Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #161: Monster on the Hill by Rob Harrell

Every place has to have something to be proud of. I'm sure the first small groupings of Neanderthals fervently believed that the mud next to their caves was much gloppier and pleasing than the mud near those other folks' caves. And modern life provides so many opportunities for that -- favorite TV shows, sports teams, nations, choices of computing device, self-identification system -- that now everyone can find a team to root for, and a cause to chant about.

But Rob Harrell's first graphic novel, Monster on the Hill, is about a simpler time -- not just because it's pitched like a modern animated movie, though that's part of it -- in which each of the small towns in whatever bit of mid-Victorian England this is supposed to be has just one cause for civic pride, only one thing with which to distinguish their town from all of the others surrounding it. And that thing is the local monster: these English folk love that their town gets half-destroyed regularly by a frightening creature that inevitably lives on a forbidding hill just outside of town, and they wouldn't dream of trying to get rid of that monster. (One might assume, from later events in the book, that said monsters only threaten and never quite eat children or claw the flesh from greengrocers or stomp on innocent women -- but that's never actually stated.)

Stoker-on-Avon, though, has a dud of a monster: a gloomy, depressive red fellow named Rayburn, who rarely can muster the energy to even walk into town, and has never managed a single decent rampage. The town fathers of Stoker are aghast at this -- apparently there's a lot of tourist money in looking for monsters in small villages somewhere in England, and they want their piece of it -- and so they convince the local mad scientist, Dr. Charles Wilkie, to go and give Rayburn a good talking-to.

Wilkie isn't particularly mad; he's just one of those kid-movie tinkerers and inventors, white-haired division: friendly, maybe a bit scatterbrained, utterly good-hearted and with a list of odd ideas longer than his arm. Why, he's even good friends with the local plucky street urchin/newsie Timothy, who tags along on what Harrell only pretends briefly will be a very dangerous mission. And so Wilkie and Timothy meet Rayburn, and learn his troubles.

What follows could easily have turned into Stuart Smalley for Monsters, but, luckily, Harrell is following the kid's-movie formula pretty closely, and so there is A Reason why this region has so many monsters, and The Nastier Thing that those monsters are protecting humans from. The back half of Monster on the Hill is about confronting that Nastier Thing, with the aid of another character I probably shouldn't spoil.

If you've seen more than two animated movies in the last twenty years, Monster on the Hill will not surprise you. And, if you wait, I would not be surprised if it becomes an animated movie eventually, though I expect some extra complications would need to be piled on, and possibly even a female character somewhere. But it's an enthusiastic, sunny, self-actualizing example of the form, and Harrell -- who has spent most of his career on newspaper strips, currently drawing Adam @ Home -- seems to be energized by the larger pages here, which give him a lot of scope for expressive Doug TenNapel-esque cartooning. In fact, if you like TenNapel, you will definitely enjoy Monster on the Hill: Harrell is similarly positive and straightforward and joyful and optimistic.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

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