I'm always looking for great comics for our monthly 'Comics Jam'. This is a program once a month where we use a video camera to project comics up onto a big screen, and then animate the story by reading aloud in character voices. Kids occasionally help out with the voice-acting on short excerpts, but if a story is really good I'll take over and we'll read until the time or runs out (or my voice does). In these stories what we're really looking for is a tale that grabs the audience's attention well enough that they want to pick up where they left off and show up next month as well.
Snappy dialogue, good humor, fast paced plot, interesting characters -- these are all elements that draw a loyal audience. More so even than stellar draftsmanship, though of course that doesn't hurt at all. In January and February's Comics Jam we blazed through a good one, with all of the elements above: Rob Harrell's charming The Monster on the Hill (Top Shelf)
The year is 1867. England is infested with monsters. 'Tentaculor' roars through the small burg of Billingswood, terrorizing the villagers and leaving destruction in his tracks. And this is no isolated incident: Monsters! Beasts! Horrors! Every town has them, a fact that excites the imagination of the populace and enlivens their humdrum days with the chance of excitement. Well every town has it's own monster, but some lack the verve and glamor of others. Stoker-on-Avon has a bit of a problem in that department. Their monster isn't-- well-- all that monstrous. Bit of a disappointment really. Hasn't given a proper rampage in years. It's something of an embarrassment when you get down to it. Something must be done. "Something' comes in the form of disgraced local inventor Dr Charles Wilkie, who has been barred by the town fathers from practicing his trade due to a spate of awkward incidents and failed experiments. In the name of killing two birds with one stone, the town fathers decide he's just the man to solve the problem of the hangdog dragon. If he fails, perhaps he'll be eaten, if he succeeds well fine then he will be allowed to re-open his laboratory. Either way his problem will be solved. Packing up a trunk he hauls himself to the hinterlands seeking the lair of the monster...
The lair is not actually hidden all that well. In fact with relative ease Wilkie manages to entice him from his tunnel, and even avoids being devoured. The great reptilian horror named Rayburn, the terror of the town, the scourge of Stoker-on-Avon ...actually proves to be a bit of a mope:
The real story begins when Wilkie (and the plucky newsboy Tim who attached himself to the good doctor's adventure) decide to take on the challenge of turning this morose monster into a right and proper menace. Harrell's earlier career was as a syndicated comic strip artist (Big Top) and his training as a three-panels-and-a-joke strip artist serves him well. Characterization, comic timing, dialogue, all crackles with wit. This is road trip meets sit-com meets Godzilla meets buddy picture. As a read-aloud cartoon every joke hits its mark. (And more fun for the read-aloud: dialogue is written with an English accent, whether plummy times or plucky cockney urchin, all rolls off the tongue). The plot hopscotches from joke to joke at an amiably ambling pace. Characters find time to pause to reflect and catch their breath for a moment by the campfire, before events catch them up and propel them forward. If Rayburn is no terror, there are yet more awful creatures lurking out there who will surely do his job for him.
Art is bright, clean, clear, appealing. The cartoony friendly line appeals to all ages, the colors are airy and appealing, vivid when they need to be, gloomy when it is called for. Monsters can be both amusing and scary as the story requires.
A recommended read for all ages and schools. If you're looking for something to read that has the lightness of the funnier sections of Jeff Smith's Bone, you'll find The Monster on the Hill will keep you entertained It was enjoyable enough that we'll try to get copies of Rob Harrell's comic strips too.