Saturday, July 30, 2016


Yesterday I talked about how I am thinking about what makes comics, namely the use of discourse and images. Today, I am talking about a series of books that have no (or hardly any) words in them. Owly has been coming out since 2004, initially published by Top Shelf but now self-published by its creator Andy Runton.

Owly is an adorable owl, and these books chronicle his various adventures in the forest. I have not met a young child who is not instantly rapt by these stories. They are simple, almost intuitive, to read but surprisingly evocative. They are excellent for pre-primer and elementary students, though I have known middle schoolers who also like these tales.
In this first volume, there are two stories. In the first, Owly saves a worm during a rainstorm and ends up making a lifelong friend. In the second, Owly and Wormy rescue a caged hummingbird and then have to deal with loss when they learn that they really cannot take care of it and have to let it go back to the wild.
In this book, Owly builds a birdhouse for a pair of ungrateful bluebirds. Over time they start to develop a friendship, but then a bad storm threatens the lives of their newly hatched chicks, and they all learn to work together.
In the third volume Owly meets a flying squirrel, and we learn that Owly is sort of an outcast, because he cannot fly. In a flashback, we see that he had a tough and unhelpful instructor when he was a young owlet at flying camp, and his friends were also all pretty much unsupportive jerks. His new friends band together to help Owly out.
In this fourth book, a new creature ventures into this part of the woods. All the forest residents fear this new animal and make up stories about how terrible it must be. Owly finds it in himself to approach it and learn what it is really like.

By now, it is pretty clear that each of these books has its own moral, like a comic version of a fable. That feature makes these books pretty accessible, but the artwork and easily read symbolic conventions and expressions make them attractive. They really bring life to what could a dry enterprise. Just check out these couple of pages from the first book, where Owly meets Wormy:

Owly books have won all kinds of awards, including the Harvey and an Eisner. All of the reviews I have read of these books have been positive. Sharon Adarlo called the character and books "very charismatic and kid-friendly." Brigid Alverson praised the "deceptively simple tales of a sweet little owl and his forest friends, told without words but with plenty of emotion and gesture." Hilary Goldstein called Just a Little Blue "a fanciful, magical book deserving of a spot on anyone's bookshelf."

Runton speaks about his inspirations for and work on the Owly books in this interview.

These are only the first four Owly books, and there are more available for preview and sale here. There are also quite a few free Owly comics there to download as well.

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