It’s easy to fall into the nostalgia trap that our best years are behind us in childhood. Why do we wash over our younger years in fine brush covered in gold paint? Really, childhood is full of pain, learning experiences, and, worst of all, puberty. Why would anyone want to relive that? I did for a small bout of time watching Sesame Street clips on YouTube and reading old Disney Adventures to clear up the blues. Instead of the March 1995 issue, my hand grazed my review copy of The Dumbest Idea Ever by Jimmy Gownley. I picked it up and instantly felt my blues wash away. I immediately contacted Jimmy to tell him he cured me and then we talked comics.
Whitney Grace (WG): Hi Jimmy! I’m really excited to be talking with you today.
Jimmy Gownley (JG): Great! It’s nice to be speaking with you as well.
WG: I just wanted to say before start that you’re a really great comic book writer. I mean that in all seriousness, because I read a lot of comic books and your stuff is really good. And now that Graphix has picked you up, I’m really excited for you.
JG: Thanks. They’ve been amazing to work with. We’ve been talking about working together since the early days of Amelia, but I’ve always ended up with some other publishing house. So it’s great since wrapping up Amelia that I get to work with Graphix.
WG: Are you ready for my first question?
JG: Whenever you are.
WG: For people who haven’t read your new book The Dumbest Idea Ever the details your comics experience, would you please tell us how you got into comics?
JG: It goes back to my earliest memories. At age two, when my mom really wanted me to learn how to read early. The way she taught me to read was with Peanuts by Charles Schulz. She would point to the words while reading the comic to me. That is my earliest comic memory, but the other thing is that she made her own flashcards. She could have bought them, but she decided to draw them. She made dozens and dozens of them and when I was three years old, I taped the flashcards to the walls of our apartment. I was making my own comic strips. When people ask why I got into comics, I tell them I blame my mother. My dad also read comics as a kid. He and my mom weren’t Baby Boomers, they were from the Depression era. He grew up in the thirties and forties reading superhero comics, so he bought tons of superhero comics for me when I was small at the little grocery store in town. It didn’t bother me that the distribution was spotty, because we lived in a tiny town in the coal region of Pennsylvania. I’d get part one of a story and never see part two. It was always like looking into a window to another world and I loved them.
WG: That’s pretty cool. You wrote your first comic at a pretty young age called Shades of Gray. What was it about?
JG: What happened was, and this is what most of the new book is about, is that I was the top of everything at my school. I was a straight A student and the leading scorer on the school basketball team, for a while there everything was going my way and then suddenly it didn’t. Part of it was entering adolescence and the other was that I got really sick with a terrible case chicken pox, followed by pneumonia. I was out of school for over a month and essentially I got depressed, which no one would have recognized at the time. I was actually tested for allergies, because no one knew what was wrong with me. My dad and I had watched a TV show on comic books, so he took me to a comic book store out of town. I left the store with Cerebus, Love and Rockets, Elfquest, Zot, and The Spirit. All of these are amazing comics, then I realized that Cerebus was self-published. I decided to self-publish my own comic and my first attempt was really lame. I wrote this sci-fi fantasy comic book that ripped off Star Wars and Lord of the Rings. A good friend of mine said I should write a comic book about us and it seemed like a really dumb idea, hence the title of the new book. No one else had done anything like it, so I tried it and I borrowed just enough money to print fifty-seven copies. This was is in 1987, so getting something printed was an ordeal in itself. I didn’t have a home printer or a Kinkos, plus I had drawn them on paper half the size of a poster board. So we drove seventy some miles to Harrisburg just to find a place to print it. I only wanted fifty copies, but they couldn’t stop the machine soon enough so I had to pay extra for the other seven copies. I sold all the copies, paid my mom back, printed one hundred more, and then I did a second issue. The second issue sold two hundred copies, then I never looked back.
WG: Who did you sell them to, friends or anyone interested?
