear up -- six weeks out? Four weeks out?

DUSTIN HARBIN: You'll get me hung in effigy if I leave out the massive effort the entire staff puts on for the show, before, during, and after. Maybe I'm still in the afterglow of how awesome our staff is, but wow, super awesome. Okay but in advance of the show a lot of the work is done by me and Shelton Drum, the show's owner and founder and my boss.

Shelton does all the stuff that involves the checkbook, the decorators, hotel contracts, dealing with a convention center that hates us, et cetera. Not to mention raising all the insane amounts of money it takes to put the show on, etc. I'm sure I'm leaving something out, but I've been outside trying to get my truck to start and I failed and I'm grumpy so shut your mouth.

I do most of the wrangling of pros, a metric ton of e-mailing, all the design work, site maintenance, program book, etc. Everything you see on our web site or in any print document associated with the show is hand-keyed by me, with the exception of our New Releases page which our store manager Shawn Reynolds handles. Also the marketing and press release writing. Oh and a lot of the show running on-site, putting out fires and trying to gingerly handle the many many many complaints people have about where they were seated and why this or that is an affront to their dignity and/or place in the industry.

But I really need to stress here: it is easier for me to enumerate what I do because I just did it, but it makes it sound like I do more than Shelton does -- that guy is a monster and a workhorse and works me under the table every year despite his advanced age of 54. We start way early but about two months out are spending most of our time on it, and about a month out the late nights and weekends start.

SPURGEON: What can you tell us about this year's attendance figures and general financial picture? Did you have as many exhibitors as last year? As many attendees? Did the general economic fortunes of the area impinge on the show at all? How did the art sale do?

HARBIN: I think last year we estimated our numbers at between 10,000 and 12,000 through the weekend. We don't have the complete numbers back yet, and even then they're never complete -- there are the hundreds of pros and dealers and guests and press and all that to think about, and we give away a lot of passes throughout the year. Shelton thinks we were about even with last year, which was a pretty good year attendance-wise. It's hard for me to estimate, as last year we were in an 80,000 square foot hall and this year moved to a 100,000 square foot hall. I thought Friday was down, but dealers seemed pleased with the traffic and if there was anyone who would complain about numbers it's the dealers.

Saturday seemed much more robust to me, although I think Sunday traffic was down from last year. I heard a lot of reports of people doing crazy good sales on Friday, from dealers to pros to small press, but I know some people didn't do as good. I just read Liz Baillie's con report and it sounded like she didn't do as well as last year.

We had the same or better exhibitors this year, and about twenty percent more small press tables sold, despite price hikes on both booths and tables. Knock on wood, but little evidence of a down economy at this year's show, however cheeky that may be to say.

SPURGEON: Am I correct in my assumption that you scaled back a bit from 2008's ambitious art-comics presence? Can you talk about your devotion to having folks from that arena of comics at the show, what your plans are for the next few years?

HARBIN: Well, I didn't purposefully scale back Indie Island, but after last year I was pretty demoralized and I just didn't put the same energy into it to be perfectly frank. Last year was like a dream for me, so many amazing people I'm a huge fan of in my hometown, by far the best perk -- I mean, I got Sammy Harkham and Kevin Huizenga and Jaime Hernandez plus about 50 other amazing guys out to a basically mainstream show! So it stung a lot when a lot of those guys had disappointing sales, although I can't really blame them for being honest about it. I may have overreached last year, maybe? Who knows -- Shelton is really cool to just let me kind of do my thing with Indie Island, even though it's his money, so this year I was a little gunshy about throwing a lot of bread at it.

Having said that, having Jeff Smith and Jason Lutes surrounded by guys like Alec Longstreth and Roger Langridge and Guy Davis is still pretty amazing, you know? Roger told me he did way way better than last year -- our show is maybe a little singular in that a lot of the attendees come every year and are repeat buyers for repeat guests. I know Alec told me he saw a lot of return business this year, although I'm not sure how successful his overall show was.

Next year I am planning on returning to the optimistic if-you-build-it-they-will-come model. There's a pretty good chance Fantagraphics is coming, although I don't want to announce it until we have dates locked in, because unannouncing stuff is strictly for the birds. I will be knocking on a lot of doors in the fall and winter, both on the Indie Island and mainstream fronts.

