The first time James A. Owen sat on a particular bench on top of a hill in Ireland, he was sure he was living his dream. It was 1992 and Owen had sold almost everything he owned, kissed his wife of only four months goodbye, traveled 5,000 miles and, in a few minutes, he was going to walk down that hill to apply for an artist job at the Sullivan Bluth animation studio in Dublin.
He didn't have an appointment.
What he did have was what he thought was inside information. A friend told him that the studio had several unadvertised jobs open for someone with drawing skills to help make animated features like the studio's "All Dogs go to Heaven" or "An American Tail." As someone who sold his first self-published comic books at San Diego's Comic-Con in 1986 when he was 16, Owen was certain the studio would hire him on the spot.
The second time he sat on that cold bench was only a few hours later. The studio wasn't advertising its openings because it was shutting down. All the money in the world that 21-year-old Owen had was in his pocket — he had one Irish pound.
"I had realized I was staking my choices and my plans on other people's goals," Owen says. "I had gone to Ireland fairly starry eyed with the idea of contributing what I could to the goals of this studio. And then finding out it was not going to happen. ... But I already had goals of my own, I had those goals as a teenager and I had gradually moved away from the goals that were important to me."
So with the harsh reality of failure staring him in the face, Owen decided it was time to start his own comic book publishing company.
Now this type of story is either going to drive people crazy or inspire them. Either way, Owen's new book, "Drawing Out the Dragons" (Shadow Mountain, $19.99), is a great catalyst for new graduates or anybody needing to make important decisions in their lives. It is that rarest of self-help books — it is utterly unique, quirky and insightful. And even if some might find it puzzling, it makes people think.
Success and setbacks
Owen, a tall man who speaks with a soft voice and who has a penchant for wearing vests, has had many successes in his life. He has written and illustrated seven books in the bestselling series "The Chronicles of the Imaginarium Geographica" published by Simon and Schuster. He has had the book "Here, There Be Dragons" optioned for a movie. And he recently cut a deal to publish three inspirational books through Deseret Book's Shadow Mountain imprint ("Drawing Out the Dragons" is the first) and five other fantasy novels.
But, as he recounts in detail in this new book, he has had devastating setbacks as well. In addition to the Ireland incident, he almost died of a blood disease when he was 11, his drawing hand was crushed just as his comic book publishing company was taking off, and his studio and business almost were in foreclosure. He struggled for years and years before his "Here, There Be Dragons" books.
But this is not the way he thinks about things.
"Our lives are what we focus on," Owen says. "So you can either focus on what's gone wrong or you can focus on what's going right and make it better. That includes things that happen to us that aren't our fault. That includes choices we made that were our own mistakes. You can either dwell on those things and have them pull you down, or you can learn from them and learn to choose better."
Like many authors, Owen makes the rounds of schools, making presentations to students. Unlike most authors, he does not talk about his books or comics. Instead he tells students the stories he recounts in this book. He shows them the Superman book that helped him defeat his blood disease; he shows them his slightly crooked drawing hand; he holds up that Irish pound.
It would be easy for people to say he was foolish to risk everything on a non-existent job in Ireland or that drawing comics was just a hobby. Almost every story in Owen's book could be recast as a warning to people to be more practical and levelheaded. But the very fact that these stories could be recast that way proves his point. The way people look at their lives is a choice.
Owen repeats in the book his philosophy, "If you really want to do something, no one can stop you. But if you really don't want to do something, no one can help you."
Owen writes that he "grew up" on that bench in Dublin.
Later, after his hand was crushed, he said he would get well enough to write comics again. Everyone told him he was wrong.
Ultimately, it won't matter very much to Owen if this book doesn’t sell well (although Shadow Mountain may feel differently). However well it does, Owen will make a decision to think about it in a way that helps him do better in the future. And, it will give him another story to tell to the kids in the schools.