The Daily Cartoonist recently sat down (virtually) with cartoonist Rob Harrell. Rob’s resume includes the much-beloved gone-too-soon syndicated comic “Big Top,” taking over for Brian Bassett on “Adam at Home,” a series of “Zarf” graphic novels from Penguin Random House and a CGI film from Paramount based on his Top Shelf Comix graphic novel “Monster on the Hill.”
Q: Your graphic novel was recently added to Paramount Animation’s slate of feature films. How did this happen?
RH: When the book came out in 2013, ReelFX (the animation company who did the movies “Free Birds” and “Book of Life”) was really interested, and eventually they optioned it. Over the past few years there’s been a lot of work on story and character design. The director, Brad Raymond, was brought on, and he was really excited about the project and had a fun vision of what the movie could be. Then just recently they’ve partnered up with Paramount Pictures and Walden Media, which is really exciting. And Brad Booker, a really good friend from art school is going to be a producer, so it seems like everything just came together in a very cool way.
Q: Are you involved in the development of the story? Script? Art?
RH: Well … a bit. They were really excited about the book, and said they want my input, but I also understand that their job at this point is to make the best movie they can. So, I guess I’ll be involved as much as I can be involved. Is that an answer?
Q: This would be fully CGI right? Did they mention what the budget might be?
RH: Yeah, this will be CGI, and if you look at “Book of Life,” you can see that ReelFX knows how to make a gorgeous animated movie. I’m honestly not sure on the budget.
Q: Did they give you specifics about what they liked about the graphic novel that made them think it would work as a movie? .
RH: They talked about the character of Rayburn a lot – a down on his luck monster who needs some help. And the idea of a monster movie with a heart. I think that was the main appeal. And that’s part of what made writing it fun and a little therapeutic.
Q: Did you deliberately design the “Monster on the Hill” world and write the story as something that could work in Hollywood?
RH: Not really. As I worked on it for all that time, I know I daydreamed here and there, but it was just ‘Hey, wouldn’t that be cool…’ The characters sprung out of some sketching I did during down time on a video job, and then the story and setting grew out of those characters.
Q: Do you have concerns about the story getting away from you when you turn it over to other creatives?
RH: Sure. It’s a little like raising kids and then sending them off to college. I hope I recognize them the next time I see them. I’ve come to terms with the fact that things will change – the story, some characters, etc – but I think ReelFX and Paramount are great people to trust with this. I feel like they have Rayburn’s best interests in mind.
Q: Was the pressure of taking over for Brian Bassett on Adam@Home palpable? Were there death threats?
RH: Ha. No death threats, but some people on the message boards went after me pretty hard. I learned that I’m not great at working in someone else’s style, so I kind of had to adapt while on the clock. It took a little while, but I think I finally landed on something that’s true to both my style and the fantastic strip that Brian created. Or I hope so. It’s a surreal thing, taking over an existing strip. You want it to be personal and drawn from you own experiences and sense of humor, but also honor what came before. I’m really happy with what it’s become. I’m having more and more fun with it, and in my mind that’s what it’s all about.
Q: Let me set the scene and then you fill in the details. It’s December 1985. You’re in an alley in the Dretzka Park neighborhood of Milwaukee and you’ve just seen a man run over by a steamroller.
RH: Answering this would cut a little too close to real life, so to protect the innocent, I’m just going to say that my time in the Federal Bureau of Brewing and Squishing Stuff taught me the value of a hard day’s work.
Q: You went to a clown college (Ringling College of Art & Design) for art. Did they make you wear big shoes in class? What was it like on field trips? Was the car always so crowded?
RH: Advanced Pie-Flinging was rough. I could never throw a decent spiral, and it almost cost me my degree. That said, my fluorescent wardrobe and skills with a rubber chicken impressed some people, and I squeaked (or honked) my way through.
Q: What’s the worst syndicated comic?
RH: Skanky the Gym Addict. Muscle-building jokes are tough, and, I mean, enough with the jokes about protein shakes. But of course I support all cartoonists and their future endeavors.
Q: What are the comics you read that maybe no one else has head of?
RH: I love Monty. That’s not an obscure one by any stretch, but I just wanted to mention it. It’s just always great. And Lord Birthday is amazing in this brave, absurd way that I wish I could tap into more. Those are terrible answers as I’m sure they both have more of a following than my strip, but there you go.
Q: And here we go. Thanks, Rob.