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Owly: Just a Little Blue
posted May 17, 2005
Top Shelf, 128 pages, $10, 2005
I like a couple of the character designs in Owly: Just a Little Blue
. You can keep the rest of it. The attractively packaged graphic novel proves sweet and slow and painfully obvious. At its best, this is a rerun of better children's book material; and at worst, this becomes an absolute chore to devour. If memory serves, the plot in this second book is similar to that in the original minus the making-friends subplot: lonely, good-natured Owly tries to do something nice for someone but is rebuffed, Owly keeps trying, Owly is finally rewarded and as a result everyone is happy. Runton breaks his action down like a cranked-out silent film, right down to the "actors" enjoying full-panel reaction shots over and over again that communicate deeply complex emotions such as "Oh, I am happy" or "Oh, I am sad." This may please very small children and weepy sentimentalists, but it bored me to tears. There's very little in the way of deeper satisfaction to be found in stories that depend on such heavy-handed unpacking of every twist and turn. Nothing here surprises, and the length of the story feels more like a shortcoming of the storytelling approach rather than an opportunity to expound or to fill in blanks. The meat of the story could be told in five or six panels, and Runton provides very little to make the distance traveled feel rewarding.
If there were some worthy moral on display here, or the drawing were so incredibly lovely that it bore long hours soaking it in, that might be one thing. But as the idea that comes closest to an interesting point -- Owly's persistence in helping those who wish not to be helped -- becomes subverted by the happy ending, Just a Little Blue
reads more like a really long greeting card than a story with anything at stake, or anything to say. As far as the drawing goes, there's a nice roundedness to Owly, and Runton displays a modest amount of skill with some of the nature drawing. However, the way the cartoonist chooses to show expressions on some characters' faces, a kind of blunt cartoon effect, feels like a cheat of artistic limitation rather than the outcome of a chosen style. None of the drawings of setting draw you into a specific place the way really lush children's entertainment can, nor are they lyrical, suggestive and stylish; the setting is just sort of there. Owly even looks like he's renting a low-quality furnished apartment. All in all, Runton seems like a promising cartoonist years away from creating something of more than pedestrian quality. This would be an average to mediocre children's book, and those skills that Runton applies to comics may be even less formed at this point than his basic design chops. I can see this becoming very popular by straddling the two forms and popping out in the context of what's currently being published, but the work itself does not justify a sustained look.