What’s the first thing you look for when you’re deciding if a particular locale is worthy of your hard-earned tourist dollar?
Great accommodation? Sublimely-good food? Stellar attractions? Outstanding natural beauty? Scary monsters?
Sorry … wait … what what?! You heard me … MONSTERS.
In Rob Harrell‘s (Big Top, Adam@Home) delightful bonkers version of Victorian England, Monster on the Hill, monsters of all kinds of colourfully intimidating shapes, sizes and cantankerous dispositions – well, publicly anyway; truth is, like us, many monsters are just playing to the audience which expects SCARY, not conversationally sophisticated or emotionally nuanced – are commonplace.
In fact, if your town or city doesn’t have a monster scaring it every so often, and by scaring I mean knocking chunks off buildings, tipping over wooden carts and frightening eager visitors, then it’s severely lacking in any kind of civic pride.
It’s a delightfully quirky idea that Harrell commits to fully, with his lustrously expressive and incredibly cute artwork more than matching his ready wit and eye for convincing worldbuilding.
In fact, it’s that last aspect which probably deserve the most praise.
Very quickly within the opening pages, he makes a convincing case for a world where monsters are as welcome a feature of the civic landscape as fountains and paved roads, and while on paper it seems like a wildly offbeat concept, it totally comes alive and feels very much possible in Harrell’s accomplished hands.
In all honesty, you want it this to be the real version of the world because the Murk aside – he or she is a nightmarish though not invulnerable creature who attacks towns permanently or temporarily bereft of their monstrous guardians – it’s comically, fantastically, wildly original, a place where all the emerging mod-cons of the Victorian age are in place but which feels like a delicious throwback to a more Tolkienian age, albeit one in which tongues are very firmly planted in cheeks.
There is a gloriously wonderful sense of the ridiculous to proceedings.
While the narrative handles some reasonably serious topics – depression, self-worth, homelessness, professional dishonour, civic power and the glib attentiveness of tourists superficially dipping in and out of a place others called home – it does at all times with a mischievous sense of the silly and absurd.
Miraculously, in amongst all the witty oneliners, Monty Python-esque moments and manic madness, there is a robust, meaningful and thoughtful narrative at work.
The thing is that while people only see one-dimensional scary monsters out for their pound of human-scaring flesh, the source of all their thrilling scares – both residents and tourists alike are like adrenaline junkies, hooked on a regular supply of normalcy-jarring rampages by what they imagine are nightmarish creatures – just want to know that what they do matters.
It’s all very delightfully existential and as we get to know Rayburn, the depressed monster of Stoker-on-Avon, who’s lost his bestial mojo, and his new human friends, disgraced eccentric inventor Dr Charles Wilkie and plucky street urchin Timothy (who has to contend with a startlingly hilarious metamorphosis at one point), the storyline of Monster on the Hill is as much about wacky adventuring as it is finding out what and who matters to you and doing what you need to do to make sure they stay that way.
The emotional heart of this immersively fun and thoughtful tale, which is slated to become an animated feature from Paramount at some point, is the unexpected family that develops when Wilkie, with tenacious interloper Timothy, sets out to convince Stoker-on-Avon’s blithely-disinterested monster, who hasn’t anyone in quite some time, that he has still has it in him to be theatrically violent, town reputation-enhancing ogre.
Sure, much of the humour stems from the romping hilarity of their attempts to get Rayburn back to his monstering best but there is also a lot of emotional resonance percolating through the narrative which seamless cracks a joke while at the same time playing happily with our heartstrings.
Monster on the Hill is a joy in pretty much every respect – gloriously inventive, colourful artwork that recalls the visual joys of creations like Asterix, clever, witty dialogue that flows authentically from brilliantly-realised characters you come to care a ton about, a rip-roaring adventure of a storyline that is both silly and serious depending on what’s needed at the time, all of it imbued with a delicious, comically-filtered sense of what it means when you find purpose and a sense of belonging and life suddenly happily and yes, monstrously, comes alive again.