Rob Harrell created, wrote and drew the syndicated daily comic strip Big Top from 2002 through 2007 and currently writes and draws the long-running daily strip Adam@Home, which appears in more than 140 papers worldwide. In 2013, his first graphic novel Monster on the Hill was released by Top Shelf Productions, and on September 2, 2014, the first novel in his new series will be released from Dial Books: Life of Zarf: The Trouble with Weasels. Zarf is a troll, and with his token big ears and hairy feet, his place on the middle-school social ladder is fixed. His two best friends, an anxious mutton-obsessed pig and the humourless son of the court jester, aren’t fairing any better. When the king disappears, and Zarf’s arch enemy, the prince, ascends the throne, he makes Zarf’s life even more miserable.
So why are Zarf and his friends left to find the missing king?
Rob, congratulations on the forthcoming publication of Life of Zarf: The Trouble with Weasels! Cartoonist, graphic novelist and now children’s book author – that’s quite a hat-trick! “Wimpy Kid meets Shrek” seems like such an obvious amalgam, but while that’s a fair appraisal, Zarf exudes originality and has its own distinct sense of humor. How long has Zarf been percolating in your mind ?
It’s been in there for a while. I’ve been working on some form of the idea for a couple of years, but you can see some of the seeds of the idea in Big Top and Monster on the Hill. It’s in line with the humor in those. I had the idea for the world around Zarf before I actually had the character, but once he showed up in a sketchbook, I knew I’d found my troll.
Life of Zarf: The Trouble with Weasels blends illustrations with prose. If this publishing deal with Dial hadn’t come to fruition, could Zarf have existed as a comic strip or graphic novel, or do you think the prose is essential to the narrative’s success? Or, perhaps the other way around, could the novel exist without the illustrations?
I definitely had this in mind as an illustration/prose hybrid from the beginning. I think it could have worked as a graphic novel, though part of the fun was that I was able to stretch out and really write as opposed to writing mostly dialogue, like you do (primarily) in a graphic novel or a comic strip. I think it could also be told as a novel without the illustrations, but I started my career as an artist and I had way too much fun with some of the drawings to want to give that aspect up.
The humor in Zarf is suitable for all ages, and I imagine parents will be chuckling along with their guffawing kids as they read the novel. How difficult was it to curb your natural wit and to keep the humor age-appropriate?
That’s one of the great things about coming from doing a newspaper comic strip. I’ve had 12 years practice at being as funny as I could be and still be appropriate for anyone who picks it up. Newspaper strips are incredibly clean, to the point where you can’t use words that you hear every day on TV, so you end up finding ways to get a laugh without the easy go-to of shock value. So, if anything, I was able to loosen up a bit for Zarf.
Is Zarf an amalgam of anyone you know, maybe even your younger self? In terms of the Middle School social ladder, I was right about where Zarf is and didn’t have the benefit of superhuman troll strength! How easy was it shifting into the mind-set of a middle schooler?
I’d say it was pretty easy to get into that mindset. Doing comics for a living, I’ve placed quite a bit of importance on not growing up. I mean, everyone grows up to some degree, and we end up with responsibilities and jobs and all, but I really have made an effort to remain in touch with my inner 12-year old (he says, looking past his computer at his Godzilla doll holding a tiny Duff beer from a Simpsons character). I think there is quite a bit of myself in my three main characters (Zarf, Kevin and Chester), but there is quite a bit of a couple of my good middle school friends in there as well. I will say that Cotswin, the school, looks identical to my middle school in my mind. I can’t imagine writing a middle school book and NOT using your own school as the template. It’s really fun. Kind of like reliving those years.
Can you tease what challenges Zarf might face in the future? Maybe something to do with the super-cute Sierra?
Oh, Sierra will definitely be playing a larger role soon, and family histories may have an impact on some of the main players. That’s the problem with living in a storybook world: there’s always another story waiting to sweep you up and get you involved. Although, I suppose that’s part of the fun, as well.