Jimmy Gownley: To the Saddest Little Girl in the World

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If you haven't yet heard of Amelia Rules!, you're missing out on one of the standouts of the comics medium. Written and drawn by Jimmy Gownley, this series about a middle-schooler in crisis is a clever mix of fun, philosophy, humor and poignancy that will, at times, have you laughing out loud and reaching for a tissue.

We sat down with Mr. Gownley to have a lengthy, in-depth discussion about Amelia, her world, and how her story takes more advantage of the comic book medium than nearly any other graphic novel on the shelves.

(And if you're out this Black Friday looking for the perfect Christmas gift for a young reader, any of the Amelia Rules! books should be something you consider, which is why we've provided helpful links along the way.)

The Simon & Schuster paperbacks are my first exposure to the Amelia Rules! work, so I don't know if it's reprints of prior works or if it's new ongoing material.

The first four volumes that Simon & Schuster put out are reprints. I had formed my own publishing company, Renaissance Press, back in 2001, and I was publishing the stories as individual comic books to comic book shops. I slowly built them up over time and collected them in trades, and had some success that way. I was even able to sell some -- even though we were a small publisher -- into Scholastic book fairs and book clubs and things like that, and get translations done. In 2008, we licensed the publishing rights to Simon & Schuster, who put out those books that I had already done, and now starting with The Tweenage Guide to Not Being Unpopular and moving forward, they're all original.

So they're no longer being published in pamphlet form for comic shops?

No, one of the stipulations of going with Simon & Schuster was that we discontinue the pamphlet form. It wasn't something they were interested in getting into, and they sort of felt it would be easier for them to be able to promote and publicize a book that was all original -- which I totally get. And to be honest, the pamphlet form is just sort of dying in the comic book industry. I think Marvel Comics are now like four dollars a piece, which is just an absurd price to pay for a comic book. So I was more than happy to let that go -- because even at the time we finished publishing Amelia Rules! through Renaissance Press, the trade paperbacks were selling multiple times as much as an individual issue was. So at some point we had to ask, "Why am I even bothering with the issues?"

A lot of writers get the common question about where they get their ideas. What I'd like to know is where you find your voice. Because Amelia and her friends have this honesty and frankness that I think is very unlike what adults would expect from kids that age.

I'm really glad you've asked me that! No one's ever asked me that question, and I have a good answer to it.

When I was fourteen years old, I got sick twice in a row. I had an unbelievably bad case of chicken pox, so I was out of school for two weeks. Then on top of that I got pneumonia, and I was out of school for another two weeks. And there was a little TV show my dad and I were watching one afternoon, as I was lying there dying, and it was about all these new comic books that were being produced -- all these alternative comics in the 80s. This would have been like 1986. There was a comic book store owner on the show, and I'd never even heard of a comic book store. So my dad said, "Once you get better, I'll take you to that comic shop." And he did, and it was just an amazing experience! I learned that a lot of comic books -- a the time Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was just huge in comic book shops, and that was a self-published comic. And there was another comic I loved called Cerebus that was also self-published.

I decided I wanted to try to do that -- I wanted to try to self-publish my own comic book as a teenager, living in this tiny little town in Pennsylvania. I decided I was going to make this sci-fi epic: I was going to somehow combine "Star Wars" with The Lord of the Rings, but it was going to happen after an apocalypse and nuclear holocaust. It was terrible! But if you're a 14-year-old science fiction comic book boy, and you're going to do a story, that's what you're going to do, right?

So I showed it to my friend, Tony, who I really liked and was a very smart kid, essentially to have him encourage me and tell me, "Wow, this is wonderfully done. You should go forward on this." I gave him the first three or four pages, and at the end of the day he gave them back to me, and said, "I just didn't like it. Further, I don't think anyone wants to read this kind of stuff." I was sort of taken back by that, because comic book people, I thought, would like that kind of thing. And he was like, "Yeah, but no one in the real world -- I wouldn't be interested in it, none of the friends we know and hang out with, none of us would read it." I was the only person in my whole class -- in my whole town, I think -- that read comic books.

Then he said, "Why don't you write a comic book about us?" And I thought that was the dumbest idea in the world, because comics are about big things, and explosions, and giants punching each other in the face, and he was telling me to write a comic book about teenagers growing up in Pennsylvania. But at the same time, no one else had done anything like it, so that's what I did, and I started self-publishing this comic book called Shades of Gray out of my high-school locker, and out of a few local stores. I eventually built that up until, when I was in college, that was sort of my job rather than working in the library or the computer lab or something like that -- I published this comic book, and it actually went to comic shops nationwide. Looking back on it now, it's the most amazing thing, because you sort of, as an artist or an author, have to often search decades for your particular authorial voice -- and I was fifteen years old, and this kid handed me one. And that's what I've been doing ever since -- trying to write as honestly as I possibly can about real people.

