Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #336: The Dumbest Idea Ever! by Jimmy Gownley

Jimmy Gownley's books have never tried to be cool, which is one of the things that makes them so good. He's a storyteller whose natural material is ordinary (and very white) kids in small-town America, but he hasn't turned that to the usual political ends, either -- he's just telling stories, with his heart right out there on his sleeve for all to see.

Gownley's spent the last decade or so doing the Amelia Rules! series of graphic novels -- I believe there were eight of them in the main series, and I covered them all here, more or less -- about a smart but distracted tween girl in one of those small towns in Pennsylvania. There was clearly more than a bit of Gownley in Amelia, but she was a specific person with her own life and experiences.

Before that, Gownley committed comics autobiography with Shades of Grey, a series he began in high school at the age of fifteen and reworked five years later for national distribution. (That's not surprising: as many people have noted, the last generation or so of American cartoonists -- at least the ones who didn't come up chained to the oars of the Big Two -- pretty much all have autobio work prominent in their early oeuvre.)

The Dumbest Idea Ever! is his new book this year, and it's another jump into the autobio well, telling the story of those teen years and the creation of Shades of Grey. (So it may also be, in a way, a retelling of Shades of Grey -- I've never seen that book, so I can't comment on that.) Gownley has a bemused view of his younger self: he was clearly a big grind in middle-school, the kind of kid that was good at everything and a little swelled-headed about it, and any praise during his young life went straight to his head.

So this is the origin story of a cartoonist. Gownley wanted to draw and liked comics from a young age, though this book is vague on exactly what he was reading in those tween early-80s years. (I suspect a lot of Elfquest and the few other things available in regular bookstores at the time.) Then he discovers a comics shop -- and Cerebus, obliquely described -- and that, plus a month-long sickness that ruined his wonderful grades forever, inspires him to create his own first comic. Unfortunately, that was a labored mash-up of Star Wars and Lord of the Rings that even his best friends didn't like much.

But then his best friend Tony gives him that titular bad idea: to write about their lives. And that turns into Shades of Grey, which links the back half of The Dumbest Idea Ever! That's not the only thing going on in young Jimmy's life -- he has his first girlfriend, which Gownley depicts in his usual squeaky-clean style and which also leads to other experiences of the wider world, like a bus trip to New York -- but it's the spine of the book: this is the story of how Gownley came to be a cartoonist.

Like the Amelia books, this is aimed squarely at kids more-or-less like the one Gownley was circa 1985: smart and interested and energetic and burning to do something. And this could be a template for a lot of them: Gownley did publish two issues of a comic book in high school, not just writing and drawing it but getting it into a format he could sell to his friends at school. He's not just talking a good game; he walked the walk when he was the age of the kids he's talking to.

It's all very Jimmy-centric, which is to be expected. It could perhaps have been a different story, about his friendship with Tony Graziano, whose "dumbest idea" it all was and who died young in 1994 -- but Gownley could always come back and do that story later, if he wants to. (And that story might have turned into a roadshow Pedro and Me anyway; what can you say about a twenty-two year old boy who died?) If you're older than thirty, or particularly cynical, it may feel too Andy-Hardy-putting-on-a-show, but Gownley sells it well: this is his life, and he tells it cleanly and with all the heart he has.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

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