Jimmy Gownley has been doing all-ages comics for about fifteen years, with his Amelia Rules! being his best known and most successful work. His latest comic, The Dumbest Idea Ever, basically draws from the Raina Telgemeier playbook in terms of structuring autobiographical stories in a carefully and rigidly prescribed manner. Indeed, Telgemeier herself blurbs this release by her fellow Scholastic author, and one can't help but think of Scholastic trying to expand their successful brand of autobio that Telgemeier pioneered for the all-ages crowd. Whereas Telgemeier's first two books were about specific kinds of trauma and the pitfalls we experience when trying to make friends (Smile) and a fictional account of her experience as a drama club techie (Drama), Gownley's book is more of an origin story for how he became an artist.
Gownley's soft figure design is attractive, clean and expressive. He designed a large number of characters for this book and does a fine job in making each one distinctive. The book's story structure, partly told in flashback, is an effective framing device that gives the reader a sense of what to expect right away without giving away too many details. Ultimately, this is a book about finding one's own way as a person and flailing about for something that makes one special and unique. A long bout with illness turns him from an academic overachiever to a bit of a slacker, until he finally realizes that he can make his own comic book. When he starts out with a dumb fantasy/sci-fi comic that his best friend doesn't have the heart to tell him is awful, Gownley is inspired by said friend to create stories about everyday life. For an alt-comix reader, this isn't exactly a revelation, but for its target audience of 10-12 year olds, it's mean to be an astounding concept.
The problem with this book is that at 236 pages, it's astoundingly padded. The pacing is often glacial, and while Gownley tries to be as self-deprecatory as possible, there's a creeping sense of self-congratulation that pervades the book. Gownley even addresses this when he receives a lot of attention in town for the book and alienates his friends, until he realizes that compared to real artists, he has no talent. Of course, it's easy to look back at one's work and come to this conclusion, but the back cover describes Gownley as a "renowned" comics creator and his own bio mentions the "rave reviews" that Amelia Rules! received. He's obviously quite proud of this book and already views it as a successful part of his mission to inspire other kids to create comics. While this will undoubtedly be the case, I couldn't help wishing that the book was better and showed more storytelling restraint. While Gownley tries to build atmosphere and develop the camaraderie between his childhood self and former rivals turned friends, there's a sense of repetitiveness at work here. The same goes for the scenes with his childhood girlfriend Ellen, though those pages are heightened with a sense of tension and importance that at least gives them some momentum. Emotions are hammered home with lettering tricks and characters mugging on the page like actors staring into a camera. There are hints of Gownley's meditative side to be found in the book, but they're drowned out by the larger narrative. The most important message--that finding one's creative spark is more important than worrying about "success"--is drowned out both in terms of the book's own narrative and Gownley's own success as a cartoonist, a success that he quantifies on the front cover as a "New York Times Bestselling Author".