JG: I sold them out of my locker, which now seems so dodgy. I also sold them at a video store, a local convenience store, and then the comic book store where my dad I went took a bunch and people bought them. Everyone was hugely supportive of it to the point where I was interviewed in the local paper and television station. It was sort of surreal and of its time, because it wasn’t when people had easy access to being creative and finding an audience for it. Nowadays all you need is an Internet connection to reach more people than I did, but back in that time it was kind of novel and then it was really novel in the little town I grew up in. People didn’t write comic books and publish them. For whatever deficiencies I had in my writing and drawing, it was made up with that I was putting it out there and people supported me.
WG: That’s really cool, especially that in a small town they gathered around you like that.
JG: Yeah, it’s really crazy, because on the one hand I was sitting there feeling bad about being in a small town because I wanted to be in New York City where comics were being made. In Girardville, where I grow up, there was very little of that. It was sort of a weird trade off. I didn’t get any of these things, but I got love and support. It was really helpful, because I didn’t have a lot of natural ability and if I had been in New York City no one would have thought I was that great. I probably would have been the thirtieth best artist in my class and in my town I was the only who really stuck with art. That was the trade-off, I might have missed some excitement and opportunities, but I gained a lot by just having that quiet little place where I could find myself. I found my artistic voice very early in life.
WG: That’s really neat that you got what so many people try to find.
JG: Or never find. There’s a million people I know who are really talented who can draw better than me and possibly write better than me, but they don’t have that thing that tells you “only you can create this work.” A whole lot of other people can draw better than Charles Schulz, but no one else can bring those thoughts and feeling into the world. They were uniquely him. I was lucky enough to have someone point it out to me as a kid.
WG: How do you describe your style?
JG: Labored…no wait! Let me think. Do you mean visually, the art?
JG: When I started out I started out I wanted to draw much more realistically than my natural inclination. When you’re a teenage boy and you’re a comic book fan , what you try to do is model yourself after the styles you admire. The comics in the 1980s were more realistically drawn than the stuff I liked when I was little. Around 2001 when I decided I wanted to try something different, I sort of went back and drew how I did when I was having fun. It was more cartoony, playful, and borrowed from the Charles Schulz school. At the same time, it wasn’t really hyper animated. It comes out of the mid-20th century newspaper tradition. When I was consciously starting the Amelia comic, I was doing a kids comic in a full color starring a little girl in 2001. The comic book industry was actively hostile to that idea. The group of people they didn’t want in their stores were little girls. I’m trying to write this for a kid who’s never seen a comic book before and will probably find them in a library. I tried to keep the design simple: rows of panels and word balloons at the top of panels. By the time I’d written three or four Amelia volumes, I played with the layout more. I did the same thing with the new book, except I stripped away the fancy tricks I did with Amelia.
WG: Oh, wow!
JG: I’m also very old school and I use a crow quill pen. The Dumbest Idea Ever is hand lettered. In Amelia I did a little of that, but for some of it I used a font.
WG: As they say there’s no school, like the old school.
JG: That’s right.
WG: When I was reading Amelia, I felt that it really drew on Charles Schulz and Bill Watterson? Kind of like their little love child.
JG: Yeah, I’ll take that. It’s great to hear something like that. They’re both geniuses on their own type. The thing about Schulz is that he was one of a kind, so really there is never going to be another. If someone could look and say there’s this continuum of kid strips staring with the Yellow Kid and go through to Skippy to Peanuts and Calvin and Hobbes and then Amelia rolls after that, I’m as flattered as possibly be among those guys.
WG: When I read it, I’m always looking for things like Calvin and Hobbes and Peanuts. When I found Amelia I was saying this is wonderful. It’s so much fun and the main character is a girl! And she’s not mean like Lucy from Peanuts or a clichéd stereotype like Peppermint Patty. What was your lightening bolt of inspiration to start it her comic?
JG: It actually was like a lightening bolt. I had been working on Shades of Gray, which I had done since high school and at the time calling it shades of gray wasn’t as bad as it is now.
WG: Yeah, for a moment. I flashed the novel Fifty Shades of Gray and I reminded myself we’re talking about something innocent.
