Jimmy Gownley has been creating and publishing comics since he was a teenager, and over the past decade his career, took off with the success of the “Amelia Rules” series of graphic novels. The books have become bestsellers, and Gownley has been nominated for numerous Harvey and Eisner Awards, including Eisners for Best Kid’s Comic, Best Single Issue, Best Lettering and Best Coloring. In 2012, Gownley brought his series to a conclusion of sorts with the eighth volume, “Her Permanent Record.”
But just because Ameila’s adventures are over, that doesn’t mean Gownley’s left with no tales to tell. His new book, out now from Scholastic, is “The Dumbest Idea Ever!” The graphic memoir details Gownley’s own adolescence and tells the story of how and why he became a cartoonist.
CBR News: I suppose you can take this opportunity to explain the book or express your own philosophical notions, but what is “The Dumbest Idea Ever?”
Jimmy Gownley: What is the dumbest idea ever? That’s a good question. I think I’m still figuring it out. In the context of the book, you’re going to have to read it to find that out. In the context of my life, it’s something which at the time seemed ridiculous and possibly worthless, but actually turned lots of things around. In many ways, it made me the person that I am today. I think if everybody had the opportunity to give a few dumb ideas a try, they might be surprised at how well they turn out.
Where did the idea for this book come from?
It’s funny — when I was fifteen years old my friend Tony looked at the very first comic book pages that I had created. I had done a science fiction book — well, three or four pages of a science fiction book — and he didn’t think they were particularly good. He didn’t think they were as interesting as I was. Which was a very nice thing for him to say and a very nice way for him to say it. He suggested that I do a comic book about us. I took that to mean I should write about real life and ditch the fantasy and science fiction aspects that interested me when I was a teenager. This is the first book where I’ve actually taken that literally. I’ve literally written a comic book about us, a character named Jimmy Gownley and my friends, growing up in high school. It’s an idea that’s more than twenty-five years old and it closes a circle that began when I was fifteen.
In a more literal, pragmatic sense, I was going on a book tour in 2010 to promote the “Amelia Rules” book, “The Tweenage Guide to Not Being Unpopular.” My agent Judy Hansen said to me, while you’re gone, maybe you should think about doing something creative. Do you know who Jean Shepherd is? He’s an old radio guy, this famous raconteur, and you probably know him from the movie “A Christmas Story.” She said, I think you could do something in that style. He does all these great stories about his childhood. Why don’t you think about doing that as a prose memoir? I went off on book tour and I wrote four or five chapters. At the end of the tour, I handed them to my agent and she said, yeah, this isn’t really going to work. I was disappointed, but I understood.
In the meantime, Scholastic had had tremendous success with Raina Telgemeier’s memoir “Smile,” and they were looking for a memoir by a male cartoonist. My agent flashed to one chapter of my prose work about me becoming a cartoonist in high school. She called me and said, the whole structure of the piece that you put together wasn’t really working — but this chapter is really good. Do you think you could turn it into a proposal for a graphic novel? I said, sure, if I have two or three months. She said, you have the weekend. [Laughs] I locked myself in my studio for three days and put together a proposal for what became “The Dumbest Idea Ever!” Scholastic loved it and they bought it and they published it.
Having worked on the “Amelia Rules” series for so many years, is it odd to work on a completely different project?
It was odd in some ways, but it was nice in others. Around the time I completed the seventh volume of “Amelia,” I knew that I was pretty much burned out. I wanted to be able to tie that series up and write “The End” at the end of it, and honor it, rather than let it slink along forever with me becoming less and less inspired. I was ready to do something different, and this presented itself. I never thought, oh, obviously one day I’ll write a memoir, but having done it, it was the right thing. In some ways, writing it was the opposite of writing fiction. It was a new process for me. In fiction, you come up with the idea, the story, the characters and then you add a few details to make the world believable. In a memoir, real life is infinitely detailed and it doesn’t have the logic of a story, so you have to decide what lens you’re going to look at your life through, shape the story through that and then from this infinite amount of detail in your memory, find the ones that are relevant to make it a rich story. I think it recharged my batteries.
It was also great to remember why I was doing this from the beginning. There are a million ‘how to do comics’ books. There’s very few why to do comic books. That’s what I wanted this to be. Not necessarily to explain how I became a cartoonist, but why I became a cartoonist and why I think it’s worth doing.
