Andy Runton and his Incredible Owl

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Everyone wonders about the industry's "next big thing." It turns out that the industry's next big thing is but a very little owl.

Broken Frontier spoke to Andy Runton about his critically-acclaimed Top Shelf creation Owly, nominated for a 2005 Eisner Award in the Best Publication for a Younger Audience category.

BROKEN FRONTIER: The initial volume of Owly met with an incredible amount of success with fans and critics alike. How did you approach following up such a successful book?

ANDY RUNTON: Well, the Owly stories are really personal for me. I never in my wildest dreams imagined the reaction the first book received. It was incredibly inspiring and gave me the courage to tell more of the stories I've always wanted to tell. The thing is, these books take a while to produce. I had already started the second book before the first one even came out. The process took a lot of twists and turns, but the reaction from the first book helped me believe that the book would come together in the end.

In the early spring of last year we put up bluebird houses. At first, the bluebirds wouldn't have anything to do with them. I knew what the second Owly book was going to be about right then, but it still took a while for the idea to fully form. Originally, the story involved a second family of birds, Chickadees, who also wanted to nest in the birdhouse that Owly and Wormy build.

At 120 pages, this is the longest story I've ever attempted. I was anxious and over-thinking it. I was trying to do too much. I realized that I had to keep it simple. These aren't the most complex stories in terms of plot. They're complex emotionally.

BF: Before your major graphic novels with Top Shelf, you published several Owly mini-comics. How difficult was the transition to the longer stories?

AR: It was incredibly difficult. Luckily, Chris Staros and Rob Venditti from Top Shelf were there to guide and encourage me. I showed them versions of my longer stories, and they tore them apart, but gently. I don't consider myself a writer, and I had so much to learn. I had already read as many books as I could on the subject, but you only really learn by doing it. I had an idea of what I wanted but was missing the big picture. Rescuing Wormy, the lighting bugs, all of those things were there. But I was missing the important things, like communicating who Owly was... I was just assuming everyone knew.

Chris and Rob really helped me realize what was missing. I had to show it on the page. Once the world opened up to me, I just wanted more. It took quite a few versions to get "The Way Home" to where it is now. It was certainly tough, but it was truly a magical time.

BF: Owly would appear to be a book with many restrictions, given that it is an all-ages story told with virtually no words. Have you ever faced any limitations in your work due to those storytelling aspects?

AR: Hmmm, sometimes, I suppose. The all-ages aspect is just part of who I am. That part is easy. The no-words aspect is the tricky part. There are sometimes I say to myself, "how in the world am I going to say that?!" But I try not to worry about those things when I'm coming up with the stories. In fact, that's one thing I really look forward to. Trying to figure out how to communicate something is like a fun little puzzle. It is getting more difficult. I'm trying not to over-use things like books, signs, and knowledgeable raccoons. [Laughs]

I've started using more thoughts and relying more on expressions and body language. The words and symbols are important, but most of the time they're only there to accentuate the ideas.

BF: Owly's eyes always show an incredible amount of emotion. How difficult is it to make certain that you convey the exact emotion you intend?

AR: That's something that's difficult to explain. I suppose I've just always paid close attention to eyes. When I'm drawing a certain expression, I'll catch myself holding that expression. When Owly's happy, I'm happy. And when he's sad, I'm sad. I guess it comes through. The real key is capturing it spontaneously. I rarely redo the expressions. The first little pencil sketch seems to capture it best. I guess it's because I'm not worrying about it. So I always try to keep that in mind when I'm inking up the final panels. Sure Owly's eyes may be "off" a little, but do they express the emotion? If they do, I just leave them. If I overwork them, the elusive quality I'm going for will vanish.

BF: Considering the fact that Owly is told almost entirely in pictures, how would you say your creative process varies from that of most creators?

AR: Well, I've only seen the creative process of a few artists. I think it's similar but different. I don't write out the stories. I just start with a basic outline. Something like this: Owly and Wormy gathering apples, see Chickadees eating seed with babies, Blue gets a pine needle, etc.

Once I have it all written out I just start drawing panels. I end up filling-in and taking-out along the way, rearranging panels, adding and cutting, cropping and flipping, just like if I was fine-tuning a slideshow presentation. Once it's all sketched out and arranged, I show it to my secret editor... my Mom... and make sure she can follow it. That's a critical step. Once it gets her approval, I show it to my friends at Top Shelf and get their editorial input. Then I ink it up and add all of the little details.

It really doesn't come together until it's inked. My 'pencils' are pretty rough (they're just blown up thumbnail sketches), but I'm inking it, so that's okay. The point is that I'm adding and taking away and changing all of the time. It's never locked in and it's never too late to make changes. I think that flexibility makes my process a little different, but overall, I'm sure it's about the same. However, I do get to skip the lettering stage. [Laughs]

BF: One of the most overlooked aspects of your work is the attention paid to the accuracy to the facts about birds and other wildlife. How long do you research such facts and how do you go about weaving them into your story?

AR: The truth is, I don't really have to research the facts for the stories. They're just things that I've learned along the way. I have tons of Birdie books, just like Owly. I'm just completely fascinated by birds and other wildlife. I see them act certain ways, and I just have to find out why. The more you read, the more interesting it gets. And then you start to notice more things, more details, more behaviors.

I've spent hours and hours watching the birds. For a while I didn't know what I wanted to do and who I wanted to be. The birds were some of my only friends. The stories let me share what I've felt and more. The hummingbirds for instance, Owly is able to communicate with them in ways I only dream of. I guess I just can't help but share these facts and weave them into the stories. It just kind of happens automatically.

BF: The most impressive aspect of your work in my mind is your ability to draw on universal emotions. How much of your work derives from personal experiences?

AR: Well, that's the hardest thing about telling these stories. In order to draw it, I have to feel it. If I don't, you can tell. The drawings are just missing something. Luckily and unluckily, I'm an emotional person, and I have a partially photographic memory of sorts. So I can remember certain similar situations and relive them in almost perfect detail... words, images, emotions. It's a blessing and a curse, but I'm able to tap into that when I'm drawing. It's not something I have to force, it just happens. The memories flood back, and I just project that into Owly. Some of the experiences are literal, like the hummingbirds leaving, that really happens and it always makes me sad. But most of the experiences and emotions are indeed more universal and are combinations of experiences.

BF: After Owly: Just A Little Blue, what's up next for Owly, Wormy, and company? Do you have any work planned besides Owly?

AR: Well, I just finished up the story for the Owly Free Comic Book Day Comic from Top Shelf. It's called "Splashin' Around." I think all of the Owly fans will enjoy it, and we also hope to make some new fans. But I'm already working on the next Owly story. It's called "Flying Lessons" and it's one I've been putting off for a long time. I think I'm ready to tell it, and I've got the basics down, but it's all still coming together. The thing is, the longer stories take me months to produce.

Unfortunately, I don't have to tell you how quickly they can be read. So, these days, I'm really dedicating all of my time to little Owly, Wormy and all of their friends.

BF: Finally, do you know how unbelievably cute a stuffed Owly would be? Any possibility?

AR: Actually, I do. The answer is: way too cute. In fact, he begs you to pick him up and hug him. My mom and I designed and made a plush prototype to take to SPX this past year. It took a lot of noodling and a lot of sewing, but we finally came up with something that is unmistakably Owly. I wasn't sure how he'd look in three dimensions, but I'm really happy with the result and the response from the fans was overwhelming.

So right now, we've got some of our friends working on making more! We should have them around September, in time for SPX 2005 and the next Owly book.

- Eliot Johnson

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