What A Hoot: Runton talks "Owly"

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"Owly" is a comic book about, well, an owl named Owly.

Simple, eh?

It is simple, in a deceptively complex way. Owly is a shy, thoughtful sensitive little guy, with a solid group of friends. His tales are silent, with thoughts and words expressed through icons rather than speech.

And he's taken the world by storm since Top Shelf Comics began publishing the series of graphic novels, written and drawn by Andy Runton, and the series has developed a hard core following of fans, a phenemon due in no small part to Runton's road dog approach to touring.

Runton just got back from Mega Con, but he took the time to talk with us about "Owly," touring and, for the second time in two weeks from an artist drawing an animal starring book with no dialogue, the role of G.I. Joe's Snake Eyes as an artistic inspiration. CBR News: Andy, have you always had an interest in being an illustrator?

Andy Runton: I've been drawing for as long as I can remember. It was just something I did all the time. I've loved cartoons and comics strips since I was little. My mom's parents live in south Florida, so we would drive down there and be in the car for hours. I didn't mind; I had plenty of time to draw while riding in the back seat.

CBR: What kind of comics did you read growing up?

AR: I remember my Mom reading me the Sunday comics... that was probably my first exposure. As far as stand-alone comic books, I remember my older brother having old "Star Wars" and "Battlestar Galactica" comics. I first walked into a real comic store in the early '80s searching for "Transformers" and "G.I. Joe" comics. I can still remember looking around in amazement for the first time at the walls of comics.

But I mostly bought comics from my local convenience store. The first comic that really excited me was "G.I. Joe" #21, "Silent Interlude," which didn't have any words. It's still one of my favorite comics. The issues that followed, with Snake Eyes' origin story, completely captivated me. I was hooked. Pretty soon I found the X-Men and X-Factor, and they kept my attention for a while, but then I discovered the "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" and that's where I stayed for years.

CBR: Talk about the origin of "Owly." How was it born?

AR: Well, I've always loved owls and drawing, but "Owly" started out as a simple little doodle on a post-it note. When I was in college, I lived at home, and I would stay up really late working on design projects. 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 always loved my cute little drawings - the cuter the better. So I drew this little owl on the notes to make her smile. But I drew him for years, and after a while, he sort of became my mascot. Years later when I was trying to come up with a comic book idea, I tried everything - dragons, aliens, ninjas - nothing worked.

Then one day, I just looked at my little owl and saw what I had. He had his own group of friends and I loved drawing him. It all just unfolded. He had been there all the time and I had missed him. After that, we came up with the name "Owly," and I started writing stories and everything just clicked.

CBR: The, well, I guess you would call it pictographic dialogue used in "Owy" is fairly unique. How did that come about?

AR: Well, I had struggled with writing in the comics I did before "Owly." All of the sentences came out clunky, especially the dialogue. I don't really consider myself a writer. Every piece of dialogue I wrote just didn't sound right. But I was trying to get my first little "Owly" story done in time for a convention, so I decided just to leave off the words.

To my surprise, the story still worked. For the next story, I tried to convey everything with expressions and body language. I ended up using words on signs and in books to help the story along. But I still had trouble communicating everything through emotions. Some ideas are difficult to convey in just static pictures.

Then I saw "Where Hats Go" by Kurt Wolfgang. I could never do what he did, but I used to design computer icons for a living. I knew that good icons can convey complex ideas clearly, so I brought that into my comics. But I tried to keep them simple enough that they don't overpower the drawings, and the reader still has to participate in the story.

CBR: Who are your main creative inspirations?

AR: My tastes are pretty eclectic, but my biggest influence is definitely "Calvin & Hobbes" creator Bill Watterson. Once I saw his comics, I realized I had so much to learn, and I didn't know where to start. His artwork blew me away, and I got to see it every day in the newspaper. When I was growing up, I read the early black and white "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" by Kevin Eastman, Peter Laird, and Eric Talbot; their boldness really stuck with me.

But besides comics, I was a cartoon junky. I watched every cartoon I could. I loved Looney Tunes and all of the Disney movies, especially "Dumbo," "Pete's Dragon," "The Rescuers" and "Robin Hood." When I got back into comics, it was because of Mike Mignola, Jim Mahfood and Scott Morse. Their heavy use of black and bold sense of design was one of the main things that drew me in and really excited me.

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CBR: Since it's all ages and, well, good, how is "Owly" doing in the library and school markets?