It's not so much that I'm devoted to the idea of an Indie Island, although I think it lends the show something that it was lacking. It's more that I just really like indie comics and the people I invite are like a who's who of the people I love in that world. It's very selfish, but I think ultimately it will be a jewel in our crown.

SPURGEON: You guys have been awash in good feelings over the last couple of years. Has that shaped your attitude towards the show at all. Does anything about the goodwill shown the show translate in real terms to how the show comes off?

HARBIN: Hm. My feelings about the show are hard to pin down just now, with my throat still hoarse and my legs still rubbery. Shelton and I pull a month's worth of late nights in the month before the show, and it can get you down sometimes. But I will say that reading all the complimentary con reports is a real pick-me-up -- it's nice to feel like you really busted your hump for something and it worked, you know? I think maybe that's why I hated the post-show so much last year, when some of the new indie guys were surprised they didn't sell more their first show. I can be pretty petty, I guess.

In terms of goodwill translating to the actual functioning of the show though: definitely, and specifically the goodwill of our guests. They're pretty much the best -- I think we had upwards of 100 pieces of art donated by guests for our Art Auction, the proceeds of which go straight to our hospitality costs. In a lot of cases, this was big name painter guys doing original paintings onstage -- Frank Cho, Stephane Roux, Brian Stelfreeze, Eric Canete, Mark Brooks -- all these guys did full color work that brought thousands of dollars in, all out of the goodness of their hearts. So humbling. And I really think that vibe is the core of the larger "friendly" vibe we have -- fans pick up that the pros are having a great time, and the feeling just multiplies I guess. That sounds pretty silly I guess, but I think it's true.


SPURGEON: I'm counting on you to come up with something specific, but what distinguished this year's show from the past few? I'm not getting anything specific from the reports I've read. Was it really just another year?

HARBIN: This makes me look bad, but the show was just not planned as well this year as last year. Last year was so smooth it was crazy. This year I misprinted a ton of small press seating locations in the program book and spent the first 6 hours of the show rearranging my own painstakingly planned diagram on the fly. Most people were pretty patient about it, but some people were shooting me dirty looks all weekend.

Like I say, we have a good staff, and we're all pretty good at handling complaints and putting out fires, but I wish I could blame some of those fires on other people, which is my preference. Other than screw-ups, the big standout this year for me was the Art Auction, which earned 20% more than last year, due mainly to the excellent auctioneering of Allison Sohn. I was originally going to do it, but Allison agreed to help, and by about 1/3 of the way through I'd been booed offstage in favor of her. She's super amazing at auctioneering, and I super-hate auctioneering, so this was definitely a don't-throw-me-in-the-briar-patch kinda problem, you know? Shelton had foolishly given me a ton of drink tickets to hand out to pros too, so the briar patch was well lubricated on Saturday night.

Oh, and Jeff Smith -- can Jeff Smith count as something distinguished? I hung out a ton with Jeff and Steve Hamaker, and it's hard to imagine two cooler people to hang out with, especially if Alec Longstreth is nearby, saving you the trouble of imagining him.

SPURGEON: This is one of the first shows since the comics community's embrace of Twitter reached a tipping point: was there any discernible change in the show because of the prevalence of that technology?

HARBIN: I don't think Twitter changed the way the show was run, per se; for instance, I wasn't informing people of seating changes via tweets or anything. But I do think it expanded our network a lot, both for fans and pros a lot -- when I would post new changes to the guest list I would see them re-tweeted a lot, which was encouraging. Most of all Twitter provided me a platform to namedrop for four days and bemoan the fact that I'd forgotten to pack any socks. Thanks, social media!

SPURGEON: Are there already plans for next year, things that you know you have to do or want to do to have another one of these?

HARBIN: The big thing each year is "next year we'll start earlier," ostensibly to cut down on the number of things you find yourself doing at 4 in the morning 2 days before the show. Right now we're concentrating on locking down dates. We almost never have not had dates to announce at the show, and it basically sucks to not have that done, but the convention center is not easy to work with and the dates they have offered us aren't great. We're working all that out now -- Shelton is a good talker and can usually get stuff done, and we want to have dates that make sense and don't coincide with something else, whether it's another show or a local event (this is a Nascar town, so anything scheduled near a race weekend guarantees every hotel room in the city will be booked).

