Craig Boldman met with Rob Harrell at Fricker's Sports Bar in Richmond, Indiana on April 13, 2004. Craig had a tasty Fricker Burger; Rob, a delicious chicken strip salad.
CB: When did you join the NCS, Rob?
ROB: About a year and a half ago, I think. Just in time to go to the Reubens last year. I'd wanted to join, I just didn't know if I was eligible. Finally I talked to Rick Stromoski and he assured me.
CB: Have you gotten to any of our chapter meetings?
ROB: No, no. I was invited to one event by Dave Coverly and Jef Mallett (Frazz) -- and I'm not even sure that was a sanctioned event. Jef lives in Lansing. He's a good guy. I met him about a year ago. He came down for one of my art shows, like the one I have coming up. He happened to be in town and contacted me, because he knew I lived here.
CB: That's nice, because this can be such an insular business.
ROB: Yeah, it really is, and the Reubens last year was just unbelievable.
CB: That was the one in --?
ROB: San Francisco. I just had such a blast. I got there and I didn't know a soul. But I was introduced to Dave Coverly and Dave ended up introducing me to everybody in the room. It was amazing, everybody was just so friendly.
CB: How long have you been doing Big Top?
ROB: It was two years on April 21st.
CB: Had you pursued cartooning before that?
ROB: Yeah. You know, I did a regular comic in my high school paper and then a regular one in my college time at DePauw called "University Blues." The summer before I graduated I did several months worth of University Blues so I'd have strips to run each week during my senior year. So when I got done there I submitted that and I submitted another strip I'd done on the side (to the syndicates). I got rejected on both of those and I couldn't be more glad that they got rejected, because they weren't ready.
So that was sort of the end of it for a while, 'cause then a friend and I started a company where I designed t-shirts. We did that for about a year. Then I went to school down in Florida, the Ringling School of Design. I wanted to go to work for Disney, that's part of the reason why I went to Ringling.
CB: Is the Ringling School linked to the Ringling Brothers Circus?
ROB: Same family. But you know, in Sarasota, a lot of things are run by Ringling. There used to be a clown college there too, which is what I was always asked. When you tell somebody you went to Ringling, they say "Clown College?" No, the art school. So, there's no real direct tie-in with the circus, other than the same family started it.
Then my professors convinced me that I didn't want to work for Disney, that I'd be better to branch out and do my own thing. I wound up doing illustration for seven or eight years before I came up with the idea of Big Top and took one more crack at it.
CB: So the Ringling connection in Sarasota, and the circus theme in Big Top...
ROB: There was probably a little bit of a connection there. The place where the idea came from really was kind of accidental. I was flying out to San Francisco to see a friend. I was drawing in my sketch book and there was a little kid sitting next to me. I could tell he was watching me, so I started drawing all these little drawings and I did a clown, that ended up being Stucco.
CB: Is that right?
ROB: Yeah. And then I drew a circus bear, and did all these things while I was on the plane. By the time I got to San Francisco I thought "I have pretty good idea for a strip here."
CB: That's pretty wild. You should have gotten that kid's name, you owe him a beer.
ROB: Yeah. You know, I wasn't surrounded by circus stuff down at Ringling by any means, but I think it was just kind of a weird coincidence that it was the Ringling School of Art and Design and I ended up doing a circus thing.
The circus just struck me as a weird enough setting that it would make for a good strip because of the interesting characters.
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From the cast of Big Top, L to R: Pete, Wink (Winkles the Bear), Kingston, Stucco the Clown.
CB: In the strips I've seen, you tend to keep the people to the minimum and the animals to a maximum. You've got the one kid...
ROB: Right. I've got the one kid. I've got a couple of (human) characters. There's Carl the Carney, there's Hairy Mary the Bearded Lady, and Mr. Bendy, the contortionist. But they're just players, they just show up.
CB: What about Stucco? Is he a person or is he an animal?
ROB: I like to think of him as more like a wild animal. The way I have it in my head is, the clowns in the world of Big Top are Clowns. You know, you're born a Clown.
CB: Like it's a separate species.
ROB: I try to write Stucco as more of an animal than I write the animals. He's a loose cannon. But Stucco is not human, he's Clown.
The story is really about Pete and his core group of animal friends. They're sort of a non-traditional family.
CB: Which makes me wonder, where is his actual family? Does that ever enter into things?
ROB: I had an answer for that in my original submission. But the syndicate steered me away from that and said, "You know what, let's wait on that." It's hard to get into what happened to his family without it being kinda dark. It's a little ambiguous for me. Some day I'm going to address that and figure out what happened. That's for the animated Pixar feature. But in my head he's either a kid who ran away to the circus, or a kid who was left to the circus. More likely he was left to the circus, that's sort of the way I have it in my head now. Dropped on their doorstep in a basket.
I had an original storyline that was the first strip of all of them that I wrote was about him missing his parents, 'cause his parents had been acrobats... but again, it was just too dark for a comic strip.
