Gownley, Jimmy

views updated

Jimmy Gownley

Born February 5, 1972 (Pottsville, Pennsylvania)
American author, illustrator

Walk into any bookstore and you will probably find a long section of shelving dedicated to graphic novels. Flip through a few and you'll see a range of thickly muscled caped avengers, comic barbarians with large noses, well-endowed women dressed in scanty outfits, and a range of other realistically drawn or more cartoon-looking folks. These characters populate stories that range from funny adventures for children to horrifying stories with plenty of blood and gore. Bookstore shelves do hold some graphic novels suitable for preteen readers, but they're hard to find if you don't know what you're looking for. Jimmy Gownley, the creator of Amelia Rules!, knew this, and he has done something about it.

"Childhood is back … comics are for kids again … and Amelia rules!"

Amelia Rules! is a graphic novel series about a nine-year-old girl named Amelia Louise McBride. The stories follow Amelia as she comes to terms with the emotional upheaval caused by her parents' divorce and her move from Manhattan to a new life with her mom and Aunt Tanner in a small town. She has a host of new friends: Reggie Grabinsky, her new best friend; Rhonda Bleenie, her pal and competition for Reggie's affection; and Pajamaman, a silent friend who only wears footy pajamas. With her buddies, Amelia experiences life like any other normal girl: she plays freeze tag, goes on camping trips, goes to school, rakes leaves, and of course, dresses up like a superhero. As part of G.A.S.P. (Gathering of Awesome Super Pals), Amelia is Princess Powerful, "the dazzling beauty who enchants the boys even as she bashes them," as Gownley described her in The Whole World's Crazy. Gownley gives the reader much more than just the silly situations of childhood; he reveals what it feels like to be a kid living in an adult's world. Amelia is comforted by bedtime stories, gets a little frightened on Halloween, wonders about the existence of Santa Claus, grieves the loss of a family member, and misses her dad and her old neighborhood friends.

Gownley has worked hard to make adults understand that his graphic novels have a place on every kid's bookshelf. As he told Anisa Brophy of the Sequential Tart Web site: "I believe we can shake this industry out of its 'steroids and spandex' daze. We can rise above the Fantagraphics gloom. We can look at the books on the comic shop walls and say Childhood is back … comics are for kids again." Gownley explained his mission further: "I think there's a huge, huge opportunity for kids' comics, which is a huge opportunity for comics in general. No one's going to read Love and Rockets or Sandman [popular series for more mature readers] if they don't read some junior version of that. I think the time is now." To get the word out about the value of graphic novels for kids, Gownley even started his own G.A.S.P. Success came when Gownley's lobbying led to his books being shelved in the children's section of bookstores. His efforts were again rewarded in 2004 when Amelia Rules! became the first graphic novel to be selected by Children's Book of the Month Club.

Best-Known Works

Graphic Novels

Shades of Gray: Days to Remember (1995).

Shades of Gray: A Healing Presence (1997).

Shades of Gray: Fiction Part 1.

Amelia Rules! The Whole World's Crazy Vol. 1 (2002).

Amelia Rules! What Makes You Happy Vol. 2 (2003).

Always wanted to create comics

James Gownley was born on February 5, 1972, in Pottsville, Pennsylvania, the only child of James "Rock" Gownley and Anna Mae Gownley. He grew up and attended twelve years of Catholic school in the small town of Girardville. His parents fretted over their only child's socialization and encouraged him to fill his life with friends. He did, as he informed Sara Pendergast in an interview for Graphic Novelists (GN): "My cousins used to come and spend weekends with us, and when I was school-aged there were always other kids at my house.… I was also a very active kid, playing basketball (which I particularly loved) and baseball as well as being active at school and the Catholic Church I attended." However, Gownley added that "being an only child, you can't help but spend time alone. I think it was a good balance. Because of my interest in drawing, I never had problems entertaining myself.… I drew pretty much every day."

