Rob Harrell: Renowned Cartoonist, Illustrator and Author
Writer // Janelle Morrison Photography // Laura Arick
You sometimes don’t know who the extraordinary people are in your community until one of their friends approaches you in a local coffeehouse and tells you that there is a local individual who does really cool things like writes a daily comic strip, authors kids’ books, survived a rare form of ocular cancer in his right eye and, oh, is also a remarkable painter. Rob Harrell is all of these and more and lives right here in the village of Zionsville along with his wife Amber and their two adorable dogs.
Harrell, a native Hoosier and DePauw University graduate, is the creator and illustrator of the syndicated daily comic strip “Big Top” that ran in newspapers from 2002 until 2007. He is the creative mind behind the long-running daily strip “[email protected],” which runs in more than 140 newspapers across the globe.
In addition to his success as a cartoonist, Harrell has achieved success as an author and had his first novel, “Monster on the Hill,” published in 2013. The story is about a down-on-his-luck 1800s English monster. The novel was picked up by ReelFX and Paramount who are in the process of morphing Harrell’s creation into a CGI animated film to be released in 2020 or 2021.
We sat down with Harrell and discussed his early career in cartooning and his evolution over the years as well as his cancer diagnosis, treatment and recovery process and how that inspired his latest creation and novel, “Dime Slot.”
Harrell grew up in Bloomington, Indiana, and graduated from Bloomington South High School before attending and graduating from DePauw University in 1991. He later attended and graduated from Ringling College of Art & Design in Sarasota, Florida.
“I told my parents in the fourth grade and they still stand by this story that I wanted to be Garry Trudeau when I grew up,” Harrell shared. “I was into ‘Bloom County,’ ‘Marmaduke,’ ‘Calvin and Hobbes,’ ‘The Far Side’ and ‘Garfield’ when it came along, but my all-time favorite is ‘Doonesbury.’”
In high school, Harrell created a cartoon strip for the school paper every week and landed himself in a little bit of trouble with the administration for trying his hand at political satire, writing a strip that poked some fun at then-President Ronald Reagan.
“In college, I started out at a political science major,” Harrell said. “That lasted a whole semester. It just wasn’t taking seed in my head. I had a couple of guys in my house that were art majors, and they encouraged me to be an art major after seeing some of my illustrations on T-shirts that I made for our house.”
Harrell switched majors and ended up under the tutelage of the art department head at the time, Professor Robert “Bob” Kingsley.
“I started working with him [Kingsley] on painting and figure drawing,” Harrell recalled. “He told me cartoons weren’t art. I was also doing a weekly strip for the university paper called ‘University Blues’ and came up with another strip that I tried to get syndicated, ‘Fester’s Travels.’”
Harrell learned a valuable lesson about relative content during this time.
“‘Fester’s Travels’ was just weird,” Harrell stated. “It was about a 6-foot frog, a miniature elephant and a crocodile traveling across the country on a mechanical horse. I learned that just because no one’s ever done a strip about it doesn’t mean that strip about a frog, an elephant and crocodile is a good idea. You need to stick to things that people can relate to.”
After graduation, Harrell and Zionsville resident Jon Weed started a T-shirt company, but Harrell shared that he was aspiring to be an animator for Disney at that time. He moved to Sarasota, Florida, where he attended Ringling College of Art & Design.
“I was in the illustration program down there, and I had started back up with oil painting,” Harrell said. “By the time I graduated, my professors were telling me that I needed to go and do my own thing, but I still tried to get into Disney. I didn’t get in. I moved back to Indiana and freelanced as an illustrator. I went around to all the ad agencies and was doing scratchboard illustrations. That was my big thing then. I did freelance work for years but still had cartooning in the back of my head. Eventually, in 2002, I came up with the idea for ‘Big Top.’” Flying out to visit a friend in L.A., Harrell was drawing in his sketchbook, and his young, female seatmate was watching attentively.
“This little girl sitting next to me was just watching me draw, so I drew a clown and a lion and then a bear,” he said. “By the time I got off the plane, I had realized that I had never seen a circus comic strip, and that’s where ‘Big Top’ came from. That was a huge moment for me.”
