See, people? *shakes book in the air* How hard is this, really? I stand beside thousands of children’s librarians who have, for years now, been in a bit of a pickle with the kiddos when it comes to great graphic novels. I blame Bone. If Scholastic hadn’t rereleased Jeff Smith’s classic series in full color editions and marketed them to kids, we wouldn’t have had to face wave upon wave of impressionable children holding up their worn and battered editions saying, “Do you have anything like this?” Because crazy as it might sound, the answer is usually no. You want kid-friendly fare that’s adventurous AND funny? And full-color? Uh . . . suuuuure, kid. To be fair, some books fit the bill. Thanks to Giants Beware! by Jorge Aguirre, Sidekicks by Dan Santat, and Jellaby by Kean Soo I’ve managed to feed their hunger, but nothing’s ever been enough. So it is with great rejoicing and the throwing of small pieces of confetti that I welcome to my shelves the fast, funny, not so furious Monster on the Hill by Rob Harrell. There is nothing here your children won’t love. Heck with it. There’s nothing here YOU won’t love.
Every good town has a good monster. They’re fantastic. Much of the time they’re terrorizing the citizenry, and as everyone knows that’s just good for business (tourists love to be terrified). Best of all, a good monster will guard a town from a threat known only as The Murk. And then there’s poor Stoker-on-Avon. They’ve a bit of a monster problem. His name is Rayburn and . . . well, let’s be honest. Rayburn’s kind of pathetic. Worst of all, he knows it, so his days are spent wallowing in self-pity. When Dr. Charles Wilkie is charged by the town fathers to perk the creature up he unwittingly brings along plucky newsboy orphan Tim. Together, the three try to get at the root of Rayburn’s problem. Unfortunately a trip to his friend Tentaculor leaves Stoker-on-Avon without a guardian. And The Murk? He’s hungry . . . very hungry . . .
What do you talk about first when you’re reviewing a graphic novel? I don’t really have a rote set of talking points in a distinct order. That said, I’ve the vague sense that I probably should. I feel that way because my instinct right now is to begin by talking about the colors in this book, which is kind of an odd choice. But see, kids these days are spoiled. They love their comics to be full-color, an expensive and time-consuming proposition most of the time. With the exception of fabulous independents like Matt Phelan (Bluffton) most comic book artists for kids don’t dabble in things like watercolors or pastels. They rely on good old-fashioned computer coloring. Trouble is, there’s excellent computer coloring and then there’s the lousy variety. Lousy is easier to do so you’ll it much more often. Now Top Shelf didn’t deem it necessary to list in this book whom the colorist might be (perhaps it was Mr. Harrell himself?), but whoever it might have been they did a top-notch job. The colors in this book are understated without being muted. They match the storyline perfectly. Not every graphic novel can say the same.
Then there is the writing. Can we talk timing for a bit here? Because when it comes to pacing, Monster on the Hill knows what it’s doing. The beginning starts with a big old bang. There’s wanton destruction and people running for their lives. It’s delightful. As the book progresses, Harrell harnesses his storyline perfectly. Clearly he has the storytelling gene. That’s great. But how are the jokes? We are, after all, talking about a syndicated cartoonist. He’s been in the business more than a decade but does that funny translate to the book format? You bet your sweet bippy it does. All hail Looney Tunes and other cartoons that established the perfection of the visual gag. Time and again Harrell gets the maximum enjoyment out of the silent frame followed by the funny line or the incredibly ridiculous moment couched in seriousness.
It isn’t all timing, though. Many of the jokes in this book are visual gags or just honestly funny sentences. Seeing The Murk, the ultimate bad guy, sniffing fear from the townspeople and then saying, “Oh, yeah. That’s the good stuff” is delightful. The smaller jokes are less noticeable. Notice what happens to Wilkie’s carriage driver when the gleesome threesome decides to take a road trip. Then there’s the fact that the town fathers have names like “Mr. Hawthorne”, “Mr. Shelley” and “Mr. Stevenson”. Additional Bonus: The town is “Stoker-on-Avon”. Few kids are going to pick up on any of this (few adults too, I suspect) but they’re there for anyone interested.
Now don’t get me wrong. The setting of this book is odd. First off, it exists in that odd time period where everything’s just barely pre-Industrial Revolution but folks can still make jokes about Hot Pockets. Then there’s the location. One has to assume that we’re in Britain here. As such, certain characters exhibit distinctly English tendencies in their speech. And by rights the mix of semi-British English with completely contemporary words and phrases should, by its very definition, jar. I just . . . doesn’t. I suppose I’m a poor judge. My favorite moments on The Simpsons are when Bart adopts a faux Cockney accent. Spunky (Cockney) orphan Tim fills that same need.
Rob Harrell is, at this time, best known for his comic strips “Adam @ Home” and “Big Top”. Like fellow cartoonist Stephan Pastis (“Timmy Failure”) he’s extended his talents this year and is garnering a new readership. Kids that have never even seen a newspaper comic, let alone read them, will be instantly hooked by Harrell’s kooky storyline and good-natured monstering. For those kids who want something adventurous and amusing, their prayers will be answered. Granted, for the most voracious amongst them this book will take up a single hour of reading (maybe less). At least it’s fun while it lasts. Monster On the Hill. Get your own.
On shelves now.
Source: Title borrowed from the library for review.
Like This? Then Try:
- Jellaby by Kean Soo
- Giants Beware by Jorge Aguirre
- Sidekicks by Dan Santat
- Bone: Out of Boneville by Jeff Smith