JG: Yes, totally different book. I was at the point I was selling it to independent comic shops and I was even picked up by Caliber Comics, which was a small independent publisher in the nineties. It was great, but that was never going to be my full time job. I wanted to be a full time cartoonist and without really thinking about what I was doing, I took the paper of the comic I was working on, flipped it over, and started drawing this little girl. I showed her to the person sitting next to me, who at the time, was my long-suffering girl friend. I asked her what she thought of the little girl and she replied she was cute. I asked what we should call her, so we thought about it and at the exact same time we said Amelia. I took that as my cosmic sign that I’m going to do a comic about Amelia. That was the easy part and that was in 1997. The first issue of Amelia came out in 2001. I spent about four years off and on while I had a graphic design career developing it, because I just didn’t want to put thirty-two pages together and throw it out there. I really wanted to have some idea of what the world was, how the characters were, and how it would look. Even though all of that changes as you work on it, I wanted some plan before I started it. It took a long time to develop and in 2001 putting out a full color kids comic about a little girl was total suicide.
We ended up sending three thousand copies to every comic shop in America and everyone got one with their catalog. It wasn’t going to be judged on what people thought it might be. That’s how I’ve always been able to sell Amelia and because we did that, we got a great response from retailers and Comics Buyers Guide called it “Peanuts for the 21st century.” They did it a month before the first issue’s release and it became the next month’s favorite comic. If we hadn’t done that, I don’t think we would have survived to issue two based off the subject matter.
WG: Amelia grows and changes. She’s not the immortal child of Schulz or Calvin with Watterson. Why did you decide to have her grow and change?
JG: In part it was too distinguish myself from those earlier strips. If you want to play at Schulz and Watterson’s level you have to do something different. I never really bought childhood. I never understood the idea of childhood as being this golden unchanging summer. Being a kid means you change every single day and that’s what being a kid is about. You grow up. That’s what makes that time special, what give your friends such power over you, those first crushes are so enormous because it’s the first time you’ve ever experienced anything like that, and it changes you. I thought very early on, I wanted Amelia to change. I wanted to have her go from a nine year old to a teenager. I wanted to end her story at some point, but not make it sad. Instead it would show she was ready to start her life. I also thought it was an idea that really lent itself to comic books as opposed to newspaper strips. Newspaper strips are a different medium. They tell a joke a day and it’s a big success if you’re able to do that. I thought a book should have a narrative and if you have a narrative the character has to change and grow. It’s funny when I first started publishing Amelia that if the readers were the same age as her they would be twenty-two now. With them all published, they can watch her grow from nine to thirteen within a week. It’s the strangest time warp thing.
WG: I think it’s really cool. It’s even cooler that you decided to make her a girl, because most of the female characters in 2001 were scantily clad superheroines and shojo heroines from Japan. Why did you do that?
JG: Really that character popped into my head and it was like she was fully formed. It was the strangest thing to have happened. When I go to school and explain to kids where ideas come from that’s the first story I tell. The reason it popped in my head is that the previous decade I had spent everyday writing, drawing, and working on comic books. I drew thousands of pages and the most issues I ever sold was 1850, one reached 3000. You’re learning the entire time, then one day it’s like wherever the cartoon characters exist before they come to the page goes, “All right, I’ll give myself to that guy.” When popped into my head, I knew this was the girl and I wanted her to be smart, funny, cool, and not any specific stereotype. Another thing that inspired me was Harriet the Spy, who in 1964 wasn’t your traditional girl. She’s smart, creative, pretty mean, and egocentric. She’s a real kid. When I was growing up there was a girl down the street from me, Marty ,who wasn’t like any cartoon character. She wasn’t wearing a dress everyday and playing dollies, she was the exact opposite of that. She did have tomboy and girly tendencies, and she was a real person. I didn’t see why she couldn’t be a in a comic. It’s all right in an adult comic, but I didn’t understand why that couldn’t be in a kid’s comic too. I’ve never thought something for kids had to be stupid, it can legitimate as anything else.
WG: I agree. What do you draw from to invoke a sense of realism in Amelia?
