Friday, July 18, 2014

Recommended Reading for 7/18: The Dumbest Idea Ever!

I wrote about Amelia Rules!, one of my favorite all ages comics some time ago. The series creator, Jimmy Gownley, released a new book earlier this year, called The Dumbest Idea Ever!, a graphic autobiography about how he became a cartoonist. I picked it up immediately when it came out, but it's sat on my shelf for a few months, despite an intention to review it for the blog. Firstly, at over two hundred pages, I felt it was going to take time to read, and I wanted a day I could dedicate to that, so I could go through it in one sitting, something I rarely have the time for. But more than that, I feel there's a trepidation that many have when it comes to exploring new work from a creator (be it a comic creator, a film director, or a musician) whose work you love, especially when that work is tied to one series in the case of comics. I love Amelia and her gang. While I was sure the book would be of the highest caliber quality wise, I wasn't sure if it would touch me in the same way. And let's be frank; many autobiographies are simply an excuse for either self-aggrandizement or pity parties. But this Monday, after writing my reviews, I looked at my shelf for something to read, saw the book there, and squared my shoulders to settle in with it.

I should have known better. I should have known someone who, as an grown man, not only remember what it's like to be a ten year old well enough to craft Amelia Rules!, but know character well enough to write a full realized ten year old girl, would be self-aware enough to pull this off. And he does brilliantly. It's a story not just about learning about his passion and his craft, but about first love, friendship, and growing up. Gownley touched me in a different way than he has with Amelia, but in a way that is no less affecting.

The book traces Jimmy's life from eighth grade to going out into the big world, and all the accompanying triumphs and tragedies. Jimmy lives in a small town in the Pennsylvania coal country. The Jimmy at the start is a big fish in a small pond, popular, top of his class, a star basketball player. But after a losing a month at school from a combination of chicken pox and pneumonia, he finds it hard to catch back up. And while he's sick, he finds out there is a shop that sells comic books, and only comic books in nearby Wilkes-Barre. And when his dad brings him there, Jimmy's whole world changes.

As someone who grew up in the 80s and 90s in urban and suburban New Jersey, it's almost quaint to me to see the excitement of finding out there are comic shops; comic shops have been a fact of life for me as long as I can remember. But Gownley fills those pages with an exuberance that makes me understand what a revelation it must have been to find this whole world exists. It's one of my favorite sequences, as he buys, "one of everything I never heard of." This new exposure to comics and graphic novels opens up Jimmy's world, as he learns that people can self-publish comics. There begins his journey.

Jimmy enters high school, and while he isn't the academic superstar that he was before that, he begins to experiment with his creative side, As the book progresses, we see Jimmy's first failed attempt at a comic, and then his first successful one, after a friend makes the suggestion, the eponymous dumbest idea ever, to write a comic about them, about Jimmy and his friends. Shades of Gray made Jimmy something of a local celebrity, with his friends and classmates buying copies, the teachers at the high school acknowledging his talent, the local video store selling copies, and even getting a feature on the local news.

Here is where Gownley impresses me. He could have left it at that, then having a reversal at the end where he realizes his big fish in a small pond status, but instead he shows exactly what this does to him, and how big it makes his head. That kind of self-awareness is impressive, and I think we'd all be better off if we all realized, in retrospect, that we can be egotistical. You never dislike Jimmy, he's never a bad guy, but he's a teenager who got a little too big for his britches.

Another aspect of the book that is really wonderful, and something that has clearly affected Gownley's work in Amelia Rules!,  is how Gownley shows the developing friendships he has. Amelia moves to a new town in the first volume of her story, and so must make new friends. The timeline on this book has Jimmy going to high school after the first quarter of the book, and a much bigger high school than the school he was in before. While some of the friends he had before show up in the later part of the book, the three characters who are most important to the story are people who he becomes close to after he graduates middle school.

Mark Olson, and his younger brother Tracy, are public school kids (Jimmy goes to Catholic School) Jimmy meets the summer between middle school and high school. Mark is one of the characters who helps Jimmy when he's about to give up when the first issue of Shades of Gray doesn't quite work out. Tony Graziano was on the basketball team of one of Jimmy's rival middle schools, and when they go to high school, they are now in the same school. Jimmy harbors that intense dislike that we can only have when you're a kid or a grown idiot, until Tony comes to his rescue in class, and then a friendship begins. It's Tony who tells Jimmy that his first comic, a story that is clearly just Lord of the Rings meets Star Wars, isn't very good, and who states the dumb idea, the one that will lead to Shades of Gray, Amelia Rules!, and now this book. He also is the person who is willing to put Jimmy in his place when he finally becomes too insufferable; that's what a good friend is there for.

And then there's Ellen O'Toole. Ellen is cute, sweet, and smart. She is the girl who is going to become Jimmy's girlfriend and first love. The story follows them from when they meet to when they break up. I'm not too old to remember those feelings myself, and Gownley puts it all onto the page in a way that is tender, clever and, when need be, bittersweet. Ellen is as supportive as others, and she is the one who makes Jimmy promise never to give up on being an artist, in a scene that is one of the book's strongest.

The art on the book is definitely Gownley; there's no missing his signature style. But it feels a little different from Amelia Rules!, more... I don't know if I have the vocabulary to come up with the word. Realistic doesn't exactly fit. Amelia and her friends aren't cartoon characters, they are very well realized and their faces are beautifully expressive. But I think it's the fact that the setting is more realistic, based in real life, that makes the book seem different. There aren't kids in superhero costumes and ninja tracksuits running around, so the work seems more grounded. Although there are a couple of great scenes where Jimmy talks to the angel and devil on his shoulders and the Grim Reaper that move out of the realistic and into the fantastic that work perfectly.

There is also a sequence where Jimmy tells Ellen about his childhood best friend, Marnie Marquardt, which becomes the story of how Jimmy crafted what was really his first comic, one he made for Marnie to say goodbye when she moved away called Marnie Rules!. This section feels likes it's right out of Amelia Rules!, and is intentionally different from the rest of the book, even to the pages themselves being colored a browner tone to make them stand out. It's a sweet little short story that exists within the larger book, and while it can stand on its own, it directly impacts much of the story around it.

While the book is not divided into numbered chapters, Gownley uses a device to divide the parts of the story that is beautiful for a book that is about art and finding your way. Art boards and drawings serve to divide the book and take up full pages when a major event has just happened. The book starts with a page that is simply a blank piece of art board on a drawing board, and ends with the same page with something happening on the board. It's an excellent narrative device, and the symmetry works to show you the changes that Jimmy has gone through.

Jimmy Gownley's work is all about growing up, and this story is his own coming of age. It's a story about a kid who loves comics, who grows up to make them himself. And let's be fair, even if you can't draw, or can't come up with a story, if you've ever loved a comic, you've thought about making them yourself; I know I have. So, thank you for putting your story out there, Mr. Gownley, to inspire the next generation of creators. I look forward to seeing their work, and more of yours.

The Dumbest Idea Ever! is available at your better comic retailers, along with most bookstores, both physical and virtual.

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