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Boggle the Owl Loves You and Wants You to Be Happy

There’s a sentiment you hear a lot in comics — expressed most recently and eloquently by Neil Gaiman — that the most important thing to do if you want to create art is to simply do it. You don’t have to be the best artist in the world; your work doesn’t have to be perfect. You just have to be brave enough to make something that means something to you, and if you’re lucky maybe it will mean something to other people too, in ways that you could never expect.

Take Boggle, a cartoon owl drawn by Aria Heller on a Tumblr named “Boggle Loves You.” Heller, who had no experience with line art or cartooning, originally created Boggle as a one-shot cartoon to cheer up some friends who were having a bad day. But the encouraging words of the little owl quickly resonated far beyond her friend group, with over 100,000 notes now logged on the original post. People had found something they desperately needed in Boggle, and many of them began sending the owl character messages — usually anonymous — about feeling unloved and despairing. More cartoons followed where Boggle answered those readers with concern, love, and affirmation, and the response has been overwhelming, with tens of thousands of people linking, reblogging, and writing to Heller about how Boggle’s words affected them profoundly, and in some cases even saved their lives.

ComicsAlliance talked to Heller about the experience of creating Boggle, and how the simple act of drawing an unassuming little owl could mean so much to so many people.

ComicsAlliance: How did Boggle first come about? What was the inspiration for the original post?

Aria Heller: When I made the original post, three or four of my friends had been beating themselves up over Twitter after having terrible days. I just wanted them to feel a little better. But I know that it’s hard to listen to somebody who’s telling you that nobody hates you for your mistakes, that you don’t need to be so hard on yourself, that you’re still a good person… I think it’s just human nature, to screen out the things that people say to us when they contradict what we believe about ourselves. I mean, how would we ever believe anything completely baseless and untrue about ourselves if we didn’t learn to ignore other people? We’re all pretty good at it. I think everybody’s had the experience of trying to talk down a friend who was feeling depressed or anxious, and knowing that nothing they said was sinking in.

And so I decided to draw them a worried owl. It just seemed like the thing to do! Everybody likes owls. You can’t distrust an owl’s motivations. An owl isn’t going to lie to you. If an owl says you’re a decent person who is allowed to make mistakes, you believe that owl. I dashed the image off in about fifteen minutes, because I wanted to post it before any of my friends went offline. I expected it to be passed around my little group of friends, maybe get ten or eleven notes.

I think it had about forty thousand by the time I went to bed that night. I was getting messages all evening, from complete strangers, saying things like, “I was going to cut today, but then I saw Boggle and I burst into tears and put down the razor. Thank you.” I think I started crying about four times. There were so many people out there who desperately needed a friendly face, someone who would ask them to just please not be so hard on themselves. I got a message about a week later from a girl who said that she had been planning to commit suicide that night, and then she saw Boggle and called her mother instead, and her mother had taken her to the hospital! And I just kept thinking: I drew this owl in fifteen minutes! I mean, the original post had a typo! And it made such a big difference to so many people. I also received a lot of requests for Boggle to have his own blog, and after that kind of a response, I felt like I couldn’t say no. I didn’t know if a blog about Boggle would last, but I didn’t think it mattered. Even if only a few people wrote in, maybe I could help those people. It felt like the least I could do.

CA: What’s your art background? Do you do other types of cartooning or illustration?

AH: I had never done any cartooning in my life before Boggle. When I realized that Boggle Loves You was getting more than enough write-ins to keep me going for as long as I stuck with it, I had to ask a friend how to speed up filling in the colors underneath my linework. I was doing it all by hand. I’m honestly too embarrassed to call myself a cartoonist. I can draw an owl, that’s about it. And looking back through Boggle’s archives, you can see what an artistic adventure it’s been for me, just learning how to draw an owl.

That said, I do have some artistic background; it just isn’t anything relevant! I paint portraits, in realism or semi-realism. So at least I understood how to use Photoshop, how to use layers, how to think about an object in three dimensions. It could have been worse. But I was miserable at line art.

