December 2004

Sharon Adarlo

fiction

Owly: The Way Home and the Bittersweet Summer by Andy Runton

Owly, a new all ages graphic novel from Top Shelf Productions, is shocking. It’s the kind of book that would make Jesse Helms spin in his grave and Marquis De Sade grasp for the smelling salts and cry, “Holy Mother of God!” Don’t let the all ages designation fool you. This graphic novel is the work of a deeply depraved individual who by proxy, let’s his character Owly, an owl, engage in scatological misadventures through the wastelands and wooded slums of Georgia -- no doubt it’s a dark mirror into Andy Runton’s, the creator, sick twisted mind, a stinking -- er, wait! Owly is really not at all like that. Really. Truly.

In the crowded entertainment market, marked by so many of the things detailed above, Owly is an almost old-fashioned return to the aesopic tales that we grew up with as children and the most important and enduring stories that dot our literary heritage. Yes, it’s a graphic novel. No, there won’t be any whips and chains and what have you -- sorry to disappoint -- but it’s really the story of a youngish owl, existential angst, friendship, and that “saying goodbye doesn’t mean forever.”

Owly lives in the woods, somewhere in Andy Runton’s backyard of pastoral Georgia. It’s a beautiful forest lovingly detailed in the front and end flaps. The book itself is rendered skillfully in black and white and contains few words. The characters communicate by pictographs in word balloons and Runton easily conveys the import of their message. Owly himself is a rotund owl with pokemon-esque features. He is very round, has stubby arms, an adorable little beak, and huge anime-like eyes. He makes his home in a cozy hole of a tree, but other than that, like so many of today’s 20-somethings, he suffers from a touch of loneliness and would very much like a friend. Because of his gentle and giving nature, he acquires them in the form of a go-getter of a worm named Wormy and two zippy humming birds.

Owly is a simple little graphic novel. There’s no grand overarching theme, no meta fluff, no twist endings. But don’t confuse simplicity with stupidity because it isn’t. Owly the book is not condescending. It doesn’t resort to any cheap gimmicks to get its point across. It’s a straightforward story that manages not to be saccharine or precious when it examines friendship and compassion and yet it’s complex enough to make the characters seem real and whole, a skill that Runton dispenses in his facile depiction of the various characters’ actions and countenances. The drawings are relatively simple and yet done with the grace of a calligraphist -- Runton only needs a few strokes of his pen to convey the deepest of emotions. It’s most definitely an all ages comic book, something that would appeal to five-year-olds and the inner kid among us. It is also a return to the tales of Aesop and all those dust-covered but timeless tales of anthropomorphic animals teaching us basic morals and the value of trust and compassion -- a welcome antidote to those who would like a break from Halo 2, Janet Jackson’s nipple, and Bill O’Reilley’s falafel.

On another note, the very charismatic and kid-friendly Owly seems ready for prime time. If only Andy Runton could parlay his character into children chapter books, picture books, merchandising deals, Madison Avenue advertising -- why we could have t-shirts, thongs, backpacks, lunch boxes, plushy toys, and promotional cell phones! We could really give Barney a run for his money, and then Owly will crush and dismember his competitors, make mince meat of Mickey Mouse, conquer the global market on cuteness and bedspreads, and have African Bush men wearing Owly jammers, Afghan warlords buying Owly underoos for the kiddies, and Japanese otaku in Tokyo’s Takeshita Street, giggling in their cosplay gothic Lolita frocks, clutching their official Owly lip stick cases and singing his praises in cell phone text messages all over – “Owlysan wa KAWAII DESUNEE!!!111!!!111”

Owly: The Way Home and The Bittersweet Summer by Andy Runton
Top Shelf Productions
ISBN: 1891830627
160 Pages