Director’s Commentary – Rob Harrell and his Monsters got to town
Fab Indy publishers Top Shelf have long been a firm favourite with the FP blog crew – having dealt with the guys for years we know that they are in it for the love of good comic storytelling and anything they think deserves to be published is generally always going to be worth any reader picking up. Chris at Top Shelf was kind enough to give us a sneak peek of one of this summer’s releases a while back, Rob Harrell‘s Monster on the Hill, which was just overflowing with humour and charm and a gleeful sense of the Absurd (with hints of that kind of Gorey and Addams style humour), which is something I usually enjoy. Some of you may know Rob already from his Big Top series of syndicated strips, or his currently syndicated series Adam@Home. Rob is currently working on some middle grade school books for Dial/Penguin, Life of Zarf, but I thought Monster on the Hill was a cracking, smile-inducing read and asked him if he could take the time to do one of our guest Commentary posts – I’m glad to say Rob managed to squeeze it in between his workload, so over to Rob:
A few years ago, I was approached to do a seven page piece for an anthology. The anthology was to raise money for cancer research, and as I’d been through my own cancer woes, I jumped at the chance. I was also just curious if it was something I could do.
Until that point, I was strictly a comic strip guy, as far as comics were concerned. My daily comic strip Big Top had been syndicated by Universal Press from 2002 – 2007. In the years since college, I had made my living doing freelance illustration, fine art and the strip.
Here are a couple of Big Top strips.
And here are a couple of my oil paintings.
The idea of stretching out and telling a story that didn’t require a punchline every fourth panel sounded great. It also came at a time when I was struggling a bit. I was losing the sight in my right eye from the earlier cancer treatments. I had ended my strip due to some health and financial issues, and I’d taken a day job that was less than creatively fulfilling. In a word, I was depressed.
So, I ended up doing a story called ‘Melancholia’, about a depressed monster and the doctor that helped him rediscover his mojo. For the character designs, I raided the stacks of sketches I had been doing during down time at my job. I’d been drawing a lot of monsters and birds, for some reason. Maybe because monsters are just fun to draw. The drawings were mostly done in ballpoint pen on the back of agendas for the meetings I was covering.
This was the first sketch of what became Rayburn, who is the main character in Monster on the Hill. You can see that he was drawn right over the copy from the agenda. His look evolved a bit over time, but I felt a kinship with him from the start.
Here’s the first sketch of Tentaculor. In the book, I wanted him to be both intimidating and a bit goofy. So I played up the ‘tuft’ on his head and what are essentially big buck teeth. Buck fangs? I’m not sure why they put that blank page warning on the back of agendas, but they always do.
This was my first pass at drawing the Murk. By this point, I had a rough idea of the story, so his look was a bit more dictated by what I needed from him as a villain.
Here’s another early drawing of the Murk, done with a brush pen. I still really like some aspects of this version. He just seemed a shade too cartoony here.
Here are a couple of monsters I didn’t use. I called them The Bloodfly and The Snark.
Around that time, the anthology fell through. Melancholia sat for a while in a drawer before I was convinced to show it to Top Shelf Productions. Top Shelf had always been my favorite publisher, with its clear focus on great stories. Chris Staros liked what I had, asked if I had ideas for expanding the story and world, and we were off to the races. The idea of a world where every town has its own monster on the hill followed suit, and Melancholia became Monster on the Hill.
I really had no idea what I was getting into. After the writing was done and I was ready to start the artwork, I told my wife Amber that she might not see me a lot for the next six months… I finished the art just over two years later. A comic strip is a 50-yard dash. A graphic novel is a marathon.
I sketched the story out as I wrote it in thumbnails. They were incredibly rough so that I could write quickly. Those roughs were for my eyes only.
But here’s one!
And here’s another for a whole storyline I ultimately cut. Bonus feature!
I would then do a slightly tighter version of the pages before showing them to my editor.
I work digitally. I use a Cintiq, and I can’t say enough good things about it. I mentioned losing sight in the right eye. Well, along with that I lost my depth perception, which has made it more difficult to draw with a brush pen the way I was used to. Control-Z is my friend, because if I hit the surface before I think I’m going to, I can undo, undo, undo. (FYI – Cancer free for seven years!)
I generally scanned my cleaned up roughs and used them to work up an even tighter sketch digitally. Being able to move elements and copy around was invaluable, and my hat is truly off to those who do it the old fashioned way.
Then I’d go in and ink and colour on different layers. I know just enough Photoshop to get by, so I don’t have any weird tips. If there is an old-fashioned way to colour in Photoshop, that’s what I did.
I like to think Monster reads as simply a fun, funny story. I’ve never really enjoyed stories that beat you over the head with a lesson. I hope it provides some good times, and as a bonus maybe it will hit home with a few people who’ve sometimes felt like hiding out in their monster lairs.
FPI would like to thank Rob for taking the time to share some of his thoughts on creating Monster on the Hill with us. The book is out now from Top Shelf (where you can also see a wee preview) and much recommended; you can keep up with Rob via his site and his Twitter.