Book Review: The Dumbest Idea Ever, by Jimmy Gownley
Memoir is a tricky thing. At its best, the story is more than telling the tale of someone’s life; there’s a point to be made. Travels With Charlie, for example, isn’t so much about Steinbeck (or his dog, for that matter) as it is about the American experience. Gownley, whether through intuition or intention, gets the concept, and has crafted a singularly excellent graphic memoir. In illustrating his adolescence, the author also has a lot to say about the form his memoir takes.
In once sense, this is a straightforward coming of age story. Gownley samples his middle school and high school years as he searches for a sense of purpose and identity. There are friends, teachers, girls, and the occasional bouts of anxiety and depression. The unifying thread through all of them, what really drives the narrative (and Gownley, I suppose), is comics. The young Jimmy did not just read comics; he drew them; he published them. And it is that journey, as much as the others, which makes his story fascinating. Moreover, he uses the comic form to not only tell his story but subtly advocate for the importance of comics and graphic novels.
This is a point I can thoroughly get behind. We still live is a literary environment where too many people associate “comics” with superheros. And while that is a part of the comics world, that is not nearly the extent of it. I suppose it was Art Spiegelman’s Maus which really shook people up in this respect, but more recent titles like Relish, Drama, and American Born Chinese have continued to defy the stereotype. What I really admire about The Dumbest Idea Ever is that it doesn’t just make the argument, it exemplifies it as well.
When one of Gownley’s friends suggests writing a comic about their life in small town PA, rather than one about “evil jewelry,” Gownley rejects the idea out of hand. His thought process afterwards, however, essentially makes the argument which is at the core of the whole book. “Comics are about heroes and villains and mutants punching each other in the face! Y’know…cool stuff. Who would ever want to read a comic about a couple of idiots like us?” (p. 106) Beneath that surface, however, is a more serious fear for the artist: “At least ‘Star Lord’ is just a dumb story. No one will think it really matters to you. You have so much less to lose that way!” (p. 107) Any kind of writing, any kind of art, requires the creator to open themselves up to the exposure of secrets and criticism. While superhero artists can run the same risk, it is easy to see how the capes and adventure can act as a mask or shield. The kind of book Gownley has drawn (along with the work of his younger self in the story) is every bit as honest as a purely print memoirist.
And this may be Gownley’s point: like any other art, comics are not just one thing. I love superhero books. Comics are more than that. I love Calvin & Hobbes. Comics are more than that. I love this book. Comics are more than this too. This novel is as much an appeal for equality as anything else. We all find something to latch on to, something to put our faith in, when we’re young. It could be the church or sports or the hope of a family. Whatever it is, we have to wrestle with understanding it if we are to follow it through to a sense of self. For Jimmy Gownley that thing was comics, and they are every bit as hopeful as anything else in this world.
“My heart’s broken, all of my previous work is pretty much useless…and I’m years away from a goal that might not even be attainable. Feels good to have home court advantage. Anyway, I can’t think about all of that…all I can focus on is what is here and now…and right here…right now…is the beginning” [Jimmy begins to draw] (p. 235-6).