Rob Harrell 

On his way to the Big Top

On his way to the Big Top

It’s an exciting, yet bittersweet time for local cartoonist and fine artist Rob Harrell. The first collection of his hilarious comic strip, Big Top, is available in bookstores, joining the ranks of classics like Peanuts, Bloom County and The Far Side. Big Top has also recently been picked up for syndication in Philadelphia, Boston and Melbourne, Australia. That’s the exciting part. The bittersweet lies in the fact that his internationally syndicated comic strip isn’t even carried in his hometown paper, The Indianapolis Star.

The DePauw University and Ringling School of Art and Design in Sarasota, Fla., graduate started Big Top in 2001 and was picked up by Universal Press Syndicate in April of 2002. Ever since then the antics of 11-year-old Pete, Dusty the poodle, Wink the bear, Manfred the monkey and many more have made Big Top an anomaly among most of the other comics in the paper — Big Top is actually funny!

NUVO: Tell us about your artistic background.

Harrell: I started drawing cartoons when I was in fourth grade. I learned by drawing the characters from the comics ... Peanuts, Alley Oop, stuff like that. I drew cartoons for my middle school, high school and college newspapers and yearbooks. After art school, I let the cartoons idle for a while while I focused on the fine art and illustration until I got the idea for Big Top and got back to it.

NUVO: Who are your influences?

Harrell: My cartooning is really influenced by a lot of the big guys. Berkeley Breathed [Bloom County], Garry Trudeau [Doonesbury], Bill Watterson [Calvin & Hobbes] and I love Walt Kelly [Pogo]. As for fine art, I love John Singer Sargent, Lucien Freud and a couple of newer painters, Malcolm Liepke and Ann Gale.

NUVO: Why isn’t Big Top carried locally?

Harrell: I don’t really know other than there haven’t been many changes [at The Star] recently. The last change they made, I think, is when they picked up Baldo, James and Mr. Potato Head. Mr. Potato Head is already gone and they dropped James fairly quickly, but they kept Baldo, and that was probably three or four years ago. I think it’s kind of a weird time for newspapers right now. They are reluctant to make any changes that might upset potential or existing subscribers. I understand the reasons why newspapers as a whole aren’t making changes, but in my fantasies I’d assumed that they would jump on it right away, but I’m going to keep bugging them.

NUVO: Is there room on the comics page for new material given that there’s so much space being taken up by older strips?

Harrell: Part of that is because so many comics pages have comics from retired and deceased cartoonists still taking up the space. And, please, don’t get me wrong, I still like Peanuts as much as anybody else. I think it’s brilliant, I think it’s hilarious, it’s a landmark, but there are new voices out there that need to be given room to grow. Essentially, I’m just trying to do a strip that I would want to read and one that I would find funny.

NUVO: Can you, as the creator, petition a paper to carry your strip?

Harrell: I’ve done some things where I have had people send in cards and stuff like that, and that might not do anything more than annoy them, frankly, but e-mails, phone calls or whatever from anybody who’s interested would be great … I think they get more feedback when they drop something than they ever do from someone when they want to see something new. But, you know there are a lot of good strips out there, not just Big Top, that I think should be getting more exposure. There’s a bunch of funny stuff out there that people are reading online, but those people don’t make as big a squawk about wanting to see that in their local newspaper as the people that would make a squawk when you pull out Prince Valiant. You do that and some people lose their minds over it. It almost feels like comic strips are like some people’s pets … you check in on them every day to see if they’re OK.

Harrell’s work can be viewed at or at, where you can have it sent daily to your e-mail. His new collection, Big Top, is available at local book stores.

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