JG: I just looked out my window. I wanted to create a real town, so it’s pretty much the town I live in now. It’s a tiny town near Harrisburg, PA and the green belt that Amelia rides her bike on and has her accident is where I walk my dog. If you walk around my neighborhood you’ll see the houses I draw in the background. The actual stories, even though they’re made up, are inspired by real things. I have a good memory, I can remember things from when I was two and it’s not always the greatest, because I remember the bad things which is sad. But I’ve never been afraid to put those real feelings in the comic book. The weird thing is that I often get the question, You’re a man how on Earth would you write a girl?” It’s so annoying, because on one hand if you can’t write for half the population then you just can’t write. It shouldn’t be so astounding that a man can write a girl or vice versa. No one goes up to George Lucas and goes in Empire Strikes Back Yoda is three foot tall and green. You’re not three foot tall and green, how on Earth could you write for him? I think we’re all human and at the very core we’re not all that different.
WG: Some things are and some things aren’t, but for a grown man you certainly understand the female perspective.
JG: The other thing is that I really think about it…a lot. If you think about a girl’s mind it’s easier to write a comic book about them.
WG: Your wife and daughters to help too, I bet?
WG: In your most recent book The Dumbest Idea Ever will you tell us a bit more about what it’s about and how you got under the Graphix umbrella?
JG: I was about to go on a book tour for the fifth Amelia book, when my agent and I were talking. She asked me if I knew who Gene Shepherd was and I said no, then she asked if I knew a Christmas Story. I did, she replied that was his work. She recommended I listen to his old radio shows, because they’re about his childhood. She thought I had a similar sensibility, so I listened to hundreds of episodes. They’re brilliant and funny, then I told my agent and she said I should write a prose memoir in that style. If you’re away from home for weeks and weeks on end and writing a memoir, it’s the worst possible idea. It’s like homesickness in notebook form. I gave it her and she said it didn’t work. It was about me becoming a father to twins and flashing back to my childhood. She liked one chapter about me in high school. I have the same agent as Raina Telegemeier, who is a great graphic memoir writer and artist. My agent was out with David Sailor of Graphix, who mentioned that Smile was a big success for girls and Graphix would like a memoir for boys. She suggested, “How about Jimmy Gownley?” David said that would be great, had I written one? My agent then said I had and it was fantastic. She called me after lunch, reminded me that the memoir was still terrible, but that I should focus on the one chapter when I became a cartoonist in high school. She asked if I could turn that into a graphic novel pitch, I thought in two-three months sure. She said great you have the weekend. Over three days I handed a completed proposal by Monday.
It explains how I lost my way as a teenager and reinvented myself as a comic book artist through my friends and family. Scholastic loved the pitch and bought it. As long as Graphix existed, I wanted to work with them. I knew David Sailor for years. I published The Best of Amelia for the Scholastic Book Fairs under my Renaissance Comics label. Not only do they know the kid’s market from a business standpoint, they also know what makes a good kid’s book. Their editorial decisions aren’t only for what will make the book sale, but also what will make it good.
WG: That sounds like every comic writer’s dream.
JG: It’s beyond a dream, because it was an impossibility. When I had the first idea for Amelia, I never would have been able to sell it to Scholastic. In 2002, I was working with Harold Buckles who is now the vice president of Archie Comics and he had just printed an Amelia graphic novel for us. I told him we needed to be in the Scholastic book order pamphlets they hand out at schools and Harold said that would never happen. He ended up working for me some time later and helped relaunch the Amelia graphic novels. Amelia was one of the titles that launched graphic novels at Barnes and Noble and Borders back in 2007. I still wanted to be a part of Scholastic. I went to their website and it said don’t call us, really please never call us, we don’t want to hear from you…ever. I thought how serious can they be, so I called the number, got the switchboard, and found the number for the person who ran the Scholastic Book Club. I introduced myself and said I had a comic book series, immediately she said that they don’t deal in comic books. Three weeks later I called them back, introduced myself, and said I do a graphic novel series called Amelia Rules, then they said “Oh Really?”
WG: That’s a lie. They sold Jim Davis’s Garfield books.