The thing with Amelia is, people generally when they talk about doing kids stuff, they talk about childhood, and they've sort of built it up into this sort of rosy-hued golden age of just joy. But childhood's rough, because it's not a time of stasis -- it's a time of absolute change. It's the greatest change, really, in your life, and I just try to remember that and try to make it as honest as possible. But it's amazing to me to think I'm still doing exactly what my friend recommended to me in 1986.

Somewhere along the way, you decided to make a run with a female protagonist. What caused this shift?

I was working on Shades of Gray, and I loved doing it, but it was always going to be this sort of thing I did on the side. At this point I'd graduated college and was working as a graphic designer. I was publishing Shades of Gray, and it was doing okay, but it was never going to be a career for me.

I just took the page that I was drawing -- I was drawing a page of Shades of Gray, what ended up being the last issue. I just flipped it over, and without any thought of what I was doing, I just started doodling. And I drew this little girl -- Amelia, exactly how she appears in the first issue. I kind of liked the way she looked, and I held it up to the person who was sitting with me -- at the time it was my long-suffering girlfriend, now my long-suffering wife, Karen -- and I said, "Hey, what do you think of her?" And she said, "She's really cute," and I said, "Maybe I should do something with her. what should we name her?" We both thought about it, and then at the exact same second we both said, "Amelia." So I took that as my cosmic sign that I was supposed to write a comic book about this little girl.

I looked around, and there wasn't much stuff for kids at the time. There might have been one or two things: Archie was one of them, and one or two little alternative comics -- but there was nothing that was trying to take a slightly more literary take on kids comics. Kids fiction had gone from the sixties through the nineties through this unbelievable revolution, starting with things like Harriet the Spy and moving on with The Outsiders, and the Judy Blume stuff, and kids comics were still Casper, the Friendly Ghost.

It seems it's always been in comics that the "All Ages" tag means it's almost for no ages, except the very young. And with Amelia Rules! you've built this story that every age wants to read.

Well, my thought was, coming out of the self-publishing thing -- which was very Gen-X, a very nineties thing, and the idea was you were expressing yourself, but you're not thinking of an audience. You don't care if anybody gets you. As a matter of fact, if no one gets you, that's even better.

But after a time, you start thinking, Well, this is pointless. Because part of the reason of art is to communicate, right? So I thought, Okay, who am I writing this book for? And I thought -- and this is the hokiest, corniest thing in the world; I can hear people sighing all over the universe when I say this. But I pictured the saddest little girl in the world. Whoever she is, she's out there. I don't know what her situation is. Maybe she doesn't have friends, maybe she doesn't have family. Whatever. But someone's going to give her a copy of this book, and this book is my chance to talk to her.

So the point is, you want to do something that's fun and funny, because you want to cheer her up. But you also want to say something that's true, you want to say something that's edifying. And you want to tell her that, "I understand that you're not in this world of childhood that is somehow magically sealed off from the rest of the world -- that real world adult concerns intrude on your life all the time." And it's amazing, really, how gracefully kids deal with that. I don't think a lot of people give them credit for that. That's a big part of what I try to do with Amelia.

With Amelia's childhood world, you capture both the spur-of-the-moment craziness -- I still love the whole "Thank God you're still open!" game, and have toyed with playing that one myself.

Oh, you've got to do it! (Laughs) It's fun!

But then, you almost know going into an Amelia book that there's going to be fun, fun, fun, fun, fun -- and then somewhere near the end you're going to get slapped in the face with something like Joan recounting just how long a year is, or Amelia's parting message to Kyle in the hospital.

Yeah. Yeah, because I find life is like that. Foreshadowing doesn't exist in life a whole lot. You wake up, and everything's fine, and you're listening to your favorite music. Everything's good, and then there's a car accident. That's just the way life goes. And I sort of have this feeling that if you can juxtapose the moods as frequently as possible, and get them as tightly together as possible so that people are going from very high highs to low lows, you can catch them off guard, and they will, as an audience, to be more willing to go along with you and may be see things that they weren't willing to see. If you'd just gone out and done some sort of After School Special, "This is the story of..." like Joan's story, "This is the story of war," and you didn't have all the elements of the date, and the funny stuff, and all that silliness, it wouldn't have the impact when you got to the end -- because you sort of known this is going to be something didactic; this is going to be something where someone's preaching to me. So it's a very interesting, at times, tightrope to walk. But, it's what I do.

