All-Ages or Small-Ages #24 (Squid & Owl by John Holbo)

See all of the past entries of All-Ages or Small-Ages here.

There are a wide array of all-ages comics out there from the classic Archie comics, through the  Sonic the Hedgehog and Disney, all the way to the original properties such as Lumberjanes. You might look at one of these books and think that, as an adult, it doesn’t have much to offer you. As someone who has discovered a deep fondness for titles such as this, I’ve been surprised by how rich and complex the stories can be. All-Ages or Small-Ages? is a feature that takes a look at the books that fall under this banner and attempts to analyse whether or not their assigned label is apt; is it a book that you can read along with your children?

I honestly do not know the best way to sum up what this issue is. As I sit to write this, moments ago I reached the end of this 106 page single issue and I don’t know what to make of it. Squid & Owl isn’t a comic in the traditional sense of the word, until it suddenly is. A large proportion of the book is not sequential art, but compartmentalised riffs ranging from simple wordplay to educational dumps of (supposedly) scientific information about the titular animals. This is a very, very bizarre issue and I honestly don’t know whether or not I liked it; hopefully by the end of me writing this column, I’ll have made a decision.

The issue revolves around a squid and an owl getting up to mischief in whatever world they find themselves in. That qualifier has been provided because it’s never truly explained what the purpose of each story is. When you start to believe that a narrative is forming around these creatures, it gets sucked away and you find yourself reading about something entirely different. Perhaps it’s due to my entire lack of knowledge going into this, but it took a long time to get into the rhythm of how the book works; even with that foreknowledge, I can imagine the transitions remain quite jarring.

This is the portion of the book when it’s easy to imagine this book’s suitability for a younger audience. Jumping from rhyming couplet to rhyming couplet, you’re shown all of these various one-off pages with one of the two animals in an unexpected costume or situation that appear to have been created purely to use the aforementioned rhyme. It therefore feels directionless in a way that will turn off the older reader as, beyond appreciating the ridiculousness of the situation, it doesn’t really mean anything.

The accompanying art with these little stories is uncoloured but is surprisingly detailed; as the owl and squid are visual flips of the other, it gives Holbo the chance to form some entertaining parallels. The way that textures and patterns are used in these scenes to fill in the outlines gives this issue a very scrapbook feel that, although it admittedly takes away from any sense of building immersion, it feels unquestionably authentic and gives the book very unique sense of character.

The direct visual links between the characters clashes very deliberately with how they’re portrayed as polar opposites in the stories. While they’re sometimes portrayed as friends, they’re more often pushed into antagonising roles. This creative decision is where I lose the ability to discern which audience Holbo is going for. You feel as though there’s an oblique metaphor hiding beneath the narrative, but it changes so quickly that it’s difficult to hone in on.

Nowhere is this more clear than in the various semi-parables that Holbo chooses to tell. They’re always set up as something recognisable, carrying on in that vein for quite some time, then suddenly taking a sharp left turn into the peculiar. Despite how this may sound, it actually comes across very positively as, although the meaning just about slips through your fingers, it feels undeniably fresh and creative. It speak’s to Holbo's talent that he’s able to use old narratives as a springboard for something so unique.

These short prose diversions, although honestly diversions are an intrinsic aspect of the entire book, are accompanied by intricate depictions of the animals within the stories themselves. The style implies that they have been physically constructed using some form of card which, as someone fresh out of watching The Little Prince, appeals to me tremendously. On top of that, a recurring antagonist known only as Fairy of All Forests has been drawn so delightfully creepily in both profile and silhouette that it adds a cohesion to the overall narrative of the book that it otherwise lacks.

With all of the innate creativity and strangeness in this issue, it’s difficult to do anything but respect it. Holbo had a dream to create a book full of adventures of a squid and an owl and, by golly, did he did succeed. The sheer volume of brief detours are endearing, even if they do sometimes go on for a little bit too long. Luckily, the structure of the book is retained due to the occasional parable, even if you do come away more confused than when you went in. This is by all definitions an all-ages story; be prepared for some brilliant bizareness and you’ll do just fine.

Let me know if there's a comic that you think I should be checking out. I'm always on the look-out for some more hidden All-Ages gold. Contact me at or head over to check out the podcast that I co-host You Know What I Like...? on SoundCloud.