Friday, June 20, 2014

Comic Bookshelf: Owly, Vol.1

Owly from "The Way Home," written and drawn by Andy Runton.
I am frequently reminding my students the value of reading novels and magazines outside their comfort zones as a means of expanding and diversifying their reading experiences. Once in a while I even take my own advice. Though I have occasionally dabbled in reading and collecting all-ages comic books (most notably The Intrepid Escapegoat), of late not too much has appealed to my inner child enough to warrant a buy. That is, until I came across a few panels of Owly online and requested my local comic shop to procure a copy of his earliest published adventures, Owly, Vol. 1 by Andy Runton, the first collection of the character's stories published by Top Shelf Productions.

Owly is a kind, yet lonely, little owl who's always on the lookout for new friends and adventure. The first volume in the series contains two stories, "The Way Home" and "The Bittersweet Summer," wherein Owly discovers the meaning of friendship, and that saying goodbye doesn't always mean forever. Owly's stories are unique in that his adventures are wordless (silent) and, at least in this early volume, in black and white. The only "verbal" interaction between characters taking place are in rare, brief word balloon enclosed pictographs (as in the panels below to the right).

This emphasis on symbols and expressive character actions to move the narrative forward showcases Runton considerable (and appealing) storytelling skills. Unusual among such comic strip style comic books, the depth of characterization also lends Owly to a surprising level of re-readability, a quality most comic books in general often lack. As one migth expect, each of Owly's adventures reinforces some appropriate attributes about the nature of friendship and loss--themes that while certainly appropriate for an all-ages book are not to be dismissed as necessary for hardened adult readers to be reminded of too. Lack of awareness of Owly is a case of bad fanboy form on my part as the Owly series has earned Runton quite a bit of recognition in the comics and graphic novel community, including a Harvey and Eisner Award.

From "The Bittersweet Summer."
The first story in this graphic novel, "The Way Home", introduces Owly as a sweet and caring soul who inexplicably has difficulty making friends with other birds. This inability to be accepted by his own kind does not however preclude Owly from assisting a down-on-his-luck worm, suitably named Wormy, who has been separated from his family. As Owly helps Wormy find his family, a friendship develops with a moving resolution. (SPOILER: It is clear from the covers of other Owly books that he and Wormy remain close comrades.)

The second story,"The Bittersweet Summer," shows Owly and Wormy seeking to extend their circle of friends, this time with a pair of hummingbirds. Of course, when summer ends, the hummingbirds leave, until... I won't ruin it for you, but I can only imagine the conversation shared with parents reading this with younger readers regarding the definition of "bittersweet." Tiny gateways, such as this well placed word, to both visual and vocabulary literacy abound throughout both stories.

Beginning with the collection's dedication to Runton's mother, who "brought the joy of little birds into [his] life", the author's appreciation of nature and birds is clear. Subtle nods to observable bird behaviors echo through the stories in such a way as (I would reckon) to influence some to stop and watch the trees and skies for the same sort of nuanced expressive actions shared by Owly. Perhaps as a result of Runton's selected storytelling conventions (silent, black and white), the whole product is illustrative of the idea that less is more, from the images to the nuanced actions of the anthropomorphic characters.

Reasonably priced at $10 a volume, the Owly series, including Owly, Vol. 1: The Way Home and The Bittersweet Summer, are available at most excellent local comic shops. Highly recommended for all ages, but especially for those with younger children or the fanboy with a slightly hardened heart.

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