May 07

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Birth of a Batpig by Rob Harrell

There are a few different origin stories for this particular super pig. There’s the Batpig that appears in my novel WINK, a creation of the main character Ross Maloy. And there’s the origin story of that character you can find in my new graphic novel WHEN PIGS FLY – that involves a mildly radioactive bat, some spandex and a lot of tasty sandwiches.

However, the real origins of Batpig go back to 2006, when I went through my “cancer year.” The cancer experience that was the basis for WINK.

Back then, I went through several biopsies, two surgeries and eight weeks of proton radiotherapy, lost the vision in my right eye, etc. etc.… and I did it all while drawing funny stories about circus animals.

That sounds kind of weird, so let me explain: At the time, I was writing and drawing a syndicated daily comic strip called Big Top. It was about a kid helping to run a circus alongside a bunch of animals. A smart-alecky trained poodle. A former biker gang bear.

Doing that daily strip helped keep me my sanity and my sense of humor through what was a genuinely scary time. Every day, no matter how tired I was from the treatments or how bad my eye hurt, I sat down and had to write and draw something funny. The deadlines kept coming, and I’m so glad they did.

So, cut to a few years ago when I started to write my novel, WINK. I wanted Ross to have his Big Top. If I was going to put this poor character through a fictionalized version of what I went through, I wanted him to have at least as many tools in his arsenal as I did. And that’s when Batpig was born.

Well… not immediately. In the first few drafts Ross was drawing a character called BatHamster. It was the same superhero outfit, but as time went on, I realized there weren’t a ton of groan-worthy hamster puns, so I started dabbling with different animals. And when I landed on Batpig, Ross and I both knew we’d found our bacon-flavored hero.

So, Ross started used his Batpig comics to work through the tougher parts of his cancer situation: the treatments, the anger, the eye goop. What better way to battle what ails you then to grab a pen and paper and have your alter ego strap on some tights and a cape and defeat them on the page.

But now, Batpig is beginning a new chapter. Literally.

After finishing WINK – a book I loved writing, but a process that involved a lot of time reliving past awfulness – I wanted to bring on the fun. A palate cleanser. I’d had a ball writing the superhero strips for Ross, and now I wanted to figure out who was behind that mask. (Turns out it was Gary Yorkshire – a city-dwelling middle school pig obsessed with video games and candlelit mud baths.) It was time to take that shiny new cape out for a spin!

That’s how WHEN PIGS FLY came to be. It’s a fully illustrated, full-color book this time, and the bottom line this time is Fun – with a capital F. It pokes fun at the whole superhero genre, but It’s also about the power of friendship. I love the dynamic between Gary and his two best friends – Carl (a fish with an attitude) and Brooklyn (a bat with a fear of heights). I’ve aimed this book at a slightly younger reader this time, although my REAL goal was to make anyone who picks it up have a great time. Don’t get me wrong, there are some life lessons hidden in the book’s three stories, but they’re mixed in with the laughs.  Who doesn’t need a top-hatted, revenge-obsessed giant lizard in their life? Or an evil butcher with a full staff of henchmen dressed in pork chop outfits?

Finally, in one of those weird full-circle moments, Batpig saved the day again. I settled down to the writing and art for Batpig just as the world got turned upside-down by Covid. And once again, the simple act of writing funny and drawing funny helped to pull me through in the craziest of topsy-turvy times. I kept one eye on the news, of course, but a huge part of my brain was mulling over a snappy comeback for Gary’s fish pal, Carl. Or figuring out how to stop a runaway pig-in-a-blanket making robot.

It turns out there are more benefits than you’d think to drawing pigs flying around in their underpants.

Rob Harrell created and drew the internationally syndicated comic strip Big Top, as well as the acclaimed graphic novel Monster on the Hill. He also writes and draws the long-running daily comic strip Adam@Home.  He lives with his wife in Austin, Texas.