By Rob Harrell
192 pages, color
Published by Top Shelf Productions
I’ve never read Rob Harrell’s comic strips before (Big Top and Adam@Home), so I had to rely solely on the cover of his first graphic novel Monster on the Hill to pull me in. There was something about that grabbed my attention, though. Part of it was the generally attractive nature of the illustration; the strange colored roots of plants, the glimpses of the dirt hanging underneath the exposed side of the hill, the the strange character design of the monster himself. But more than anything else? It was the "get me out of here" expression on the monster’s face. That was when I knew I had to check this book out.
Harrell quickly introduces us to the premise of Monster on the Hill; set in a fantastical version of 1867 England, every town has its own monster up on the hillside that occasionally comes in and terrorizes the local population. These monsters are as much tourist attractions as they are feared, though, with souvenirs sold and trading card sets created. That’s where the poor people of Stoker-on-Avon fall short, with their monster (Rayburn) who hasn’t visited the town in in over a year and a half. Instead, poor Rayburn just mopes and sighs from a distance. Can Dr. Wilkie and street urchin Tim raise Rayburn’s spirits so he isn’t such an embarrassment?
One of the things that was an almost instant attention-grab was how well-realized Harrell’s alternate England comes across to the reader. The monsters being integrated into everyday life, the mad science that crops up in the most unexpected places, the strange xenobiology that Harrell peppers throughout the world in an almost casual manner. The best part, though, is how this plays out into the overall plot with the introduction of the reason why the monsters each pick a town to reside near and occasionally terrorize. It’s an interesting twist that fleshes out the plot into something much more three-dimensional than it first appears, and ultimately plays well into Dr. Wilkie and Tim’s attempts to free Rayburn from his depression.
I also liked that Monster on the Hill is a comic that deals both literally and figuratively with a fight against depression. There’s no denying that Rayburn’s biggest problem is that he’s suffering from depression, after all, and watching Dr. Wilkie and Tim trying to raise his spirits and get him out and active again to help shake off some of weight on his shoulders is a nice attempt to show the symptom in an all-ages book. (There’s only so much in-depth exploration into depression that I’d expect from a book intended to be accessible for younger readers, after all.) When it comes to the monster called the Murk, though, it’s hard to see it as anything but a physical manifestation of depression. Surrounded in darkness and practically feeding on despair, the Murk’s presence drags down everything around it. And fittingly, it’s a character that Harrell has defeated through less-than-conventional means; it’s not a simple "let’s fight it!" way to beat it down, but instead a round-about strategy that only succeeds because of the support of Rayburn’s new friends and an uplifting (again both figuratively and literally) way of looking at things.
Harrell’s art is a lot of fun; for the most part it’s very light-hearted, drawing Dr. Wilkie with white hair and beard and big glasses, or Tim with a pageboy cap to go with his newspaper selling job. Rayburn comes across as amusingly strange and less than terrifying; when he’s complaining about his ineffectual physical prowess, it’s easy to see where he’s coming from thanks to Harrell. At the same time, Harrell can draw dark, too; the scenes with the Murk attacking are much more sinister and nasty, and I love the texture from the clouds of smoke that billow up around him during his rampage. Pages are nicely laid out and easy to follow, and while Harrell uses a lot of splashes, I feel like they’re all at moments that could use that a larger view of the new scenery.
Monster on the Hill is a lot of fun; this is a book to be proud of. I hope this isn’t Harrell’s only detour into the world of graphic novels, because I can certainly see a whole series of graphic novels about the monster-filled alternate-England that he’s concocted. A sequel or something entirely different, all that really matters is that we get some more from Harrell before too long. As much fun for older readers as it is younger, Monster on the Hill is an incredibly strong debut for Harrell. Very well done.