Monday, May 23, 2011

Pure. Awesome.

I made a short trip downtown today to check out my local comic book shop both to see how the employees held up after the Maine Comic Arts Festival and to check out the latest sale they were having. After browsing for a couple of minutes, I realized there were two people in the shop I didn't recognize. A woman stood on the customer side of one of the counters, but there was a man I didn't recognize sitting behind the counter. He was sketching something I couldn't quite make out, and it wasn't until I started to pay for my purchase that I realized it was Andy Runton. That's right, it was Andy Goddamn Runton.

What's that? You don't know Andy Runton from the contents of a week old roach motel? Well, that's because you're ignorant. But don't worry, I've got the cure. Ladies and gentlemen, meet... Owly (and by extension, Wormy).

Owly (the book) is the tale of Owly, the, well, owl. He's a kindhearted soul in the forest who enjoys gardening, swimming, reading, and building homes for creatures in the forest. In fact, ongoing themes in the stories involve the creation of birdhouses, growing plants, and making sure there are areas for butterflies to come to in the spring.

Now I know what you're thinking. You're thinking, "Erik, I live in the fast and modern world of 2011! I live fast, drive fast, eat fast, and sleep fast! I listen to music by artists with such little creative ability that frequently there's only two verses, and one of them is repeated three times. I watch movies by Michael Bay and Roland Emmerich, where the attention span of the audience is so small it requires the entire planet to be destroyed just to keep me entertained or the camera needs to change view every five seconds for another view of an explosion or insane angled shot up someones nose. Owly looks...dull.

And you'd be absolutely right. Compared to a lot of today's entertainment, Owly moves at a snail's pace (which is only fair, since one recurring character is a snail mailman). There are no explosions, no loud soundtrack, no fact, there's no dialogue at all. At least, there's no written dialogue. Look at the panels below:

Now, which of the following seems to be the most likely event in this setting? Remember, the book is labeled "all ages."

a) Owly is excited at the arrival of geese heading south for the winter, having been waiting at a place they can safely land at.

b) Owly is thankful that the geese criminal syndicate has arrived so he can pay the random to get Owlette back before they break any more of her pinfeathers.

c) Owly's friend wormy is ready to die, and Owly has arranged for geese to carry him to worm Valhalla, located somewhere between Boca Raton and Pompano Beach.

d) Owly's finally going to get a chance to see if those land mines work.

If you chose anything but "a," I have the feeling I'm too late for you. You can resume waiting eagerly for the next Three Musketeers "remake" to come out because culturally, you are dead inside.

Now, the next thing you're going to notice is that the book is in black and white. Now, I know that most comics that aren't published by a major company tend to be in black and white because of their budget and because it's more "artsy," but in the case of Owly I think that even if it were a major publishing company putting out the book, it wouldn't need color. The message is simple and clear. The cleanness of Andy Runton's lines compared withe the amount of detail work he can get in a scene is amazing. Look below:

You can make out everything that's going on there, you can tell each character separate from the background, and look at the detail on that picnic table. The vase doesn't blend in with the bunny, each item on the plates is identifiable as a separate item. It is, quite simply, amazing. Now, Simon and Schuster has put out an Owly book titled Friends All Aflutter which is in color, and while I won't say it takes away from the artwork, I honestly felt that it wasn't necessary. Would smaller children enjoy it more? Perhaps.

But compare the detail there to trying to figure out which robot is which in any combat scene in the Transformers movies, where all you can see is shiny metal heap A colliding/sliding/blowing up shiny metal heap B.

So why am I pushing for people to become more aware of a series that I've admitted isn't as fast, exciting, or colorful as most other entertainment? Because it has something missing from most blockbusters and cartoon shows. It has heart.

No, not that kind. I mean it makes you feel warm and fuzzy inside, and everybody I've ever shown the books to always puts them down afterward with a huge smile on their face. It might be the story of Owly trying to find Wormy during a storm, Owly entering a birdbath-building competition, or one of my favorites, Owly trying to overcome his fear of flying.

Let's face it, Owly has over sized eyes that wouldn't seem too out of place of a lot of Japanese characters, but in this case they're used mostly for expression. Below I have a screenshot of Owly having a flashback to a time he gave his mother a picture he drew as a child. Look at Lil' Owly's face.

I'm not really 100% sure how to describe that expression. Look at his eyes, and how his wing tips are touching slightly askew. I see hope, a touch of nervousness, and a need that all small children have of a parent not just accepting something they've done, but treasuring it. What Lil' Owly's hoping for there isn't just that his mother will say "nice drawing, kid," but for her to exclaim how much she loves it. That much emotion captured in one panel of a comic is a rare event, but Andy Runton is a cheating bastard because the man managed to pull it off several times in every storyline.

Anyway, while Owly can come across as extremely childish compared to other comic books, I'd argue that it shows a maturity most comic books lack. It isn't about the the violence or the impossible breasts on women that appeal to a teenage boy's idea of awesome, Owly just is what it is and tries to tell its message in a clear, concise manner, whether it's to help others, watch out for your friends, or how small sacrifices can come back with big returns.

If anybody reading this has small children, I would highly recommend it as an introduction to reading, especially since words aren't there to confuse anybody. Compare the scene above with Owly watching the geese with the page below:

Does it really matter what any of that text says? I hope not, because when I was a kid, I would've jumped straight past that to look at the pictures. And what do I see? I see the Atom standing on a cannon preaching, I see that Lex Luthor's apparently dyed himself green because there's no way that's the Martian Manhunter, I see that Snapper Carr's ga-ga eyed in love with the Atom, and Wonder Woman's trying to crush two people with a tree.

Now, you might say "Well, that was the silver age. They had a lot of exposition because the artform was still new. What about comics designed for kids? Maybe something from Disney?"

That's quite a lot of words for young kid to read. If you aren't afraid that your child might develop a love for comics, why not give them a copy of a volume of Owly? You might even find you enjoy it as well, since I found in at least one babysitting adventure that narrating what happens can be just as much fun.

Oh, and as for my encounter with Andy Runton? I did wind up buying a copy of Friends All Aflutter, I shook the man's hand, and then he proved just how awesome he was:

I think I skipped when I left the store. I don't care. It was awesome.

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