Unlike many other comic books out there, you don't tell "illustrated stories." You actually take advantage of the medium itself, to pull off stunts that you just couldn't do in prose or film -- and Scott McCloud would be very proud of you for that, by the way -- because you have sequences like in Superheroes where Reggie has this fantasy crush on Tanner as a superbeing, and then near the end all that artwork is brought back and marred to show his idol being shattered when he sees her in a real crisis.

It's weird. When I started, one of the reasons... If you look at Amelia's face, starting with The Whole World's Crazy -- and the early parts of The Whole World's Crazy, because I'm moving forward -- you'll see that it starts at really basic page layouts. It's generally a nine-panel grid that doesn't waver too much. It might have some pages with more panels, some with less, but it's very much like that comic strip. And the idea behind that was that I knew who I wanted to talk to: the saddest imaginary little girl in the world, right? Well she wasn't going into a comics shop regularly. So there was a chance that this type of ideal reader that I had in my mind wouldn't even know how to read a comic book. So my idea was to very slowly start introducing these things where you have to be a little more sophisticated about how comic books work to get it -- but by that point you would have already read a hundred and sixty pages of Amelia, so you'd be sort of used to it and kind of ready for it.

In that sort of climax you were talking about, in When the Past is a Present, in that particular story with Amelia's whole family history, which I told with comic strip styles from a whole century, --

--and then you pull the panels back again at the end, and there's a whole new story that was hidden in it!

Yes! You know what's interesting -- and I don't know if you noticed -- but they also make a picture of Amelia's face. If you pull back wide, and see some of the wrinkles and stains over the nine panels, it makes Amelia's face. That issue almost killed me. That was probably the most satisfying, though, to do, and just thrilling, because I really felt at that point that I sort of had a command of how comics work. And I had this idea that I hadn't seen done before. That whole basis, it sort of started with Neal Adams, who did this Ben Casey strip in the 60s, and it was like "The Hidden Head." Essentially, if you looked at it from a panel-to-panel basis, it was just a regular Ben Casey strip, but if you looked at it after stepping back slightly, you would see Ben Casey's head was hidden in all the panels. And that was neat and kind of cool, but it's kind of a trick -- it doesn't really have a narrative reason to do that. Some people, like Dave Sim in Cerebus, have played with narrative reasons to do the same trick, but I thought, Wouldn't it be great if the whole point was to literally see the story from a different perspective at the end? When you're moving through the story linearly, you don't see that story. That is revealed on the last page. But then when you have this one moment outside of time, and you can see all those panels rearranged, and you get this other entire story -- which is really what the story was about -- that was thrilling to be able to go, Yes! I nailed that!.

That bit actually reminded me of the chapter in Watchmen, where Dr. Manhattan is made to care about humanity again after realizing that Laurie's existence is this culmination of generations upon generations of the right couplings that reduced down to her.

I wasn't thinking of that consciously, but I'll tell you what -- Watchmen particularly, but I think the way they handled Dr. Manhattan specifically is astounding. If I listed my top five or six comic books of all time, Watchmen #4, which is Osterman's life story, would definitely make my list.

You mentioned how the books began with simple layouts and have been evolving ever since. Along those same lines, while it's subtle, Amelia herself is changing, growing up. Time passes; it's not the eternal school year of Archie. Does this mean you have the whole arc planned out? Is there an end in sight?

In sight? (laughs)

Hopefully waaaaaaaay down the road?

Yeah. I can theoretically, though, do this for the rest of my life. I feel almost like she's another person, like a real person. But yes, I have it planned very far in advance. And there are clues leading up to just this point in the series, clues to things that are coming later that you won't be aware of until you get there. Things like the flash-foward at the end of Superheroes! -- it isn't just random. By the time you get to volume 5, and you see Rhonda has had her transformation into this kind of cute girl who's not going to have the popularity issues any more, you realize you've already seen that at the end of Superheroes! So it wasn't just an idea, "Oh, I'll just show a couple of years in the future just as a kick." If you were able to go through those panels and look at all these different little things in the backgrounds, and on clothing, all that kinds of stuff, you get lots of clues about what's going to happen that I still haven't written yet.

So ten years from now, I assume we'll be reading adventures of Amelia in high school.

Yeah, I would love to do that! Wouldn't that be great? That's another thing - I've never seen something where they took a kid... For Better or For worse could do it in a comic strip, and Doonesbury and Gasoline Alley. But within a comic book, there's very very little. Maggie from Love & Rockets wasn't a little girl; she started as like a 20 year old, and then told her life with flashbacks to her childhood. But no one's just started with like a nine year old girl's life and just tried to see how far you could take it.

I just want them to get to high school so I can see how Pajamaman pulls his schtick off. He's one of the few characters who's there to remind the reader that this isn't your usual kind of storytelling -- that it's more than just a biography.