JG: Well, it’s Garfield. That was when I realized the power of graphic novel. To me a graphic novel is a 600 page Cerebus book or Maus. Comic book has never offended me, but when you say comic book to a publisher they think of thirty-two pages stapled together. Once I got over the semantics, they sold tens of thousands of copies of a Best of Amelia collection they did for us. This was an amazing opportunity and it was five years into the Amelia process. It was beyond a dream that these big publishers would one day publish my book.
WG: I would like that.
JG: It’s not so bad when you think about it.
WG: In the book your teacher was against graphic novels. Why was she so staunch in her refusal to let you read them? Was it a Seduction of the Innocent thing?
JG: This was in 1985, 1986.
WG: Oh, the dark ages of comic books.
JG: Right, it was an attitude that kept up into the early 2000s. The light switch occurred in 2006, when the American Librarian Association hosted their first graphic novel pavilion. Librarians were so grateful, because they said kids read these books. There’s something about a library when you’re a kid that it’s totally democratic. It’s not which book is the best advertised. You can go in with your card and pick whatever you want. Kids pick graphic novels and librarians familiarize themselves them. Teachers even lag behind, but librarians’ entire goal is to get people to read. Graphic novels are being read. In the 1980s, it was still pretty much considered junk literature for little kids or illiterate people. Even when it changed, they said comics were good for reluctant readers and that was a backhand compliment. I was never a reluctant reader, I was a voracious reader. No one realized that the vocabulary in the comics was miles above the words in the school reader. Stan Lee, Frank Miller, and other writers were writing to please themselves, so the comics were at a tenth, eleventh grade reading level.
The fallout from the 1950s cast a huge, shadow.
WG: I hate Fredric Wertham.
JG: Yeah. Can you believe being called out in front of the Senate and forced to defend your entire industry to the country where freedom of expression is supposed to be guaranteed? Nobody remembers that happened. If you ask anyone on the street about the comic book hearings in the 1950s they would say what on Earth on your talking about. The whole “is it a comic or is it a graphic novel argument” is ludicrous is because of MAD surviving. MAD survived the purge of the fifties because they changed the sized it was printed in. If it was printed in like a regular comic book, it was the devil’s work and corrupted children. They changed the size to a magazine and suddenly it was harmless. Suggesting that size changed the medium was ridiculous.
WG: I didn’t know that
JG: That’s why it survived, because it didn’t have to submit to the comics code authority. Theoretically they could have done the same for the other comics, but MAD was the sales juggernaut they couldn’t let go down.
WG: Did you ever have any other Seduction of the Innocent moments?
JG: At the ALA Conference with the very first graphic novel pavilion one of the old guard librarians came up and yelled at us. He wanted kids to be reading the classics. I asked who the classics were to him and he said Dickens. Dickens was a serialized author, whose work was sold to the masses. It’s now been canonized and now it doesn’t need people to defend it. Graphic novels are, however, new and we’re going to get behind it to get them to kids. The teacher who disliked comic books actually did me a favor because I had to defend them at an early age. It didn’t change her mind, but it made me look at it and see that I’m right.
WG: You definitely are right. When did you decide that making your own comic was a great idea?
JG: I’m still waiting to make that decision. I don’t know that I actually ever made that decision, I just know at some genetic level I’m a comic book writer and artist. I will never be the world’s best illustrator like Allen Lee or a writer like F. Scott Fitzgerald, but somehow when I put words with comic book panels it works. It means something to the people who read it and it works for me because it’s a tremendously satisfying experience. Even it was a dumb idea, I had no choice to but to follow it.
WG: I agree. It’s in your blood.
JG: It’s a good thing, because not everyone knows what they are supposed to do.
WG: You said that Graphix was shopping around for a boy memoir, why did you decide to put your personal story out there?
JG: It seemed like the natural conclusion for that path I started on when I was fifteen. When my friend suggested I write a comica comic about us, it was profound but I always took the suggestion metaphorically. Write a comic about people like us that people can relate to on a day to day basis and I think after twenty five years and learning everything I can about comic books, well I can make the comic book about us. I did exactly what he told us to do all those years ago. I’ll tell the truth as best as I can. The reason being is that whenever I’m writing I think of the idea reader. With Amelia it was the saddest girl in the world. I used to picture this little girl, who didn’t have a family or friends, or a lot of money, but she was in a library and pulled the book of the shelf. This was my chance to talk with her.