At some point I'll develop more of a solid backstory, but as it is, I kinda like the fact that he's just there. I can deal with humorous situations.
CB: At this point it might seem intrusive to try to tell that whole story.
ROB: The way I see it, Wink (the bear) was the older brother/father figure. Although by now, Pete is probably a little smarter than Wink. Pete takes care of him half the time.
CB: It's like a Jungle Book sort of thing.
ROB: Yeah, it's got a little bit of that flavor to it.
It's just interesting how, I never really sat down and said, this is going to be the sarcastic character, this is going to be this character --
CB: They developed organically.
ROB: Yeah. And that way, they all have individual personalities.
CB: Is there a character that you keep coming back to?
ROB: Dusty. The poodle. He wasn't even in the original submission. I did a one-time joke with him and liked the character, so he kept coming back. Now he's my favorite character to write for, 'cause he's kind of a smartass and has a little more of an edge to him.
CB: I don't know if it's true as a rule, but I noticed in the current, Circe Du Soliel storyline, you see the characters putting on a show, but you never see the audience.
ROB: Yeah, it's funny. At times realize that I almost think of it as a puppet show. Hard to explain, but it's just a show that's going on in front of the viewer. Also, within the confines of the strip it works for me not to have to deal with hundreds of crowd members in the background. I was thinking of ways to make them animated, or live action or whatever and I thought, oh, a puppet show would almost work, like the Muppets or something, because they're sort of performing in front of an audience.
But yeah, I do avoid the crowds. I do have the crowd occasionally show up but it's usually in the form of, you know, like a mother and her little kid being scared by the clown. Here and there they pop up.
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More of the cast of characters. L to R: Andres, Manfred, Hairy Mary, the Bearded Lady.
CB: Is cartooning as a job everything you expected it to be?
ROB: It's a labor of love. I get paid a lot less than I expected, but I think it's just a lot tougher to get into papers than I ever imagined.
CB: Have you got any input into that end of things at all?
ROB: No, at least at this point the syndicate prefers that I stay hands off, especially with the editors. There are things that I can do. Coming up with new things for the press kit...
CB: That Katie Couric thing was a nice shot in the arm.
ROB: Yeah, that was. And that was part accidental and part planned. I came up with the storyline. And then suddenly it was like 'wait a second, this might make an interesting press release.' And the PR department at Universal hopped on it. They did a great job promoting it, I thought. I was just floored when they asked me to be interviewed by her. Never in a million years did I expect that.
CB: I know this is on the website, but briefly, can you tell what happened?
ROB: Since the very beginning I had an ongoing joke where Wink has a crush on Katie Couric. And I finally decided it was time to do something about it. So I had the circus go to New York and of course they had to go down to Rockefeller Plaza and Wink decided he was going to try to give her a Christmas kiss. Which he did. But of course, he had to knock Matt Lauer out of the way and unfortunately he had to get a huge kiss from Al Roker before he was able to get to Katie.
CB: Al Roker is a big comics fan, incidentally.
ROB: I didn't know that. We put together a frame with the whole series which I signed and then we sent out to Katie Couric. Maybe she passed it on to Al.
The interview was really quick and really kind of surreal, because I didn't actually see her.
CB: You weren't on the set?
ROB: No, I was in my studio. And I just had the earpiece in, so I couldn't see anything going on. It was very quick, but they did a great job on their end. They sort of superimposed a kiss on Wink's cheek, Katie blew Wink a kiss. But again, you go, wow, there's a great shot in the arm, but I don't think it sold a paper.
CB: Oh no?
ROB: I'm not even in the Indianapolis paper. It's sort of a very abstract thing, sending it out there and never seeing it. I see it on-line, but... It kind of boggles my mind to think there actually are people out there reading it.
CB: I tend to write (the Archie strip) to amuse myself, and once in a while I remind myself that there is an audience out there reading what I write.
ROB: It has occurred to me that you can think too much about the people out there reading it. If anything could cause writer's block, it would be that. In some ways I am writing for myself, just trying to see if I can crack myself up.
A lot of times I'll put what I think are subtle little jokes in, that nobody else but me will appreciate. Things that crack me up because they sound like something a friend of mine would say, or something like that. And a lot of times those are the jokes I get responses to. Someone will e-mail me and say, "That one just killed me." That's pretty cool, if I can get even one person to laugh.
CB: Are you surprised by the strips that get the most response? The best reaction? Any reaction? How much feedback do you get?
ROB: I get a couple e-mails a week. And I get really good feedback from a lot of people. I guess the thing that surprises me is the couple of people who have gotten offended by something.
CB: What have you done to offend people?
ROB: It's funny, because I think I'm doing... well, it has an edge, but it's also a very mainstream idea. I've had several people write me about the fact that poodles don't shed. 'Cause I had a couple of things in there about Dusty shedding. One morning I woke up and there were two messages on my answering machine before I'd even gotten out of bed. And I don't even know how they got my phone number! It might have been on my web site at that point, which I quickly took off. But yeah, I got a couple of phone calls from people saying "It's very important to my wife and me, we have allergies and those are the only dogs that don't shed."