And it's so key to keep that element in there, to me, because I don't want it to be... I don't want the Woody Allen syndrome where, you're like, I don't want to be funny anymore, I just want to be serious. Even though I'm a huge Woody Allen fan, I always want to make sure there's that element of fun. One of the things I've loved doing in just the last few books -- it's completely subtle, it's almost subliminal -- but just watching his friendship with Joan grow. And it's not a boyfriend/girlfriend thing, and it's not a romantic thing. It's just they clearly get each other, and are buds. Even though it's never been a plot point, it's there, and I love doing that kind of thing.

I keep waiting for him to say just one word at an unexpected moment, lik Ferb in the Phineas & Ferb cartoons.

(laughs) No, but here's another secret: if you were really super-diligent, and maybe got a little lucky, you could figure out what his real name is by this point. Or at least I think you could -- maybe I'm kidding myself, and I've buried it way too deep, but...

It's really Baldur Moon, right?


Amelia has always had this really close relationship with her Aunt Tanner. It's almost maternal -- enough to make me question sometimes if maybe Tanner weren't really her actual mother.

No, but a lot of people have said that! But I just think... Well, from my perspective, I said I wanted to talk to the saddest little girl in the world -- I wanted to tell her something good, and I wanted to tell her something true. That's Tanner's real situation in the book. She is talking to the saddest little girl in the world. Amelia's very, very tough, and very funny, and smart -- but she's the kid that's in crisis. Her whole life has changed underneath her, and she has no say in the matter. And I think Tanner is the type of person that in touch enough with her own childhood that she knows what Amelia is going through, and she's the person who will always connect with her in way that other people can't, even if they love her. I mean, obviously her parents love her, like any parent would. But there's some connection they have that's just different.

With Tanner now out of the picture, I guess we'll be seeing how Amelia copes in that void?

Yeah, because that's the other thing: You never get to keep Ben Kenobi. As much as you want to keep Ben Kenobi, you can't really keep him. Having said that, Tanner's probably my second favorite character to write, so she won't be gone forever. But she can't always be there at just the right moment to say the exact right thing any more.

The philosopher has flown. And there is a lot of philosophy that comes out of both Tanner and Amelia. It's a great book of wisdom, actually, often more than it is a comic book -- even moreso in the latest book, True Things (Adults Don't Want Kids to Know). It's all philosophy.

Well, you know what's funny about that is, is that that was not my title. I was very disappointed that they did not want to use my title, which I won't even say what it is now. But it was my editor who said, "I think this should be what it is." And what was brilliant about that from her standpoint as an editor, is that she didn't just randomly pick a title and stick it on the book; she took something from my own work. Tanner has said since the first book some "True Things Adults Don't Want Kids to Know," so just from a purely political point of view, it's brilliant for her to say this, because I could accept it, because it was mine. But also... it's a great title! (laughs) And there are not many books, I think, that would use that as a title. So it was a great moment for me to go, okay, this person who is at Simon & Schuster and is assigned to this book gets it in a way that I could not have hoped she would get it.

I wanted to ask about your cartooning inspirations, because the children in Amelia Rules! are very Charles Schultz in their presentation, and the adults are more Jeff Smith; I could see Tanner and Thorn coexisting in the same panel without clashing styles.

I can't say it was Jeff Smith. I think the first issues of Bone came out in 1992 / 1993, and by that point my influences were probably already my influences. What I always liked was The Spirit by Will Eisner. Eisner was able to use a variety of different character types, and they didn't seem to clash. The girls were beautiful glamour girls, and the Spirit was kind of a stock heroic type. But the commissioner was kind of a cartoon, and it ran this whole gamut of styles, and they all worked together. And I really liked playing with that aspect.

Jaime Hernandez, of Love and Rockets also does that. His kids look exactly as if they'd come out of Peanuts or Little Archie or something like that, and the adults are impeccably rendered like I could never hope to do. But I always liked sort of playing with that. It seems to me it makes sort of a rich world.

I've mentioned how Amelia Rules! works perfectly as a graphic novel, using all the conventions to tell the story in a way only comics could. That being said, are there avenues for Amelia in other media... say, animation?

Well, yeah! There's no definite plans. It could definitely happen. There have often been people who have approached me about doing it, and I am definitely not opposed to doing it. I can absolutely see how it could be done.

Having said that, I want someone who is willing to do it in the way that I think is the right way. If all those things come together, I would absolutely do it.

There's a couple things I think would work. I think Tweenage Guide or True Things you could probably make a film out of, or even Superheroes!, because I think you can separate them enough from the main narrative, and I could see something like that happening. But the other thing is the Christmas episode, which was turned into a stage musical, which I loved, and I think that stands alone. I think that, as a Christmas special, would be just fantastic. So we'll see what happens.