Did Jean Shepherd end up being influential as you put together this book?
Initially, at the outline/proposal stage, but the whole thing with Jean Shepherd is that he’s looking back with nostalgia at his past. Scholastic had no interest in having a forty year old protagonist looking back at his younger self. It was all about writing it as if it was happening to me at this moment. It’s set in the 1980s, but not through a lens of nostalgia. Once I realized that that was going to be the tone of the book, that Jean Shepherd influence had to fall away. Which is okay, because I think that it gives it an immediacy it wouldn’t otherwise have. I don’t think, other than the absence of computers and cell phones, that a kid would need to know that it was happening the late eighties. They could look at it as if it’s happening right now.
Really, the only thing that would change now versus then are the comics you mention or refer to in the book. Kids today would reference different books.
Exactly. Scholastic was really not interested in me naming names of those comic books. In large part because I went to a comic shop at thirteen years old and I bought everything that was completely age inappropriate for me that I could find. [Laughs] Which is a weird conundrum, because yes, they were probably too old for me, but they changed my life in a positive way. I think the adult reader who is familiar with the comics scene from that time period knows which comics I’m talking about, and for a kid, it doesn’t matter anyway.
You do mention “Cerebus” and “Elfquest” in the book. What were the other comics that affected you?
The first comics I bought at the bookshop were “Cerebus,” “Elfquest,” “Love and Rockets,” “Zot!” and “The Spirit.” I had been familiar with “Elfquest” through the Marvel Comics reprints, but I had never seen the black and white magazines. The one that had the biggest impact on me was “Cerebus,” in large part because it was self-published and also because it was just so completely idiosyncratic that it made me realize that you can have a completely different viewpoint, a completely different style or tone, and you could do it. Now, when people think of “Cerebus,” they think of the later controversies that engulfed it, but in the eighties, it was just the coolest thing. It was funny. It was hugely ambitious. I bought issues #66 and #80 on the same day and I realized it was the same story. That alone was mind blowing to me. That was huge.
“Love and Rockets” was influential too, because these guys were talking about their lives and their real world. It’s very different from my environment I’m growing up in, but that’s what makes it special and unique and interesting. That book was really inspirational to me. These guys are working outside of the norm of what I’m used to comics being, and talking about a culture that’s important to them. When my friend said, write a comic book about us, he was saying this.
Now, when a book comes out, is it more relaxing than when a book comes out that you’re self-publishing?
Are you kidding me? [Laughs] It is the opposite of relaxing in a lot of ways. Yeah, with self-publishing, you have to deal with everything yourself, but for the most part, it’s on a much smaller scale. There are exceptions, obviously. With something like this, it’s the world’s largest children’s book publisher putting out a book with your name on it. Your last book was a “New York Times” bestselling book. You’ve been nominated for all these awards and won a few. The pressure becomes exponentially greater.
And then, on top of it, this one’s about me. That adds a whole layer of weirdness to it that I just really didn’t think all the way through when I started it. On one level, if you like “Amelia” or you don’t like “Amelia,” that’s fine. It’s a comic book, and you’re free to accept or reject it. If you reject this, are you rejecting my life? Are you rejecting me as a human being? Combine that with the decision of, what am I going to include in this? You can take the same events from any number of angles and show them in any number of ways, and that becomes the truth. It’s unlikely that any of the other characters in this book will have a similar book deal where they can refute what I’m saying, so it’s a huge responsibility, on that level, to be fair to everyone who was a part of it at the time.
Did you ever go to people in the book for thoughts or suggestions, or help with details?
I showed it to two people, beforehand. I showed it to Ellen and Mark, who are both characters in the book, but I wasn’t looking, necessarily, for additional research or for anything other than, there’s this book and you two are major characters in it and I hope you like it and I want you to be comfortable with it before it goes out. They were both hugely supportive.
For the minor characters, I sent out an email saying, just so you know, you’re in this book, don’t worry. You’ll look good. The one thing I was not interested in doing was the story of the lone artist against society, where everyone is a philistine who doesn’t get his poetic soul. I think that’s been done to death, and it’s so self-serving to the artist’s own gigantic ego. I thought, if I’m going to be rough on anyone in this book, I’m going to be rough on myself.
I was going to say, the character you’re hardest on is you.