I’ve always loved the idea of cartooning. I used to draw involved history lessons using stick figures! I loved using images and humor to render complicated events fun and memorable. I just had to hope that the absolutely terrible ‘art’ lent my presentations, er, charm. I’m pretty sure it did. Or at least, my audience was awfully nice about it. I have ideas for things I want to do with Boggle that will require that I learn a lot more about cartooning. It’s a little daunting, but I’m looking forward to it.

CA: Do you have a background in social work/therapy/counseling, or do you just happen to give really good advice?

AH: Oh gosh, I really can’t stress this enough: I have absolutely no credentials. I’m just a girl on the internet who draws owls. I’ve had a lot of exposure to the world of psychology and social work, but I don’t have any relevant degrees or certifications. I guess you could say that I benefit from personal experience. I read these messages that people send in, and a lot of the time, I know where they’re coming from, I know what that feels like. I remember what people used to say to me to try to make me feel better, and how trite it all sounded. So I try not to say those things. I want to give people something that they will find useful.

CA: How many people are following Boggle now? How are you reacting to the level of response you’ve received?

AH: Boggle has about 3,500 followers at the moment, but I’m getting the sense that I’m on the upswing of a parabolic curve. It was 3,000 two days ago, it was 2,000 at the beginning of last week. Boggle got his first troll just yesterday! I was so proud. That’s when you know you’re getting somewhere on the Internet. I think I’m getting used to the idea that Boggle is going to keep growing, and that I somehow blundered into something that’s going to become a bigger and bigger part of my life. I expect that as Boggle gets more popular, running this blog is going to come with a lot more stress and expectations. The prospect is a little daunting.

But then I get these messages from people, and I know that I can handle it. People have told me that Boggle is their hero, that Boggle made them decide to get into therapy, that Boggle gave them the courage to come out to their parents, that Boggle gave them back the confidence they needed to go outside for the first time in months. I’ve had several people now, I don’t want to say how many, but more than a handful, tell me that they think Boggle saved their lives. What do you say to that?

Usually I don’t say anything, I just cry, and maybe go find one of our cats to hug. It’s overwhelming. There are people alive in the world today because I take an hour or two a few times a week to sit down and draw an owl. I’m completely humbled by it. I’m not anybody special. Sometimes I feel like I’m more of a basket case than most of the people who write in. I just listen and draw owls and hope the things I say are useful. And for some people, that’s all the difference.

CA: What’s been the most interesting or rewarding thing about Boggle so far?

AH: Definitely the most interesting thing has been observing the power that Boggle has as a character. Because Boggle isn’t me. He couldn’t be. Nobody can be Boggle all the time. I’m a jerk sometimes, I can be uncharitable, and my friends know I can cuss up a blue streak. I wouldn’t want to be held to Boggle’s standard. What I think is so interesting is that I don’t have to be. Boggle can be Boggle all the time. The fact that Boggle is a comic is what makes it work. You said that comics have the power to provide a layer of removal from complicated or painful subjects, which actually lets us see those subjects more clearly. I think that’s exactly it. When people write in to Boggle — and they do, they address their messages to Boggle, they praise him for being “such a good owl,” some of the messages I get are absolutely adorable — they know they’re talking to a cartoon character, not a person. And I think that’s exactly what makes it possible for them to listen to what he says.

These people who write in, who are often so depressed, and so self-defeating, and so self-loathing, are getting advice from a cartoon character… who is caring, and kind, and only wants what’s best for them. It makes it so that the things Boggle says can get through to them, when they wouldn’t if I were the one saying them. These people don’t know me. If they did, they might not like me! But they know Boggle. They know Boggle can be trusted, they know Boggle really means what he says. Because Boggle loves them.

Hopefully this wasn’t too much more than you wanted to know about a cartoon owl!

CA: It was not.

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