Using animals to comment on the human condition is a tradition with a long history in comics. Andy Runton is the latest to use it to its full potential, creating this generation’s Winnie the Pooh in his stories of Owly and his worm friend.
The first book, The Way Home & The Bittersweet Summer, contains two mostly wordless pieces. The first story shows how Owly rescues a worm from drowning during a rainstorm. After recovery, and although the two species are natural enemies, the two set out to reunite Wormy with his parents. Next, they garden, where they try to attract a hummingbird. These stories revel in simple pleasures, like birdwatching and homemade stew, while they instill a respect for nature, seasonal cycles, and the natural life.
Owly is an adorable puffball of a bird. He’s almost all eyes, and yet, with a few twists of line, Andy Runton manages to convey an extensive variety of emotion, including optimism, disappointment, concern, loneliness, and friendship. The other creatures, including smaller birds and lightning bugs, are also cute and expressive. Dialogue takes place through pictographs symbolizing concepts like home and family. The simplicity of the design demonstrates Runton’s brilliant cartooning in bringing these characters and settings alive.
In the second book, Just a Little Blue, Owly must make sacrifices in order to build bluebirds a birdhouse. This story explores the idea that sometimes those we are trying to help may be distrustful of our aid efforts. Readers see how to set aside old hurts in order to help one’s fellows as the birds find a new place to live after a natural disaster.
Owly and Wormy are confronted with a series of challenges where they work though solving the problem step by step, from idea to implementation. It makes for wonderful comic sequences, and the raccoon shopkeeper who provides seed and plans cries out to be animated.
In the latest volume, Flying Lessons, Runton’s pictographic language has developed, becoming more complex in the concepts expressed, yet staying as easy-to-read as ever. On their way home one evening, Wormy and Owly are surprised by a mysterious flying creature in the dusky forest. Their discussion with each other proceeds as follows:
“Let’s go back home and look it up in our books!”
“We only have books about birds.”
“Wasn’t that a bird?”
“No, it didn’t have wings or a beak.”
“Maybe it was a squirrel?”
“No, squirrels don’t fly.”
Only it’s all done with very-well-chosen and -drawn pictures. Owly and Wormy share their creator’s belief in image-based communication, since they decide to draw what they saw and ask others for help with identification. It turns out that the mystery creature is a flying squirrel.
The squirrel is very shy, especially of owls, his natural predator. Owly and Wormy want to make friends with him, so they offer some treats as a way of demonstrating their goodwill. Many of the Owly stories revolve around or involve food, a basic need made enjoyable through company or the joy of taste. Shared meals symbolize friendship and goodwill.
Wormy succeeds in making a new friend, but Owly feels left out and lonely, especially when it comes to the question of why this mammal can fly but he can’t. As expected with this heart-warming series, through their shared friendship with Wormy, the two come to work together and even learn from each other.
Readers will be charmed by the innocence of these stories while laughing out loud at their good humor. The messages are simple yet profound. It’s always good to be reminded that those who are taught to hate each other can still be friends or that helping others brings its own rewards. Although cute and charming, the comics also have drama and sequences full of adventure.