PITTSBURGH—For more than 13 years—325 Tire Business issues to be exact—artist Dave Harbaugh has helped readers find humor in the typical day-to-day operations of an independent tire and automotive service business. Mr. Harbaugh draws the cartoon seen on TB's editorial page each issue. His work—distinctive for its economy of detail and the expressiveness of its cartoon characters—also has appeared in such widely read consumer publications as the Wall Street Journal, Saturday Evening Post, Field & Stream, Sports Afield and Better Homes & Gardens.
In addition to TB, his cartoons have been seen in a variety of other trade publications serving readers in medical and other fields.
Mr. Harbaugh, whose work first appeared in TB's July 21, 1986, issue, operates a small art studio in the home he shares with his wife, Joanne, in the Pittsburgh suburb of North Hills. The couple has three grown children and two grandchildren.
Recently turned 70, he's parlayed a lifelong interest in cartooning into ``nearly a full-time vocation'' since retiring five years ago from a career designing custom trade show exhibits and business display materials.
A native of the ``Iron City,'' he was employed 42 years by GRS&W, a Pittsburgh-based design firm that since has become part of the British-owned Giltspur Exhibit Group. Examples of his work as a designer have been displayed in the lobby of Goodyear's Akron headquarters.
During those years, Mr. Harbaugh never lost his love for cartooning, giving up nights and weekends to pursue it as an avocation.
While his formal art training consisted of a year's study in design at Pittsburgh's Carnegie Mellon University following graduation from Thiel College in Greenville, Pa., cartooning has always been a big part of his life, he said.
``One thing I really enjoyed as a child was making people laugh,'' he told TB. ``We'd have family gatherings and I'd try to draw a cartoon about the people in it. If it got a laugh, nothing would please me more. I loved seeing people enjoying themselves and having fun... I think that's what motivates me still.''
The soft-spoken, conservatively dressed cartoonist develops all his own cartoon ideas—sometimes while waiting for his car to be serviced. He views the tire and automotive service business as ``ripe for humor.''
The interaction between the dealer and customer makes for ``a lot of human pathos and emotion,'' Mr. Harbaugh said with a chuckle. ``It's a wonderful place to poke fun—and I hope nobody objects to it.''
Apparently, only once within memory has one of his cartoons touched a raw nerve with TB's readership. A number of years ago, an irate dealer fired off a letter to the editor complaining the tire dealer portrayed in one of Mr. Harbaugh's cartoons had a ``bad attitude.''
But in the very next issue, another more sympathetic reader rose to the cartoonist's defense, advising the earlier letter writer to ``chill out—it's only a cartoon.'' Independent tire dealers, he added, have more important things to be concerned about.
``People can get so serious and they forget to laugh,'' Mr. Harbaugh said. In fact, widespread concern these days over the possibility someone may take unintended offense ``narrows the arena for humor,'' he said, Gone are the once-common jokes involving women drivers, mothers-in-law and homeless people on park benches.
Many general circulation publications, he said, have become so afraid of offending and the possibility of being sued they shun cartoons containing even a hint of controversy. ``There are cartoons that I sit down to draw that I don't finish simply because I realize they're stepping on somebody's toes.''
For that reason, the cartoonist is ``more comfortable'' drawing for trade publications like TB because there are fewer topics to avoid, he said, adding that he has never wanted to do serial-type comic strips like those seen in many daily newspapers. "I'd get bored drawing the same character day after day, although I probably would be a lot richer if I did.''
Mr. Harbaugh's studio, striking in its pictureless white walls, spotless desk and table surfaces devoid of paper or clutter, reflect the cartoonist's disdain for unnecessary detail, such as shading in his drawings.
``I try to create (the illusion of) volume with lines and without having to shade anything,'' he said, explaining his drawing style.
``It's in my nature. I can't stand clutter for one thing. Other artists do a lot more stylistically with each cartoon. But I couldn't draw for the number of publications I do, if I had a more complex style. Strictly from a practical side, it works.''