Comics enthralled Gownley from an early age, especially Peanuts, which he credited for helping him learn to read. His father bought him DC and Marvel Comics at a corner store, and Gownley remembered particularly liking The New Teen Titans and Elfquest. But none of Gownley's friends read comics, and Girardville didn't have a specialty comic book store. It wasn't until Gownley was fourteen that he entered his first comic book store: Gene Satzko's Gema Books in the nearby town of Wilkes-Barre. "Going into that shop was a key moment in my life," Gownley related to GN. He bought his first copies of Zot, Love and Rockets, and Cerebus. "They all blew me away, but Cerebus in particular had a huge effect. I bought two issues of Cerebus (#66 and #80); the newest issue I could find, and the oldest issue I could find.… I was mesmerized by the art, and fascinated that even though those issues were over a year apart, it was clear they were part of the same story. Plus, #66 was the funniest comic I had ever read. After Peanuts, those 'Church and State' issues of Cerebus have had the greatest influence on me as a cartoonist." Gownley's interest was raised again when he visited his first comic book convention about a month later. There, he came to know Watchmen, The Rocketeer, and The Spirit. "It was all over at that point. I had found what I wanted to do."

Gownley started in on drawing and writing his own comic book, creating a story with mythical, fantastic characters. He showed some of his early pages to his high school friend, Tony Graziano. Graziano complimented Gownley but "seemed reserved," Gownley remembered. He told GN: "When I pressed him on it, he admitted that the sci fi/Tolkienesque rip-off type story I was working on was just not his scene. He suggested I write a comic book about 'Us.' I don't think he meant autobiography, just a type of story that would appeal to 'civilians.'" Gownley was keenly interested in making comic books that his friends—none of whom were comic book fans—would enjoy, and so he took his friend's criticism to heart. Gownley trashed his early work in favor of a fresh idea: realism.

Creates Shades of Gray

Gownley's new idea turned into Shades of Gray Comics and Stories, a series of stories about teenage friends growing up in the small town of Pleasant Valley. The stories revealed the ups and downs of the teenage years, as the friends bickered, fell in love, ate greasy fast food, and pondered life in general. And Gownley drew his characters to look like real teenagers living in a realistic-looking town. By age fifteen, Gownley had his first issue ready. He'd read up on self-publishing but wanted some reassurance before taking the plunge, so he sent out about fifty copies of his work to professionals in the comics industry. "I received only two replies—one from Dennis Kitchen and one from Dave Sim. Dave's was really inspiring as he espoused [championed] the joys of self-publishing and that attention probably spurred me into printing the book," Gownley told Jennifer M. Contino in Sequential Tart. Bolstered by his correspondence with Sim, Gownley published his first issue. He sold it at the local grocery stores, a video store, out of his locker at school, and Gene Satzko, of Gema Books, helped him figure out how to get the Heroes World store [a now nonoperational comic book store chain] to distribute the first issue as well. Gownley sold a few hundred copies of that first issue and published two more before graduating from high school.

In his first years of college at Millersville University of Pennsylvania, Gownley took a break from comic book production. But after two years as a journalism and broadcast communication major, Gownley felt that he had made a mistake and switched gears his junior year to take a major in commercial art and illustration. He had missed his art and took up work on Shades of Gray again, self-publishing more issues starting in 1993.

Gownley had grown as an artist and revamped Shades of Gray over the years. Gownley told Contino about the changes he made to the series: "I loved the characters and the setting, but wasn't thrilled with the stories I had written in my two high school issues. So, I took the concept and reworked it for its national debut. The major difference is that there was no Megan character in the high school books." Gownley went on to publish sixteen more issues of Shades of Gray with stories revolving around brothers Peter and Richie Henderson, Peter's girlfriend Marie Rigby, and best friends Freddy Maxwell and Megan McLean. His work soon won over some readers. Beth Hannan Rimmels praised his efforts in a 1997 Long Island Voice review: "I'm reluctant to read anything that reminds me of how painful my teen years were, no matter how well written. But Shades of Gray is so good.… I'd subscribe in a heartbeat."

Superb Innovations

Innovation was a key part of James Gownley's strategy to attract readers to Amelia Rules! Gownley tweaked the conventions of comic books in hopes of elevating his graphic novels to a status comparable to literature. His experimentation, both with his visual techniques and story topics, has attracted critical attention. He combined realistic and cartoon-like images together in scenes to draw attention to particular aspects of the story. He also worked to make his pictures and words work closely together to create mood and enhance meaning in his stories. An especially telling example of his stylistic innovation can be found in his "Joy and Wonder" story in Part 5 of Amelia Rules!: What Makes You Happy, Volume 2.