When asked what it looks like drawing a daily comic strip, Harrell replied, “I do it in chunks. I do them on my computer. I have a screen and a template that I can draw on and do the lettering on. Then the next day, I do the coloring. It is challenging at times. There are days when the ideas just aren’t rolling, but I’ve done it so long now that it feels like second nature.”
Over the years, the demise of numerous newspapers across the nation has had an impact on not only journalists but on cartoonists as well.
“I was doing ‘Big Top’ when it first started happening – papers were folding left and right,” he said. “It affected the comic strip business a lot. When I lost a paper, I lost money off my paycheck, and it’s still happening, though it has slowed down a little. And now we have a core group of newspapers that are likely to stay around, but there were a lot more newspapers and comic strips in the ‘60s than there are now. Cartoonists were almost like rock stars then.”
National cartoonists continue to be celebrated at an annual awards program, NCS Annual Reuben Awards Weekend.
“I go every year to the Reuben Awards,” Harrell said. “It’s an entire weekend of hanging out with other cartoonists. Cartoonists are very nice people. Many of us have branched out to writing books, and after the success of the ‘Diary of a Wimpy Kid’ series, we’ve all had varying levels of success with our projects.”
Harrell’s “Monster on the Hill” is a hybrid novel, a format he enjoys writing.
“‘Monster on the Hill’ is for all ages, but I think the sweet spot for that book is 9-14,” he jested. “It is an easy age group for me to write for. I don’t know if that means that I stopped maturing at age 13, but I can still relate, and it’s a fun age. I think middle school is when you first start becoming your own person.”
ReelFx and Paramount purchased the option from Harrell in 2013 and have been developing the animated film over the last few years.
“I’ve had very little input, and the story has changed a lot,” Harrell admitted. “As it turns out, my best friend from Ringling is actually producing it. I’m learning to let go, but it is really exciting, and it is fun to hear them talk about casting my characters. They haven’t settled on anyone yet. I have seen some of the concept art, and it’s exciting to see how they are morphing it while keeping some of my work in it.”
Harrell’s most recently completed work that is in the process of being reviewed by publishing houses is “Dime Slot.” This story is about a seventh grade boy who is undergoing cancer treatments and is simultaneously dealing with the day-to-day hardships that come along with being a middle school kid in today’s world. His character’s experiences come from Harrell’s own personal battle and survival from ocular cancer with which he was diagnosed in 2005.
“I ended up with this,” Harrell gestured to the vertical scar in the middle of his brow. “One of my cartoonist friends dubbed it my ‘dime slot,’ so the book is called ‘Dime Slot.’ The first cancer treatment center that I went to was going to remove my eye socket and implant a prosthetic eye, then hit me with traditional radiation. And I was on the books to have that done.”
A referral from Bloomington, Indiana, through Harrell’s father led Harrell back to Bloomington where he underwent an experimental surgery and treatment at that time, Proton Radiation Therapy, for eight weeks.
“In the book, the kid is going through eight weeks of radiation and ends up bonding with his radiation tech,” Harrell shared. “The story is about so much more than just his cancer. During my treatments, I had to wear a cowboy hat indoors and out to keep the light out of my eye. The kid in the story finds out that he has to wear a hat, even when he’s in school, and all he wants to do is blend in. I got through my cancer with a sense of humor, and I have had a lot of the kid’s inner thoughts and self-deprecating humor. I hope this book makes it easier for kids to talk about it [cancer] and helps them to be empathetic.”
For Harrell, his prognosis was good. “I’ve lost sight in my eye, but I can live with that,” he said. “Given the alternatives, I can live with that.”
Harrell and his wife moved to Zionsville two years ago and are glad to be back with their posse of good friends and close to family. Harrell’s parents still live in Bloomington.
“We have a lot of friends here from college, and we’ve made a lot of new friends,” Harrell expressed. “The people are friendly, and our neighbors are amazing. I love walking into downtown, and it’s just been a lot of fun since we’ve moved here.”
When asked what’s next for Harrell and what plans does he have for the next phase of his career, he replied, “I’ll keep doing ‘[email protected]’ for as long as they’ll let me, but I also want to keep doing more books. My mind has shifted from being an artist who likes to write to a writer who likes to create art. Maybe I found my limits with my art, but with my writing, I still have room to grow.”