Andy Runton's heartwarming and adorable hero Owly is set for a new adventure in February, this time venturing into the world of picture books to chase butterflies. “Owly and Wormy: Friends All Aflutter,” which will mark the Owly's full-color debut, finds the titular pictogram-speaking animals hoping to meet new friends but discovering something unexpected along the way. The forty-page picture book “Owly and Wormy” will be published by Simon & Schuster under license from Top Shelf Productions," and Top Shelf will release the next “Owly” graphic novel in October. CBR News spoke with Runton about both projects and the challenges behind adding a bit of color to Owly's world.
“Owly and Wormy: Friends All Aflutter” is a bit different from the other “Owly” books in that it's a square, 40-page hardcover picture book, in color, published by Simon & Schuster. Runton said, though, that at its heart the book is “just another Owly story” and that the already all-ages-friendly series was not being adapted to suit a younger audience. “It's truly meant to be enjoyed by all ages. 'Friends All Aflutter' originally started out as a graphic novel, but when Simon & Schuster approached us to do a children's book, we decided this was the perfect story for this format.”
The cartoonist hopes that “Owly and Wormy” will reach a whole new audience. “The main purpose of the format was to introduce Owly to a whole new kind of reader who might not be aware of the graphic novels,” Runton said. “Families love Owly and it seemed like a great way to expand our audience. The format also allowed me to experiment with a slightly simplified version of my storytelling. I really had to edit down the story to the most important panels and really let it breathe. It was an interesting exercise because there aren't any panels. I use vignettes and full-page drawings (including spreads), to really make the characters come to life.”
An “Owly” picture book was a longtime goal of Runton's, and the arrangement between Top Cow and Simon & Schuster came about out of a desire to make sure it reached as many potential new readers as possible, the cartoonist told CBR. “When I first thought of Owly, I had planned to make his stories into picture books. I always read comics when I was growing up and loved the storytelling aspects of the medium. So, when I started drawing Owly, I drew the stories as comics. I just went with it and enjoyed the process and the results,” Runton said of the series' development. “Around 2005, Chris Staros, my publisher at Top Shelf, and I toyed around with the idea of creating a little plush version of Owly. My mom and I created a prototype and he traveled around to shows with us. Owly got so much attention that we manufactured them and they were a huge hit. Now, we didn't know that he would be that popular, it was just something I wanted to do. As a kid I really loved stuffed animals so I naturally wanted to see Owly as one.
"The same is true with the children's picture book. They're some of my favorite forms of storytelling out there and they represent a simpler time when our lives are full of wonder. Around 2006 we talked about creating an Owly picture book. That particular market is one best suited for experts, so we wanted to try partnering with someone who really knew that business. We had a few false starts, but Chris pitched the idea to Simon & Schuster in 2008 and they loved it. After that, we were on our way.”
Working with a mass market publisher and working in color for the first time both contributed to a longer production process than is usually the case for Runton's “Owly” books. He said that while coloring “Owly” required a few new tricks, he did not alter his line art for the picture book, though other changes were necessary. “I experimented with a few different techniques but decided to draw the book in the same way I drew the graphic novels. Over the years I've been able to experiment with color on various posters, prints and the latest covers for the graphic novels, so it was a gradual learning process,” Runton said. “In terms of how I drew the book, Simon & Schuster didn't want me to change the way Owly talks or add any words to the stories. But drawing this book really turned out to be a very different process. I don't usually have a set page length for my stories in the graphic novels, although I do have to do that sometimes (such as with Free Comic Book Day). That meant really working with the pacing to make sure the story didn't feel rushed or compressed. I also decided not to use panels. That opened up the story to allow for new kinds of page layouts, but I also had to edit down my storytelling to help the images breathe. I also didn't use as much black and let the color handle more of the ambiance.
“The overall process is also a much lengthier one,” the cartoonist continued. “The coloring took a while and on top of that, I was dealing with new editors, an art director and a whole corporation, and that was a big change. Usually once the book is done, I personally send the files to the printer and we'll have the graphic novels in two months. That's not the way it is in this market. Books are planned out years in advance and take much longer to get printed and on the shelves.”
Outside of the process and the publishing arrangements, “Friends All Aflutter” is ultimately about the characters. “It's a great story about wanting something but getting something you don't expect, and along the way, realizing what's truly important," Runton said. "I don't want to give too much away because the surprise is part of the fun. It's a fun and emotional story and I'm really excited seeing it come to life in this new way.”
In addition to “Friends All Aflutter,” Top Shelf will release Runton's sixth “Owly” graphic novel in October. The book, “A Fishy Situation,” will also be in color, a first for the graphic novel series. “It will be digitally colored but it's not going to look exactly like the Owly picture book,” Runton said. “I'm not sure if I'll use that same look in the graphic novel. I'm really excited about experimenting a little more and using the colors to set a mood and to really make it flow with the storytelling. It's going to be great.”
Runton mentioned that colorizing the first five volumes of “Owly” is not a priority. “I only have a certain amount of time, so I'd rather work on new stories. It would take a while, but I'm certainly open to coloring them. If we found the right colorist, it could happen.”
Runton described the genesis of “Owly: A Fishy Situation” as steeped in his own real life experiences. "This is actually true of most of the Owly stories… there's a little kernel of truth that I use to build the narratives and 'A Fishy Situation' is no different,” he said. “Last year, in the summer, my mom went to a little local plant sale. When she got there, most of the plants were gone but one merchant had a few sad looking, little water plants that he said my mom could have.
"Well, we didn't have a pond so we decided to build a little water garden out of a half-barrel. The water garden thrived but when it got colder, most of the plants went dormant. So the following spring, we decided to trim some of them and get the garden all cleaned up. To our surprise we had a goldfish in our water garden! He had survived the winter. We never bought a fish, and no one put him in there… so we decided there must have been a little egg on one of those plants!” Runton said. “He's now alive and well in an aquarium and that's the inspiration for the new story. Much of it's the same, but it's going to take place in the Owly universe and it's going to be full of all the little emotional twists that make a story an Owly story. I can't wait to get working on it!”
Between “Friends All Aflutter” and “A Fishy Situation” comes a new “Owly” story in “Top Shelf Kids Club 2011,” the publisher's all-ages offering for Free Comic Book Day. “It's really great because Top Shelf has so many new series coming out this year that are all-ages friendly. It's a great time for kids and comics and Owly is right there, leading the charge,” said Runton.
Doing a series like “Owly” has allowed Runton to make some really fun merchandise, including Owly hats, magnets, the plush toy and a finger puppet postcard. “We really work hard to create the kinds of things we would like to have. And we put a lot of love into all of the products we create,” Runton said. “We have an Owly purse (hand made by my mom) that we debuted last year in San Diego Comic-Con. We'll be making backpack versions later this year and there will be some more new offerings as well. Whatever we make, I can guarantee it'll be absolutely adorable.”