Tuesday, February 9, 2010

20 Questions with Rob Harrell

What do clowns, a poodle and Oprah have in common?

No, not one of Stedman’s weirder fantasies, but a very funny episode in a very funny comic strip, BIG TOP, the work of cartoonist Rob Harrell.

Rob had Dusty, the poodle, kidnap Oprah. The famous talk show hostess was always off-panel, but one of the funniest strips had Dusty yelling at her “It puts the lotion on its skin, or it gets the hose again.”

Rob is not only a great cartoonist; he’s also an excellent painter. Check out his paintings online and his current gig working with Brian Bassett on ADAM @HOME.

1. When you were a kid, did you want to be a cartoonist? Did you draw?

I did. All the time. It was about 4th grade when my friend Steve Farris and I got really serious about it. We’d hide out in his basement and draw comics for hours. We’d save up our allowances and buy ‘How to Draw Cartoons’ books from a craft store at the mall.

2. What was your first paying cartoon job?

Technically, it was in 4th grade. Three of us started a “magazine” called Freak Out. It was going to be our monthly Mad-style humor rag. It was mostly Mad gags and Lunch Pail Kids cards, just barely changed. We charged 25 cents for a subscription. I think only one issue came out, and we got in trouble…

3. How did you get involved with the ADAM@HOME strip?

Well, that sort of came out of the blue. After BIG TOP, I had been working on some other concepts with Universal, but I never felt strongly enough about them to dive in. So, I think when they were looking for an artist, they already had a relationship with me (knew I could hit deadlines), and also knew I was looking for work. It’s been tough. I know a lot of people hated the change in style (especially in the very beginning when, I admit, I was fumbling around trying to merge our styles). 

Brian has this great, deceptively simple linework. It was like trying to copy someone’s hand-writing. But I finally decided I had more of a responsibility to make it look "right" to me, and the comments have been much, much kinder lately. For a while there, I was ready to flee the country, though.

4. BIG TOP ran for 5 years. Describe the process you went through to get the strip syndicated.

The idea came to me on a plane trip to San Francisco. I was doing some quick drawings for a little girl that was sitting by me. I drew her a bear, a clown and a monkey, and something clicked. I then REALLY quickly burned out a month of strips, I was so excited about the idea. Submitted them and waited… I started out developing the strip for another syndicate, but when I got the call from Universal and they liked it the way it was, that was it. I jumped up and down a lot that afternoon.
5. What’s your favorite rejected strip or gag?

Hmm. The only thing that comes to mind was a series that made fun of Scientology. The way I remember it, we ended up taking a lot of the bite out of that series. Probably wise, but at the time I thought I was being all edgy.

6. Where do you stand in the print comics vs. web comics debate?

I’m really sort of staying out of it. I would love to do BIG TOP as a web comic at some point, if I could figure out a way to do it that would work for me. I know a lot of people have done really well, and I think that’s fantastic. It’s such a cool art form, so I just hope it keeps going in whatever format.

7. Newspaper comics are considered pretty tame compared to TV and other media. Do you find this limiting or is it a welcome challenge?

I liked the challenge. Most of the time, that is. I would have liked to have Dusty be able to say something sucked. Or blew. "Stinks" just doesn’t feel right. But it did force me to be a little more creative with my language.

8. Name five of your favorite comic strips or cartoonists.


9. Who would win in a cage match, Dusty or Snoopy?

Probably Snoopy, as he’s older and wiser, but Dusty would fight dirty and definitely give him a good run.

10. How do you develop ideas? Which comes first, words or pictures?

Words. I don’t really come up with much until I’m sitting down with a pad and pen. Not many great ideas coming to me while I’m grocery shopping, etc. I really like to just start writing dialogue, write myself into a corner and then try to find a funny way out. The real fun comes when you get to know your characters well enough that you can kind of hear what they’d say.

11. Tell us about your paintings.

Mostly figurative, oil on canvas. I’ve shown at some great galleries around the country, which is fun. It’s therapeutic, although when I’m painting I tend to feel guilty that I’m not cartooning, and feel guilty when I’m cartooning that I’m not painting. I’m very good at guilt. And worry.

12. You’re a contributor to MAD Magazine. How did you become one of the “Usual Gang of Idiots”?

Again, that sort of came to me. They were looking for some new blood, and I guess someone got hold of the BIG TOP book. That’s one of the coolest calls I’ve gotten. I grew up devouring that magazine from cover to cover, so it’s such an honor when I get to see something of mine in there.

13. What kind of editor do you prefer, hands-on or laissez-faire?

Well, my editor on BIG TOP (Lisa) was fantastic. She kind of let me do my thing, with just gentle nudges here and there when something ‘seemed kind of lame’. And that seemed to work great. Despite BIG TOP not being around anymore, I’m really happy with the strips I put out there.

14. What are your favorite books, TV shows, songs and films? (Yes, that counts as one question.)

Books – John Irving, Tom Wolfe, Updike. I loved The Pillars of the Earth and its sequel. Roots. The Time Traveler's Wife. I could go on for awhile. I’m kind of a book nerd.

Movies – The Graduate, Diner, Annie Hall. I loved There Will Be Blood. Boogie Nights has a special place. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. TV shows – Arrested Development! LOST, 30 Rock

Music – I listen to a LOT of music – Right now it’s The XX, Say Hi, Them Crooked Vultures, Late of the Pier, Blitzen Trapper. But Elvis Costello will always be my guy.

15. What are your tools of the trade?

I’m working on a Wacom right now, but I’m really starting to miss pen and paper. Love Micron pens, especially after the tip breaks a little.

16. What’s the best part about being a cartoonist?

Getting to try to be funny. The actual job of trying to sit down and come up with something that makes you laugh is invaluable in the effort to not take things too seriously. I sometimes default to "miserable," and it’s really hard to do that when you’re writing gags.

17. Have you met any of your cartoonist idols? Under what circumstances?

The one that jumps out the most is Garry Trudeau. I met him at the NCS Reubens weekend, and couldn’t believe I was standing there having a conversation with him. Really surreal, but he couldn’t have been nicer. I don’t think I’ve met a cartoonist yet that I didn’t like.

18. What advice would you give aspiring cartoonists?

Learn investment banking, or become a specialized surgeon. Actually, no, I’d say to keep drawing, but more importantly keep writing. The best drawn cartoon in the world won’t work if it doesn’t have solid writing, or at least thinking, behind it. And keep your day job. Seriously.

19. How important are awards?

I hope not very, as I haven’t come close yet.

20. What’s something that nobody knows about you?

Hmm. I went to Africa for five weeks on the day BIG TOP started in papers, so I didn’t get to see it in print till I got back. Caught Malaria while I was over there, but it cleared up nicely so I could hit the road running when I got back. Deadlines, always deadlines.


Anonymous said...

Adam is much better since Rob took over.

Brubaker said...

I loved "Big Top". I hope there's a 3rd book coming soon.

Anonymous said...

What do you mean? Why do you ask that? Your brother James in particular. I didnt say there was. He was pacing impatiently across the office. I dont understand you, she said very quietly. It was almost a plea. I have not seen him since.

Scott Nickel said...

I get a LOT of spam comments to this blog. A LOT.

Generally I dump them, but this one was so delightfully surreal, so disjointed yet compelling, I had to run it.

Now I'm intrigued. Who is James? Why is he pacing? Where did he go?...