An interview with: Andy Runton
By Jenny Seay
01 August 2006 — Owly wasn't bitten by a radioactive spider, and imbued with all of its unique abilities. Nor was he rocketed from a doomed planet, destined to become the greatest champion his adoptive world would ever know. But he's a hero nonetheless — a hero to giggling children, as well as adults who have grown weary of violent superheroes. Whereas they sling fists to make the world a better, safer place, Owly lends a helping hand by selflessly giving his last scraps of food, sharing his home and, most importantly, hugging anyone in need of reassurance or friendship.
His kindhearted, altruistic nature warms readers' hearts, and transcends demographics. Age, creed, race all mean nothing when reading Owly; the lessons learned within — love, friendship, caring — apply to everyone everywhere, and serve to remind us that we're never too old (or young) to open our hearts.
The uplifting tales of Owly and his little woodland pals spring from the mind of one Andy Runton, the equally kindhearted creator / model of Owly. What was the impetus for Owly, and what's in store for the lovable owl? That's what Andy is here to answer.
JS: I've read other interviews regarding the origin of Owly. Would you mind retelling how he evolved from personal sketches into a full-fledged character?
AR: Well, in college I used to stay up really late. But I was living at home, so I would leave my mom these little notes to let her know what time I went to bed so she wouldn't worry. Because I would stay up so late, she started calling me her "little owl." So, one night I drew a little owl on the note. She loved him so I just kept drawing him on the notes. Eventually, they got more and more complex. But nothing really became of him. After I lost my job as a graphic designer, I decided I wanted to draw comics. A friend of mine (James Mason of UrbanShogun.com) wrote me a story to draw. It was a cool story, but it was also kinda violent. So I was struggling with it. That's really not me. So, one day in my sketchbook, I drew a little story with the owl from my notes. My mom had always called him Owly, so that's what I stuck with. In the story, he was just walking along and then he hesitantly stopped... looked around and bent down to smell the flowers. Then that night, he's lonely so he decides to draw the flowers to make him happy. So I had a little character who was really just me in disguise, struggling with being true to what I wanted to do. But I didn't do anything with that for months. Around that time, I found Top Shelf and the kinds of personal comics they did. I knew that was what I really wanted to do. I dusted off little Owly and adapted that initial story into a 4 page comic that I showed to Chris Staros and Robert Venditti of Top Shelf. They loved the character and encouraged me to write longer stories so that's what I did.
JS: How long did it take to get Owly from initial concept to graphic novel?
AR: Well, I did it in two chunks. Before I drew The Way Home, the longest story I had drawn was 16 pages. At 54 pages, it was a big leap. I had started that story long ago, but it took me a while to learn how to tell it. I suppose I started that around May 2003, and I finished it in time to self-publish it as a mini-comic at SPX the following September. Then, I wrote The Bittersweet Summer and submitted that for Xeric consideration in January 2004. After I found out that I didn't win the Xeric grant, Top Shelf picked up Owly and we decided the first graphic novel would combine those two stories. So really, all-in-all, around a year.
JS: You've said that your story ideas are a combination of things from your life and things you've observed in animal behavior. Is it difficult to merge these two sources of material?
AR: It is. I have to see things that happen in real life and re-imagine how things would be different if Owly was there. But a lot of that is just putting myself in those situations and thinking about how I'd react. The Owly stories aren't really that complex story wise, but I like to think of them as complex emotionally. Owly is learning and growing from every experience, and we get to join him on the journey.
JS: Is it a conscious decision to make the stories you tell suitable for all ages, or does that happen organically?
AR: I suppose it kinda happens organically. I've always loved stories with happy endings. It's just something I'm drawn to, I suppose. Plus my mom and family are a huge part of my life, so I always want to make things that I can share with them and that will also appeal to everyone no matter if they're young or old.
JS: Do you hope that more stories like these (personal versus epic superhero tales) will be told in comic book form? Who are some unsung heroes of the business?
AR: I hope so. Those are my favorite kinds of stories. There are certainly many out there now, but because they're so personal, every one is uniquely different so you can never get enough! Most of these kinds of stories can be found from small press companies like Top Shelf and Drawn & Quarterly and in all of the little mini-comics that you can only find at small-press shows like SPX, MoCCA, TCAF, SPACE and APE.
JS: Would you ever consider only writing (or only drawing), or do you need to have full control over your work?
AR: I don't think so. The way I write and draw the stories, they are constantly evolving. What I start with is very different from the finished product. When I pencil things out I keep them really loose and leave the rest up to my imagination. When it's finally inked, that's the first time I really see it completely fleshed out. I'm not sure that would work the same way in someone else's hands.
JS: Is Owly your primary creative commitment, or do you have other projects the world has yet to see?
AR: Owly is what I'm focusing on. Each book takes me around six months to produce, and each Free Comic Book Day book takes around two and a half months. And I go to a lot of comic shows and do a lot of appearances to help promote Owly — 16 last year and 17 this year. So that doesn't leave much time for anything else. But I wouldn't change a thing. However, I do hope to have time to produce more Owly-related merchandise and other goodies soon, though.
JS: What can we expect from Owly in the future?
AR: I'm actually working on the fourth graphic novel now, and we'll have the plush Owlies out in late Summer. I love this world and all of the characters in it so I plan on writing and drawing Owly stories for a very long time. Owly still has lots of friends to make and lots of adventures to go on.
JS: Owly seems perfect for a cartoon series or even a full-length animated feature. Are there any plans to take him in either of those directions?
AR Not currently. But I'd certainly love to try that some day.
JS: What do you hope your audience takes away from your books?
AR: Hmm... I'm not sure. I guess I'd just maybe like them to learn that it's okay to be kind and gentle. And maybe that the beauty of nature is all around us and we can all fit in and make this world a better place at the same time. If I can manage to capture and communicate just a little of that I'd be very happy.