As far as improvements go, I'd like to do a better job of getting the word out locally -- I really think there is a large untapped potential fanbase around here for us, but things get so hectic close to the show that I just can't find the time to go out and beat the bushes, you know? Again, the earlier we start the more things we can do, and better.


SPURGEON: You've seemed to have really deepened your devotion to your own cartooning -- how is that going? What's the end result there for you, ideally?

HARBIN: This is easily the best psychological perk for me about the show. Hanging out with cartoonists, especially guys like Jeff Smith and Joe Lambert and Alec and Guy Davis just gets me excited about making comics, you know? Especially Joe -- that dude is so amazing, and makes it look so easy, and is so prolific. And Guy Davis is so complimentary you walk away from his table thinking you're Alex Toth or something. So yeah, I've got a lot of plans for SPX in the fall.

The end result for me in my own cartooning is to eventually be a "real" cartoonist, doing it full-time, working on books, long stories, even MORE fart humor than I am already capable of packing into a week. I have been doing my weekly strip since December, and while only some of them are any good, they all have been monstrously educational, and are great practice while I get ready to start more serious work. And then some seriously complaining about how solitary and lonely being a full-time cartoonist is. That's when I'll know it's for real.

In the meantime, I'm still new enough that I'm learning all the time. I'm fortunate in that I have some very good friends who are also fabulous cartoonists and have been generous with their own knowledge. While I prefer to keep my day job and my cartooning separate -- most people at the show have no idea I even draw, and I like that -- the show has provided me access to a pretty amazing group of cartoonists over the years.

SPURGEON: Where do you see HeroesCon five years from now? Are you still a part of it?

HARBIN: I think we're nearing a terminal size -- the show kind of depends on Shelton being at its center; he's been a figure in comics since pretty much the start of the direct market, and a lot of the pros are old old friends of his. If we grow too much more we'll lose some of what makes us special and just turn into a big concrete room full of people and money. Having said that, I think we could grow a teensie bit more in the next few years and get a little more frugal with our budget, and the show would actually be a perennial moneymaker for us.

As for my place, this HeroesCon was my 14th; I was hired back in '96 as a clerk at Heroes Aren't Hard To Find, the shop that organizes the show. I was 21 years old! I guess I'd like to say that I hope I'm on the other side of the table in five years, y'know? But there are worse things than working for a great comics shop and organizing a well-loved comics convention. And Shelton lets me do things my way most of the time, which is a rare trait in a boss (I hear, I've only worked a couple of other places as an adult). I suspect that HeroesCon will be a part of my life in some way for good or ill for awhile, yeah.

SPURGEON: how would you describe Heroes as a profit-generator? I've always heard that you guys did okay but maybe weren't all that aggressive when it came to maximizing profit.

HARBIN: Hm. I would say that we aggressively want to turn a profit, but are aggressively bad at it. It's how we run our shop, too -- Shelton will 10 times out of 10 err on the side of having a book if he thinks a customer will want it. Ditto for the convention -- if there's something Shelton thinks we should do, he will do it regardless of the cost. We print our own custom badges, print fancy incentive prints to just straight-up give away to everyone who buys a ticket, then print fancy huge 7' x 15' banner to hang all over the place like college basketball pennants of those prints.

Since I've only ever worked for one convention before, I didn't realize until just a few years ago that other big shows charge most of their guests for table space. I was like "whaaat?" I maybe shouldn't be saying this, but I think it's pretty cool of Shelton -- while we definitely sell a lot of table space, we don't charge any of our invited guests for tables. It can lead to some bruised egos from people who think they're on the wrong list, but I think it's part of the vibe among the pros that we're not just bleeding them dry.

In a good year we do a little better than break even, and this was a good year. We have definitely lost money some years, even years with great attendance -- sometimes the stars just don't line up, and you have to take your lumps. On the other hand, we don't carry big stacks of books around in Artists Alley to get signed by everybody so we can eBay them, we don't encourage people to charge for autographs, we don't invite a bunch of TV actors to draw that crowd, we just don't make money the focal point of the show. Whether or not this is sound business policy is hard to say, but I think it's part of the vibe. We don't invite anyone we don't like, either, you know?

I think you had it pegged in your very kind pre-HeroesCon post, in that the absence of money as a prime motivating factor had a kind of calming effect, although I bet I'm misremembering that.


photos used with permission of Mr. Harbin



posted 1:20 am PST | Permalink

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