In "Joy and Wonder," Amelia takes her new friends to visit her father in New York. Gownley infused his illustrations of the story with all Amelia's memories of her old neighborhood and her emotions about her parents' divorce. And within the story, Gownley drew the pages of Amelia's Aunt Tanner's scrap-book. But instead of photos, the scrapbook pages are filled with old comic strips telling the story of Amelia's family history. Gownley told Graphic Novelists that his scrapbook idea was unique to Amelia Rules!: "I'd never seen anyone do that before, so it was thrilling to put down on paper. It is my favorite device I've come up with so far." "Joy and Wonder" as a whole effectively addresses one of Gownley's goals for his comics. As he told GN: "I read an interview with Neil Gaiman once, where he said a criticism he'd heard about comics was that they couldn't be emotionally effective enough to make a reader cry. I'm proud that several people have told me 'Joy and Wonder' made them cry." The comics industry took notice of Gownley's work; he was nominated for Eisner Awards in 2003 and 2005, and Harvey Awards in 2004 and 2005.

Even though Gownley had found moderate success with Shades of Gray, he put it on hold in 1997. He decided instead to pursue a job in graphic design, taking an art director position with ABC-Channel 27 in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. But Gownley did not let go of his interest in comics. While keeping his day job, he continued to draw and to think up ideas for comic books. Gownley soon struck on a new idea. "I was working on Shades of Gray. Just sitting there drawing, and I suddenly thought 'Hey, there's no really good comics for girls right now,' Gownley related to GN. "I doodled Amelia, pretty much exactly how she appears now, and showed it to Karen [his wife]. I said, 'What do you think of her?' She liked the drawing. I said, 'What should I name her?' We both simultaneously said, 'Amelia.' That was pretty spooky, so I thought this is something worth pursuing." Over the following three years, Gownley set aside Shades of Gray to develop Amelia Rules!

Amelia Rules!

Once he developed the characters, Gownley developed great aspirations for his new creation. For Amelia Rules! Gownley kept his focus on the drama of life, as he had for the stories he wrote so well for Shades of Gray. But these stories were told from a younger person's point of view, and Gownley consciously filled them with outright goofiness and humor. Balancing the funniness of his storylines with deep emotional subjects, such as divorce, Gownley set out to change graphic novels. With Amelia Rules! "I really hope to expand what people think of as a 'kid's' comic and write a story that's more in line with what I consider to be quality juvenile fiction," Gownley told Bill Baker of World Famous Comics. Moreover, Gownley set out to bring a greater number of young, female readers to graphic novels by centering his stories around a strong, young female.

In order to maintain the greatest amount of control over his vision, Gownley began an independent publishing firm in 2000 called Renaissance Press, with his friend, comic creator Michael Cohen, and his wife, Karen Applegate-Gownley, who took charge of the firm's marketing. In 2001, Gownley published the first issue of Amelia Rules! It quickly won over critics. In his review for Grasshoppers Comics, John Riley wrote: "All in all Amelia Rules! is one of those rare books which seems to strike a cord in everyone who reads it." By 2004, Gownley had published a second volume of Amelia Rules! and continued on his campaign to attract new readers to graphic novels. As he told Sequential Tart, "You have to look at it like a political campaign, and our platform is 'Look, comics are great and comics are great for kids.' They're good as entertainment, they're good for educational and moral purposes, and that's what we're trying to get the general public to realize." Gownley has plans for many more Amelia Rules! volumes, and he continues to work as art director for ABC-Channel 27.

For More Information


Rimmels, Beth Hannan. "Feeling the Power of Reality: Review of Shades of Gray." Long Island Voice (December 18-24, 1997).

Web Sites

Baker, Bill. "Baker's Dozen: Queen of the World, Jimmy Gownley on Amelia Rules!" World Famous Comics. http://www.worldfamouscomics.com/bakersdozen/back20040128.shtml (accessed on May 3, 2006).

Brophy, Anisa. "Interview: Childhood Is Back, Jimmy Gownley." Sequential Tart. http://www.sequentialtart.com/archive/june04/jgownley.shtml (accessed on May 3, 2006).

Contino, Jennifer M. "Making New Rules: Jim Gownley." Sequential Tart. http://www.sequentialtart.com/archive/oct01/gownley.shtml (accessed on May 3, 2006).


Additional information for this profile was obtained through correspondence with Jimmy Gownley in August and September 2005.