Befriending Monsters and Scaring Humans—Interview with Rob Harrell

GameStop, Inc.

Whitney Graceby Whitney Grace
Staff Writer
[email protected]

I have been stuck in a rut lately. It’s not the mental kind where you can’t get out of bed or knock down writer’s block. I mean, literally in a rut, face down, curled into a tiny ball. How did it happen? I asked myself for the entire week I was in the rut, surviving off rainwater and earthworms. I blame it on Rob Harrell, since I had been heading to his lair on a hill equipped with a circus and free Wi-Fi. When I didn’t show up for our scheduled rendezvous, Rob sent his roommate Rayburn, star of his new graphic novel Monster on a Hill, to find and dig me out. After a warm meal and spot of tea, I finally got to chat with Rob about comics, his career, and his new book.

Rob HarrellWhitney Grace (WG): Tell us about yourself and how you got into comics?

Rob Harrell (RH): I always wanted to be a cartoonist, but it was kind of a winding road getting here. When I got out of school, I started as a freelance illustrator. I did that for years, largely for ad agencies and design firms. I also did some fine art at the time. But in 2002, Universal Press Syndicate picked up my comic strip Big Top. I wrote and drew Big Top from 2002-2007. In 2009, I was asked to handle the artwork on the long-running strip Adam@Home. Eventually, I took over the writing of that strip as well. In the meantime, I was working on several other projects, including my graphic novel, Monster on the Hill, which came out in August of 2013.

WG: You draw two old-fashioned newspapers strips, Adam@Home and Big Top.  What is each strip about?

RH: Well, unfortunately, Big Top had to close its doors in 2007, though you can still catch it in reruns. I loved that strip and the characters so much, so it was tough to end it. I keep thinking about bringing them back somehow. That one was about Pete, an eleven-year old kid growing up in an animal-run circus. He was actually sort of the straight man to an eccentric group that included a former biker bear, a pain-in-the-ass poodle, and a clown that was more like an animal than a traditional clown.

Adam@Home was created back in the eighties by Brian Basset. It was originally called Adam, but the name changed, when it became more about the stay-at-home dad situation. It’s a family strip, so when I moved to it from Big Top, I had to change the way I write a bit. In Big Top, I could send the poodle to Mars in a storyline if I wanted to, but in Adam@Home, I try to keep it a lot more grounded. There are still a lot of ridiculous things you can do within a family-based strip.

WG: How do you approach working on the two strips and what differences are you conscious of when drawing each?

RH: When I was writing Big Top, I didn’t put as many restrictions on myself. If I came up with a really absurd idea, I just did it. In Adam, my thinking is different. Rather than it being about this world where anything goes, I try to find the humor more in the everyday details we all have in common.

As for the artwork, the only real difference is that I maintain some of the identifying characteristics of how Adam has looked over the years. I’ve made some changes, but it’s a great long-running strip, and I definitely want people to know it’s still Adam and his family.

WG: You also dabble in fine art, what medium do you use for your more “serious” work and what subjects do you paint?

RH: I do primarily figurative painting, and I work in oil. I’ve been so busy with other projects that the painting has taken a back seat for now, but I really love it when I get to set some time aside.

WG: You have very diverse art skills and you poured them in your new graphic novel Monster on a Hill.  What is it about?

RH: Monster is about a down in the dumps monster, Rayburn, and his journey to pull himself up from being… stuck. It takes place in a world, where each town has it’s own monster, and they take a lot of pride in how scary their local monster is. So Rayburn’s town has had enough of his moping and sets out to fix him.

With the help of some new friends and old friends, he tries to get his mojo back. And there are some other surprises along the way.

WG: What inspired Monster on a Hill?

RH: Well, not to get TOO maudlin, but I’d been through some rough times myself. Some health problems, and years of dealing with depression. So, while this is by no means a self-help book, I will say that I kind of used the writing of it as a form of therapy. You can pick those threads up in the book, but the story also took on a life of it’s own. At its core, though, you have someone who’s stuck and needs to get unstuck.

WG: Why did you decide to try your hand at a graphic novel?

RH: I love graphic novels! I had fallen in love with the Flight anthologies. While I love doing a daily strip, the idea of writing something in a longer form sounded like so much fun and then there’s the ability to stretch yourself artistically. It was really freeing to sit down and just see what I was capable of. It just felt really good.

WG: How did you come up with the name Rayburn and how did you decide on his final character design?  

RH: While I was in my ‘stuck’ phase, I had a day job where I had time to do a lot of doodling. I found myself drawing a lot of random monsters. It’s just sort of freeing, especially in the middle of long, boring meetings. So, when Rayburn ended up on the page one day, I just felt a kinship with him. As for the name Rayburn, he just kind of looked like a Rayburn to me. Plus there’s the added insult of the word burn being in his name when he can’t even breathe fire.

WG: Many of your gags are reminiscent of Loony Toons, are you a fan of Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, etc.?

RH: Absolutely! I love those cartoons. Chuck Jones is one of my idols. I think all of those things that we love end up getting internalized and inform the way we work.

WG: Why would townspeople want their villages destroyed by monsters?

RH: Well, the town monsters are pretty good at doing mostly superficial damage. It’s only when we meet the Murk, the truly bad guy, that we see a monster who’s in it to cause as much damage and hurt as he can. So I think the townspeople realize fixing up some walls and windows is part of the deal. The attacks bring in a lot of tourism, so they more than pay for themselves.

WG: Did Rayburn and Tentacular attend a formal university or a parochial school?

RH: More of a formal university. Small class sizes, but enormous classrooms.

WG: How does a monster apply for a town to terrorize/protect?

RH: There’s a placement program within the school, but the wait for a spot can be a long one. Usually, towns don’t open up until the current monster suffers an injury or ages out. They can also get into the internship program.

WG: What is up with the Morn?  Is he a monster’s monster or just the embodiment of fear?

RH: You mean the Murk?

WG: Sorry! When I was stuck in the rut I replayed episodes of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine in my head. Anyway, the Murk.

RH: All right. The Murk is sort of a manifestation of fear and all of that murky, dark stuff we all have buried in the deep corners of our psyche. Stuff that isn’t easy to deal with. But he’s definitely real. Not a good guy.

WG: So….smooshrooms and psycho trees?

RH: Yeah. I had a lot of fun here making up the world and its rules. That whole “world-building” thing is one of the best parts.

WG: Your art has a Jeff Smith/Dr. Seuss quality.  When you set out to create the Monster on the Hill world, did you draw inspiration from Smith’s cartoon-iness and Seuss’ ethos?

RH: Again, I love both Jeff Smith and Dr. Seuss, so thank you! I think their influence was hopefully more internalized than intentional. I was also really into Pogo, Bloom County, Charles Addams, etc, and I can see those influences popping up throughout as well.

WG: What happened to Timothy the Town Crier after his adventure?  Will he still live in a crate in an alley?

RH: Hopefully, we’ll find out in another book! But I can assure you that things for him are looking up.

WG: Any plans for a sequel or what other projects are you planning?

RH: I would love to do a sequel, and I have an idea of how the second book would go. It really is a question of when to do it.

At the moment, I’m working on a series of middle-grade books for Dial Books called Life of Zarf. The main character is a troll in a storybook middle-school, and I have had a blast writing and drawing them. The first book, Life of Zarf: The Trouble with Weasels, will be out on September 3, 2014. I can’t wait to see what people think. As with Monster, I try to make them fun and hopefully funny for people of all ages.

WG: Lastly. do you have anything to declare?

RH: Yes. I have two coconuts and a stuffed iguana in my suitcase.


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