Into the Woods: Andy Runton talks "Owly"

Tue, December 11th, 2007 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Shaun Manning, Staff Writer

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"Owly: A Time to Be Brave"
Last week saw the debut of Andy Runton's latest all-ages book, "Owly: A Time to Be Brave," from Top Shelf. The fourth book in the "Owly" series, in which woodland animals communicate through picture-based dialogue and brimming facial expressions, finds our hero teaching his friends about overcoming fear, while learning something himself in the process. CBR News had a chance to talk with Runton about the new book and Owly's continuing inspiration.

Though the concept of "Owly" and his stories are pretty straightforward, the use of silent communication makes the books unusual for the genre of children's books and nearly unique in comics. This signature trait of the Owly books was a case of necessity giving birth to innovation. "When I tried to write dialogue, I wasn't happy with the results," Runton said. "The first Owly story originally had words, but when it just wasn't working, I decided to leave them off and use his eyes and body language to tell the story. That was okay with me because I always loved silent characters, and it made me work harder to make sure the story was clear to anyone who reads it. Not having words also makes it easier for me to know what's working and what isn't. It's important that everyone can follow and enjoy the story, and I think that's why it appeals to both children and adults.

"I don't think it's all that different from traditional books, but I guess I've come to realize that Owly is really a hybrid of the worlds of traditional children's books and comic books," Runton continued. "When I was small, my mom would read children's books to me every night and when I got older, I read lots of comic books. For a while I actually wanted to do children's books, but every time I drew out a story, comics are what came out. Lots of panels and tons of pictures. I guess it was kind of just ingrained in me. So Owly seems to be a combination of my two favorite genres."

Time with Mom played a large part in Owly's creation, as well. "Owly started out as a simple little doodle on a post-it note. When I was in college, I lived at home and would stay up really late working on design projects," Runton said. "I would leave little notes for my mom and let her know what time I went to bed and it was always late, so she called me her little owl. She's loved my cute little drawings - the cuter the better. So I drew this little owl named Owly on the notes to make her smile. Over the years, Owly sort of became my mascot." Though he did not initially set out to make an "Owly" comic, Runton saw that he had already created a strong visual character with something like a story to support him. "One day, I just looked at Owly and saw what I had. He already had his own group of friends that I had been adding to the notes now and then, and I loved drawing him. He had been there all the time, but I had overlooked him in my searching. After that, everything just unfolded, and I started writing stories based on Owly."

Runton is modest regarding Owly's all-ages fan base. "I honestly didn't think anyone would like it but me, so I'm quite surprised of the broad appeal that Owly has," he said." "It's amazing, nonetheless. I never tried to make it appeal to everyone, but it just seemed to work out that way. These are the kinds of stories I was always drawn to when I was growing up. Sure I loved to read action and crime-fighting tales, but I always wanted to know more about the plucky little sidekick than the main character. Take for instance Star 'Wars.' R2D2 was always my favorite character as a kid. And Owly is kind of like the story of R2D2 and C3PO without all of the other stuff getting in the way. These are characters finding their own way and going on adventures, and I think that's what younger readers find appealing. And as for adults, I'll use the 'Star Wars' analogy again. My mom loves 'Star Wars' for the interplay between the characters and how they develop over time. Human interaction and friendship are timeless themes. And the 'Owly' stories are emotionally deep in that way. I think that combination helps make it a truly all-ages series."

The fourth Owly book "Owly: A Time to Be Brave," focuses on overcoming fear. Owly and Wormy try to make friends with an opossum, but Wormy thinks the new critter might be a dragon while the opossum has an instinctual fear of owls. Runton says that both the story set up and the moral are drawn from life. "The main story of book 4, like all of the Owly stories, has an element of truth to it," he said. "A while ago I created a little barrier under our deck out of wire fencing to help keep the stray cats from hiding under there and jumping out at the unsuspecting birds. I thought it was ingenious! Unfortunately, one night a little 'possum ended up getting caught on it. Don't worry, he wasn't hurt by it, just stuck in it. But that was what I used to build the story. That way, all of the emotion was real. The expressions of the 'possum in the story are taken straight from my memory, and Owly's feelings of fear and guilt were my own. The fear aspect came from my own fears of the unknown. Not knowing what the future holds and who is a friend or a foe, but knowing that in the end there aren't any dragons. The reality is that everybody has fears that can make them act different ways. If we understand each other, then we can all be friends and face the fears together."

"A Time to Brave" marks the first time an "Owly" book will be printed on recycled paper, a development Runton sees as "absolutely a positive step." The creator was keen on using environmentally-friendly stock from the beginning, but it was difficult to make room for the extra expense, especially in a new book from an indie publisher. "I used to work as a graphic designer, so I was familiar with all kinds of recycled paper that was made from everything from golf-course grass clippings to denim and even money," Runton said. "But the problem was always how much that kind of paper costs. Unfortunately, it's an added expense and in the small press we make very little on our books, so it was financially impossible to print the original 'Owly' books on recycled paper. The main obstacle was price. But, my publisher Chris Staros worked closely with Patrick Jodoin at our printer, Lebonfon, and they found a wonderful paper stock that was perfect. It handles the heavy blacks in Owly with ease, and we couldn't be happier with the results. This particular print run will use about 8,400 pounds of paper and with the new paper stock we'll be saving saving about 71.4 trees! We're using it on the reprints of the other books and relaunching the entire series this year with newly painted covers."

To promote the latest "Owly" adventure, Runton will be making his comic convention rounds. "I've been going to conventions since 2004, and the list of tour stops just seems to grow with each year," Runton said. "I'm still getting the schedule together, but this year I'll end up doing at least 10 convention appearances. I'll be visiting all of my favorite conventions such as MegaCon, Fluke, Heroes, MoCCA, San Diego, Baltimore and Dragon*Con as well as visiting some new ones! Free Comic Book Day is always a wonderful day, and I'll be somewhere special for that!"

Given the nature of "Owly," though, the artist is also stopping off at more education-minded venues. "The coolest thing is that I've started to be invited to more and more libraries, schools, comic stores, bookstores, and book festivals throughout the country, so I'm sure it'll be quite a busy year indeed."

 
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