AR: We certainly have many friends in libraries and schools. I never dreamed Owly would be so popular, but I've gotten lots of letters and emails from librarians and teachers from all over the world. They're able to use "Owly" in their classrooms and even use the icons as a bridge into reading comprehension. In the end, the kids really enjoy "Owly" so that makes their job easier. I'm just happy to be able to help.

CBR: You attend a lot of conventions each year. How has that affected the creation of "Owly?"

AR: Comic conventions are truly the soul of the comics world. Comics is much more of a community then any other industry I've experienced. I came from an incredibly high-tech industry and I was shocked to find out how low-tech the comics world is. But that's not a bad thing. Success isn't based on resumes, flashy business cards, or websites – it's about relationships.

The comic conventions aren't about competition, they're about support. I really modeled my attitude after the guys at Top Shelf. Chris, Brett and Rob do more conventions then any publisher in the business and they do it for a reason. Every show is just like a live performance for a band. You get your stuff out there, you make new fans and you meet new people.

The more shows you do, the more you build a fan-base. If you keep at it, you'll start seeing many of the same professionals and retailers at the shows. Over time, you'll get to know them well. It's a lot of hard work and it can get pretty expensive (travel, hotel, meals), but the rewards are out there if you're committed.

CBR: What's the process of producing each book like? Do you start with a script?

AR: It takes me about six months to create a book from start to finish. The hardest part is coming up with an idea and then developing all of the characters and the events that have to all work together. I discuss the story heavily with Mom and we work out all the details before I send the outline to my editors, and they take a look at it, too.

Once everyone has seen it and the basic concept of the story is finalized, I start sketching it out. I don't use a script. I just start drawing panels and telling the story. I draw about five panels per page and re-arrange them as I go, making sure that it all flows the way I want it. I pencil out the whole book that way and work with my Mom and a few other friends to make sure everything is clear.

Then I show it to my editors and they read it through and ask me questions about it. If anything needs clarification, I rework pages and panels until we're all happy with it. After that, I start inking and ink the entire book at the rate of about three to four pages a day, and then, I show the finished book to everybody to get their feedback. I take all of their comments and suggestions into consideration, polish it up, write up the indicia, lay out the book, design the back cover and then the book is finally ready for press.

CBR: You have produced an original "Owly" story for Free Comic Book Day. Has that helped get the word out?

AR: Absolutely. Through Free Comic Book Day we're able to get around 50,000 books out and in the hands of kids-of-all-ages in a single day. My editors and I put a lot of effort into those books even though we just give them away. We don't repackage old collections or throw-away stories. We craft original stories specifically for Free Comic Book Day. That makes them the perfect thing to hand to a new reader and let them know what comics is all about.

CBR: Tell us about the new "Owly" books to come.

AR: I actually have two new Owly stories coming out soon. "Owly," Volume 4 and the 2007 Free Comic Book Day offering from Top Shelf. "Owly," Volume 4 is called "A Time to be Brave" and it's about a new visitor to the forest, a little possum, who is also misunderstood because of how he looks. But, as usual, things aren't what they seem, and everyone soon finds out that the power of friendship can fix just about anything.

The Free Comic Book Day story is called "Helping Hands." That's an all new, heartwarming, springtime story, where Owly and Wormy help a new friend, a little bunny, face her fears with a little help from Owly's past. I'm really excited about working on these because with all of the touring I did last year, I didn't have as much time to spend with Owly and his friends, and I've really missed them. [smiles]

CBR: One of the big questions on the minds of publishers, retailers anf fans alike is how to get kids back to reading comics, what do you think needs to happen?

AR: I'm not really sure. Interacting with the books is a big deal to me. My first experience reading real comic books came from reading them at the rack in my local convenience store – seeing the cool images inside the cover, being amazed at the characters and stories I was seeing.

A few shops in my area still bag and tape their books, and that really bugs me. That's treating the books like collectibles, and not like what they are – books. The stories and the content should be the things that matter.

In my opinion, the best stores out there are already kid-friendly, parent and grown-up friendly and promote the kinds of books that make us proud to be in this business, not the fads. Well-labeled sections, well-lit stores, and friendly and knowledgeable salespeople seem to be the key, but in the end it's all about the owner and the personality of the stores.

CBR: Anything else in the brewing creatively?

AR: Well, we're working on some new things in addition to more books that should keep the Owly fans happy. I can't really say much about them now, but if everything goes according to plan, hopefully we'll have some of those in time for Comic-Con International in San Diego.

CBR: Thanks for talking with us, Andy.

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