And then also, PETA. I got a nasty letter from PETA, 'cause I'm portraying circus animals as happy and well taken care of.
CB: I guess that was predictable.
ROB: I didn't respond in any way. My response if somebody'd asked me to my face would be it's a comic strip, it's a fantasy world. Clearly, animals don't speak in real life either. Clowns aren't born clowns and all that.
So, they came up with a creative way for me to tactfully end the strip.
CB: PETA did? That was thoughtful of them.
ROB: Yeah, "We recommend that you have Pete and Mary marry, bring the animals to an animal sanctuary and everybody walks away happy."
ROB: Yeah, And then I... don't have a job!
But I also get a good reader response, and that's the part that I enjoy. I get a nice ego boost occasionally.
CB: Do you have regulars?
ROB: Yeah actually I do. I have a few that write every few months to say "I really like this storyline."
But it is frustrating, not being able to take off and get in more cities. I think the syndicate's fully behind (the strip). It's just tough out there. I know I wouldn't want to be a salesman for a syndicate. The idea of going out there with this new product that nobody needs! No matter how good it is, nobody needs it. The comic section is full. So you're constantly asking somebody to yank something, you know? What a grueling job that would be, to face that every morning.
CB: Yeah, it's not like there are new slots opening up.
ROB: If anything there are fewer and fewer slots. And yet, every three or four months the syndicate comes out with some new product. It's just depressing when you think about it that way.
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FIGURE IN WHITE SHIRT (1999)
An example of the type of work to be found in Rob's gallery shows.
CB: Do you think of yourself first as a cartoonist? I know you have a fine art show coming up.
ROB: Well, it depends on who I'm talking to. If I go into a gallery I'll probably say I'm a painter that does cartooning. But honestly I think I'm more of a cartoonist who happens to paint. Although I'm trying to bring my painting up to the next level -- Start getting into galleries outside of Indiana. Raise awareness of it, try to make that part of my income too. 'Cause like I said, the strip's not paying a whole lot.
CB: What's the venue for the show that's coming up?
ROB: I have my studio in a building called the Stutz Building, it's where they used to make the Stutz Bearcat. It's a huge old building that takes up a whole city block. We've got somewhere in the neighborhood of sixty artists who have studios in the building. It's great, we have a restaurant, a bar downstairs. And once a year, the last weekend in April, we have a big open house. And everybody opens up their studios and serves wine and cheese and everything. We had 10,000 people last year. it's a big event, a big party. It's a two day thing. On Saturday people come through who really want to buy art. On Friday it's more about just having a good time. That's one of my big opportunities during the year to really sell some artwork.
CB: That the same building where you have your studio?
ROB: Yeah. It'll actually be in my studio. See, I share my studio with an architect -- I have my work area, his work area, I have a painting area and then we open this area for a gallery. The work environment is perfect. There's always artsy people around.
CB: This is where you do the strip as well?
CB: Do you keep regular work hours?
ROB: Yeah, I try to. You know, it's nice having that community. When I was doing illustration, I was doing it out of my house, And I just about went nuts. I would go days without leaving the house. You know, I'd have a couple projects going and there'd be no reason to ever put on pants. You could just work in your boxers. I really think it kind of took its toll on me. I felt like I lost some of my social skills and all that, so when I saw the opportunity to move into this building, I jumped. It was great. And it separates work from home.
I try to have three or four shows a year. More than that now. Mostly they're group shows.
CB: How do you parcel out your painting time versus your comic strip time?
ROB: I don't really have a way of budgeting it. Whatever needs to be done.
CB: What are the roots of your cartooning style?
ROB: I loved the obvious ones. I think I learned to draw from drawing Charlie Brown. And then I really got into Bloom County and Doonesbury, Calvin and Hobbes. And then when I was in high school I got really into Pogo. I really loved Walt Kelly's line quality. My stuff is obviously a lot more simple than what he was able to do. I loved his line weight, the angular marks he would make.
CB: Do you work in pen?
ROB: Yeah, I work in pen. I use those Micron pens. Like a number five or three or eight, whatever it takes for what I'm working on. And then, until I started doing the strip I'd never worked with Photoshop. I draw it, scan it, clean it up, color it up for the Sundays. I don't know how I survived before Photoshop. Man, do I love that program. More than that, I just love my computer.
Ten years ago, when I was doing illustration -- when I was just starting out -- I'd spend all my time having to run this here and ship this here, and run to the library to get reference. Now you can do it all just sitting in your chair. And it's so fast.
CB: As the tape winds down -- Is there anything in particular that you'd like people to know about you?
ROB: If there's one thing I take pride in, it's the ability to do the fine art as well as the cartooning. I don't mean that to sound arrogant or anything. I just really enjoy doing both.
All art © 2004 Rob Harrell
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