New Rules: Jimmy Gownley's Amelia Takes a Bow
Eleven years after his much beloved Amelia Rules! series began, artist and writer Jimmy Gownley is releasing the very final Amelia Louise McBride adventure, Her Permanent Record. In it, the 11-year-old heroine (smart as a whip and cantankerous in a way that evokes the spirit of the greatest YA heroines of literature) boards a bus to go off in search of her missing Aunt Tanner, who has been scandalized by an ex-boyfriend’s tell-all book. We caught up with Gownley to discuss the ending of an era…and how he’s beginning a new one. Oh, and he also gives you major clues on two hidden treats you should be on the lookout for when you read Her Permanent Record.
You’ve now given 11 years and 1,300 pages to Amelia. When you started out with her, did you ever imagine it getting this big? Or going this long?
Actually, in a way, it was even longer.
I created the character of Amelia McBride way back in 1997, and I spent almost four years developing the series before the first issue was published.
In some ways, yeah, I did imagine Amelia Rules! being a long series of books, and I knew I wanted to work on it for a good long while. I loved the characters and wanted to spend whatever time it took to turn it into something specie, and I thought the work was good enough that it could find an audience.
At the same time, it was probably much more likely that the series would only last an issue or two. In 2001, it was almost unheard of for someone to launch a full-color kids humor comic. It's not like the marketplace was just uninterested in a book like Amelia Rules!; it was actively HOSTILE toward this type of material.
I mean, come on!
A full-color, self-published funny kids comic…sold exclusively in comic book stores…in 2001? Could I pick a more difficult path? Oh, I know! What if I make the lead character a nine-year-old girl? And I could put her name in big letters on every cover!
That should GUARANTEE this thing gets canceled in a month!
So, I guess I should say, I imagined success, but I sure as heck didn't EXPECT it.
And then there were the things that I could never have imagined or suspected. I never would have thought of being published by a giant company like Simon & Schuster. I never would have suspected that the Christmas story would be reprinted 24 times. That I'd be nominated for 13 Eisner Awards. That the book would be translated into multiple languages, and that I'd be able to actually watch Amelia change and grow up over the course of the series. That was the original idea, but I never really thought I'd be able to do it.
So, what does Amelia get up to in this final book?
Well, it starts with things going pretty well for Amelia. She's on the cheerleading squad, Aunt Tanner is back making music, and Reggie has actually (albeit accidentally) turned his team of pretend superheroes into productive—and cool—members of society, Amelia’s sailing seems remarkably smooth.
But then Tanner disappears, humiliated by an ex-boyfriend’s tell-all book, sending Amelia into full panic mode. So Amelia has to decide whether she is still the kid who, at the beginning of the series, had to make do with whatever the adult world threw at her, or can she take matters into her own hands and go off on her own to save Tanner?
Do you think Amelia’s fans will be happy with where things tie up?
I hope so.
I think that when you are doing a long series like this, the most important thing you need to do at the end is confirm the premise. That's why, even though the Seinfeld finale was perceived as a flop at the time, it never hurt the series in syndication. It actually works, because it confirms and affirms the world you just spent so much time in. Everyone says they love the Newhart finale, but they really don't. It's clever and cute for a one-off joke, but you notice that Newhart is rarely seen in syndication. Why would it be? Who would watch any of those episodes again? It was all just a dream. It's actually the worst possible thing you could do to your audience.
So my goal was to create a finale that was implied at the beginning. I think it works really well, and I love the point where we leave the characters.
When it was announced that this would be the last book, some readers started emailing me and asking who is going to "end up" with whom? Those people might be disappointed. It's not that kind of book.
I mean, I know people are conditioned by all the media they consume to think that there are only two questions you need to care about in fiction: "Who ends up with whom?" and "Who dies?" but I think there are a lot more interesting questions, and I hope I answered a good bit of them for Amelia. But for people who really want at least a partial answer to "who ends up with whom," they should pay more attention to the flash-forward at the end of the Superheroes book (Amelia Rules!, Vol. 3).
Oh, and speaking of treats for careful readers…there are two in Her Permanent Record.
1. The video messages to Tanner contain a hidden message, a good old-fashioned rock quote to throw back at Tanner in the end. I'd love to see if anyone finds it.
2. If you've read all of the books carefully, you should now be able to deduce Pajamaman's real name. First and last.
What do you see as the biggest change in Amelia’s character from the beginning of the series to where you’ve ended up now?
She's matured, she is still the energetic funny kid we met at the beginning, but now she's more in control of her life. She took lots of risks to get there, and paid the price for some of her choices, but I think now she's equipped for whatever comes next in her life.
What about for you personally: What are some of the changes you've gone through in the years of working on Amelia's books?
Well, I'm a completely different person in a lot of ways. I wasn't even thinking about having kids when Amelia debuted, and now I'm the father to twin girls who are about to turn nine. The same age Amelia was when her story began.
Plus, I'm now the person who did Amelia Rules! That sounds simple, but in some ways it's the most profound change. Setting out to do something that is this large of a project, going through all the twists and turns, experiencing the successes and failures really shapes the type of person you are.
Looking back, what are you most proud of accomplishing in the Amelia books?
Just that I set out to do something, and I did it. That's a good feeling. Also, I think that Amelia is ultimately a positive, fun story that is filled with love. It acknowledges the darkness, it moves through it, and it ends up in the light. That feels like a good legacy for the series, and me, for that matter, to have.
Any regrets? Any stories or scenes you wish you had told?
Not really. I had a title, "The Great Grabinsky," I always wanted to use, but no real story to go with it. Other than that, I think I left it all on the court!
Why end the series now?
It was time.
Almost two years ago now, my agent, Judy Hansen (the greatest agent in the world, by the way) called me and asked if I wanted to talk about more Amelia Rules! books when Volume 8 was finished. And right in that moment, I knew I didn't want to do any more. I had said everything I wanted to say, and I knew I had what I considered a killer ending planned, and any more books I would add between Volume 7 and that ending would be filler.
Having said that, I understand that life is (hopefully) long, and that someday I might want to return to these characters. That could happen, but to keep it going now when I felt like I'd reached a natural conclusion would just be unfair to the readers.
What comes next for you?
Right now, I'm working on two cool projects. I'm cocreating a webstrip called Gracieland with Ellen Toole-Austin. It can be found at greetingsfromgracieland.com, or on the greetingsfromgracieland Facebook page. It's a family strip, sort of a more sophisticated Family Circus, with a good dash of my hero Mr. Charles Schulz thrown in. It centers around a second-grade Catholic schoolgirl named Gracie and her older brother Anthony. It's lots of fun.
The other project is a graphic novel memoir for Scholastic. It's about my high school days self-publishing a comic book out of my locker, and how those days put me on the path to becoming a professional cartoonist. I just handed in the rough draft, and I think it's the best thing I've ever done. It feels like a leap forward for me, and I can't think of another comic quite like it in terms of tone.
Both of these projects have been great fun so far, and I feel really lucky to be able to work on them.
It's cool to be able to say that I had a dream when I was just five years old, and that now I get to live it every day.
If I could, I'd wish that for everybody!