The recent much welcome resurgence of comics for kids has, for better of worse, largely been based around the reappropriation of existing franchises. On a whole, the books have been focused on expanding the exposure of characters developed for other mediums, rather than the development of all new ones.
The clearest exception to this rule has arguably been Andy Runton’s Owly. The artist describes his little owl as ‘iconic’—not so much to overstate his market saturation, but rather to point out his instant recognizability. Spotting Runton seated at the Top Shelf booth during a convention, it’s hard to argue the point.
The artist is surround not only by Owly t-shirts and stuffed animals—something of a strange sight amongst the publisher’s usual selection of goods—there’s also a constant stream of young children and parents waiting to shake his hand or receive a drawing of Runton’s little owl in the front cover of his latest adventure.
We caught up with Runton to discuss cartoon spinoffs, ninjas, and how his career as a computer programmer lead to the creation of indie comics’ most famous little owl.
There are a surprising number of kids out of the show.
Yeah, a lot of kids. A lot of parents, too. It’s funny, because I get a lot of parents who are buying books for their kids, but also some parents who buy them for themselves. The neat thing is that they know there’s a good mix of things for themselves and their kids here, and it’s good for them for the kids to see the creators. It’s such a neat mix. When you’re a kid and you draw comics, you don’t really realize that other people do that. You see it in the paper, but you don’t really realize that someone is doing it, and I think it’s a really great connection for these kids to see that. If I had seen artists drawing like that, it would have totally changed my life.
It’s interesting, because I interviewed Kyle Baker a while back, and he mentioned that sometimes the kids don’t want to know that there’s an invisible hand creating their favorite characters.
Yeah, that happens. That’s the difference. If you go to a library or something to go see the creator of Owly, they’re expect to be Owly. “Where is Owly? He’s not here, he’s not dressed up, he’s not drawing.” It’s different, but I think it’s better. When you’re a kid and you go to Disney World, you don’t get to meet the artists, you get to meet the characters that are alive. That’s kind of cool too, but this is cool in a different way. I think it’s neat. What I always do when I go around to talks is I show them how to draw the way I draw. I pencil first, and then I ink it, and they’re really captivated by it. They want to see how the process works. If I would have seen that when I was little, it wouldn’t have frustrated me so much with drawing, because you try to draw it and you’re just doing outlines, and you don’t plan it out, and unless your parents are artists, they don’t know how to do it, either.
Owly is a very simple character, visually. Is part of the reason you developed him like that so kids could eventually sit down and draw their own?
No. I’ve always been really interested in simple characters. In my old job I used to create icons.
Like desktop icons?
Yeah, that’s what I used to do for a living. I used to create user interfaces.
So you’ve got this many pixels and you need to make a picture.
Right. You’ve got to make it work. And it was like you really had to get to the heart of what you wanted to say. You had to play with it and simplify it enough that it was instantly recognizable. I’ve always loved signage and things like that, where you look at a logo and you know it. Bad logos are really complicated and good logos are really simplified. Over tim,e Owly has gotten a little more simple—less feathers and everything—to the point where he’s incredibly iconic. I really wasn’t thinking about that. It was just easier to draw him. It was easy to draw him happy or sad or make him do things, because he’s so simple.
In Scott McCloud’s book, Understanding Comics, he says that the simpler the drawing, the more you put into it to fill it out. Whereas photo-realistic drawings, they look like other people, the simplified drawings look like you. You put yourself into it and they look like you. If the character is too real, or too whatever, it’s not as appealing. I think that may be why he’s gotten so popular. People can really relate to him. It’s just like Charlie Brown. You put yourself in his shoes. With other people on the street, you can empathize with them, but you’re not them.
Did the Owly character come out of this picture that you liked to draw?
Yeah, I liked drawing this little owl. I did a little doodle for my mom every night, because she called me her “little night owl.”
How old were you?
Oh, I was in college, so I was pretty old.
This wasn’t a Jeff Smith-type of situation where you were five when you started drawing him?
No, I was in college, so I was 19 or 20. It was ’94 or ’95. Here I was, living at home, going to college, staying up all night. My mom called me “night owl,” so I drew this little drawing just to make her not worry about me. She loved cute stuff, so I tried to make him as cute as possible. Now, at that time, I was trying to draw ‘serious comics.’ I can’t draw people that well, but I was still trying to draw ninjas and dragons and aliens and that kind of stuff. That was the kind of stuff I like. Owly was different. He was something that I did for my mom and he was cute and I didn’t think I wanted to do that. But over time, I realized that I enjoyed that a lot more. I finally said, “I’m gonna do this,” and I left the other stuff aside and focused on Owly. That’s when it kind of started working out.
Do you ever miss doing more adult work?
No. the thing was that I tried so hard to do that other stuff and it never worked out. I was always so frustrated by it. I always loved kids books. I didn’t like the other stuff. I liked the simpler more emotional stories, but not all of the angry stuff. I got enough of that in the real world. I wanted the escapism. i really wanted to do a children’s book. When I started doing Owly, it started as a children’s book, but I love comics so much that I started breaking it into panels. When I showed it to Top Shelf, I didn’t know if they would like it, because they didn’t really have any kids stuff. They do emotional stuff, but they didn’t do any kids stuff. I was surprised. They really, really liked it.
You said that the parents were picking up the book. Do you find that there’s also a crossover for adults without kids?
Oh yeah. Absolutely. It really truly is all ages. I go to a lot of mainstream shows, and a lot of guys are in line for their Witchblade stuff, but they’re there with their girlfriends and wives and stuff and they go, “did you get the new Owly?” They like it too. I never thought that the appeal would be so broad. That’s the thing, too—I’m 33 and I create this book. I write it for my own age. It’s not like I write it down or write it up. I don’t write it for grandparents or little kids, I’m writing for myself. I think that everyone can relate to it.
I’ve seen you at a few of these shows now, and you’re the one guy at the Top Shelf both with all of the merchandise.
The stuffed animals came out of the fact that I always loved stuffed animals as a kid. My mom made one, just as a little mascot, and everbody wanted it. they thought it was for sale. We got so many requests that we just decided to make them. And I’ve always love t-shirts. I used to be a designer, so I made up so shirts and they sold well. A lot of it is, if you have the stuff, they don’t mind. A lot of it’s done through Top Shelf, but a lot of the other guys just focus on their books and don’t worry about it.
Animation seems like the next logical step.
Yeah, that would be really cool. A lot of the guys who are looking to do that don’t pay a lot of money, because it’s very time intensive. In the end, they’re not going to make a lot of money, unless they really sell a lot of it, so they don’t really pay a lot. What we’re trying to do is build a base, so that the demand for an Owly cartoon is there.
It’s something that interests you, then.
Yeah, I’d like to do it, but it’s something that would have to be done well. Owly is something that I want to do for the rest of my life, so I don’t want to sell it to someone, have them make a really bad CG thing. I want to do this for a long, long time, so I don’t mind taking my time.