With the new book, if I could go back in time and give myself a book this would be it. It tells me I’m not the smartest or most talented person in the world, but it also says I don’t have to be. What I can do is tell these stories from my heart and no one else can do that. Hopefully another reader will take the same message from it. What I didn’t want to do is portray myself one of those long suffering artists surrounded by rubes. That wasn’t my experience at all. My experience was the people around me were smart and they might not have had all the opportunities I did because I could draw a little, but they supported me. That was reward enough for me and even the production values Scholastic put in it is amazing.
WG: When you were writing your comic defense letter, what resources did you use? When you wrote the paper in the 1980s, there weren’t a lot of books on the topic.
JG: I got all of my information from a magazine sold at my local newsstand called The Comics Collector, which had some relationship to Comics Buyer’s Guide. It had lots of articles about the history of comics, especially Will Eisner. The county library also had a few resources, like the Smithsonian Book of Newspaper Comics and Jules Feiffer’s Comic Book Heroes. I did start it with a dramatic reading from the New Teen Titans #38 with Donna Troi.
WG: That’s awesome. Were you embarrassed at all to show yourself in a less than positive light?
JG: No. If you are going to do it you have to be true to the story and that’s the true story. Overall, I think the character comes across as likeable and interesting. That was me and I knew there would be other moments when people didn’t look their best. If I was going to be okay with doing that then I would have to be okay doing the same to myself. Again I didn’t want the “lone artist is the saint and everyone else is a jerk” trope. I think there’s a sort of myth that the artist is outside of society, maybe from Van Gogh. It’s terrible for the artist and culture, because the artist should be in society making art for people. There a myth about an individual’s greatness, which is good and harmful. I think the best art is created for people in that community.
WG: Did you ever use that bit of prose you wrote in the comic somewhere else?
JG: Never until this exact book, so it’s been floating around for twenty five years until it found a home here.
WG: That’s really impressive you wrote that at that age.
JG: It probably took me a long time and we had been reading F. Scott Fitzgerald. I read that he polished everything twenty times and I coped that.
WG: What do you like about writing comics/graphic novels for kids?
JG: It’s fun. Someone at the New York Comic Con asked me why I write for kids when I’m limited in some of the things I can do, because in adult comics you can show sex, nudity, cursing, whatever. There’s one thing in a kid’s comic that you can’t do in an adult comic and that is give them hope, because if you write a really hopeful story for adults it will be dismissed cynically as being false hope. It’s because most adults have already made life choices and they’re dissatisfied with a lot of them. Kids still have their choices to make and you can write a joyful, hopeful story that doesn’t skirt around adult problems. I don’t think kids live in this magical world and at the same time it can say even in spite of the darkness, things can work out. I like that and in my art I try to be optimistic. I don’t feel any shame in saying there is light in darkness and you have to work towards that. In a kid’s book it will resonate with you.
WG: How did you score the cool job of being the cartoon in residence at the Charles Schulz Museum?
JG: I was at the Eisner Awards and I was sitting at the table before they started, when this woman sat down next to me. She introduced herself as Jeannie Schulz, Charles Schulz’s widow. I tried to be cool, but then I blathered on like an idiot. She was so cool and nice and I gave her a copy of Amelia. It was kind of embarrassing, because the blurb “the Peanuts of the 21st century” was on the cover and I was handing it to Mrs. Schulz. She invited me to Santa Rosa and to the museum. Some time later I was on this tour and I told the PR firm about my meeting with Jeanie Schulz and they set something up. It was so neat, I got to stay in her guest house, do a whole day at the museum, and then I drew and people came up and asked me questions. It’s the most magical place I’ve ever had in my life. I hope to go back someday and anyone who is a fan of comics needs to see it.
WG: Do you have to declare?
JG: I think I’m done declaring in general. If anyone wants to know my declaration then they need to read my book The Dumbest Idea Ever. It’s my Constitution, my Declaration of Independence, and it explains why I do comics.