Yeah. When you draw a scene of the thirteen year old you being chastised by Death for being too dramatic, you’re expecting that sort of response. But I also wanted to show that this is a kid who had a good heart and had a real strong desire to do something, to make whatever abilities he had count. He was fortunate to be surrounded by people who facilitated that. The huge gift of my life is that I came from a tiny little place that really did not produce many writers or artists. It didn’t have the facilities to do that. But at the same time, they saw what I was doing and supported it and made me feel special. And because they made me feel special, I felt I had to make it special. I had to honor that faith that they put into me.
You mentioned you showed it to Ellen and Mark who are in the book, and you wrote about this a little in the afterward, but do you want to talk about Tony?
The other person that I would have shown it to was Tony, who was hugely important to me in that he was the one who said, do a comic about us. Unfortunately, he passed away when we were in our early twenties, from leukemia. The last thing I was able to do for him was, when I published a “Shades of Gray” comic that made it into comic shops, I was able to mail one to him, just a few weeks before he passed away.
Part of the process of doing this book was, for me, dealing with that, because I think the hardest thing for an artist or a writer to do is to come up with their own voice. It’s the thing that a lot of people don’t necessarily think about if they’re not thinking about it as artists. I feel like, in some way, I was handed the answer to that question by Tony when I was fifteen. It’s not like he was Yoda or the Buddha; he was making a statement in passing. You should do a comic book about us. I think that would be fun and funny and would be interesting. He probably never thought about it past that. For me, it was gigantic. It was like being hit by a meteor. It let me be free, in a way. I didn’t have to think about what kind of comics I was going to do. I just had to get better at doing them. It was hugely important and that was one of the things I wanted to honor in the book. It was really a big back and forth in my own mind and with my editors at Scholastic about, do we talk in the context of the book about Tony passing away so young? Partly influenced by my kids, I decided to leave that part out because then it becomes a book about my friend who passed away as opposed to a book about what this friend did for me and what it allowed me to do in return. When you deal with something that big, that’s the subject of the book.
Has working on this memoir made you want to write more fiction?
That’s a really good question. In some ways, it made me want to do more things like this, but I don’t know how many of this types of stories my life has, at least in the context of what’s available to me in publishing. My whole reputation and career is based on comics for kids. This is the central story of my adolescence. I do think there’s a lot of short stories I could do with these characters that are true stories, that are quirky and funny and interesting. In some ways, it was hard to get my head out of that space and think, now I’m going to make something up completely. Having said that, I’m looking forward to getting back to doing that. I’ve finished a couple of proposals, and we’ll see what comes next. It’s such a different process; it’s like you now have to exercise those old muscles again because you haven’t been using them for two years, or however long it took to make the book.
Will we ever see more “Amelia” books, or are you done with her?
I would never say “Never” to anything, because I love those characters and I love that world, but I was also happy to be able to leave her at a place that was very satisfying and leaves her future open to interpretation. Unless something came along where I thought, that story is so good I have to tell it, I think I’m going to leave her for now. I have co-written a screenplay, and we’ll see how that goes. That was a really interesting process, to be able to look at 1300 pages of “Amelia” comic books and look at what’s the essential story and how to tell it in 90 minutes. But for right now, I don’t have any plans for another “Amelia” book. So few people are able to start something like that, write it for that long and not just have it get canceled, but be able to write “The End” on the last page. I don’t want to take that for granted,
You’ve also been making a webcomic, “Gracieland,” which you’re writing with Ellen, from “Dumbest Idea.” That makes it sound like your life is meta — I’m sorry.
[Laughs] No, my life has become meta! That’s totally fair to say. It is an extremely strange thing.
I love doing the strip. Partly because it’s fun to write with somebody, and because it scratches the itch of doing a comic strip, which is very different from doing a comic book. I also wanted to learn a little about web strips and how that whole world works. I think back, and if I had the Internet when I was fifteen, I would have ruled the world. [Laughs] The epic quest to find someone who could print my comic book sounds like something that happened a thousand years ago.
It’s a very different career model for today’s fifteen year olds.
Totally. What’s interesting is, doing what I did in the eighties was impossible. Becoming a successful teenage webcartoonist now is impossible. [Laughs] People regularly do these impossible things. People ask me all the time, do you think it’s easier now or harder now? It’s always hard. It is always hard. It’s not even necessarily a meritocracy, where if you work hard you’ll have success. Part of it’s luck, part of it’s timing, part of it is just who knows why. It’s always hard.
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