Amelia Rules!: The Meaning of Life… and Other Stuff
I was pondering the other day how hard it is to keep a good independent comic series going. There are the creative struggles — how do you top yourself? how do you keep coming up with good ideas? — and the natural audience attrition. Sometimes making “just” another consistently good installment bores readers, who want more and better and different. Other times, a creator understandably wants to try something else, instead of committing years or decades to the same characters, even if fans still love them. Or she needs to take other work for financial reasons.
That’s why it’s so wonderful when someone keeps turning out excellent work book after book, and I enjoy reading every installment. Jimmy Gownley has achieved that with his outstanding Amelia Rules! series. The Meaning of Life… and Other Stuff is the seventh volume in the series — although it stands alone just fine — and it’s the most accomplished yet.
Amelia is trying to cope with change — as in she doesn’t want any. As she puts it on one splash page, where she’s overwhelmed with the things she feels have been taken away from her, “Nothing lasts.” Her father, divorced from her mother, is giving up the apartment she grew up in. Her beloved Aunt Tanner is gone, on the road for a music tour. Rhonda is now a cheerleader, no longer hanging out with the gang; instead, they’re spending time with Joan, whose father is a soldier at war overseas.
Amelia even finds out about authorities being wrong, as she’s supposed to become an alternate cheerleader after one of the squad has an accident. However, the principal, convinced she’s a bad kid, wants to block her from “representing the whole school” until she learns “to straighten up and fly right”. He thinks of her creativity and exuberance and individuality as “testing boundaries”, and once he gets an idea of what he thinks a kid is, he refuses to change it. Once a troublemaker, regardless the circumstances, always that label in his eyes.
Amelia struggles with her problems until confronted with something even worse: Joan gets a piece of news about her dad that’s hard to handle. The Meaning of Life… and Other Stuff is very powerful work, yet told in a way suitable for younger readers. Too many people think that comics for kids means insipid work with no connection to the real world, but young people are worried about these kinds of concerns, they’re capable of dealing with them, and they need to see that it’s possible to handle such emotional challenges and survive. At a time when I’m feeling my age, it surprised me to learn so much from a comic aimed at 9-12-year-olds. It was fun, it was heart-breaking, it was deep and well-observed.
Most important is the lesson. Amelia has learned that things break, and in previous books, she had to realize (when it came to her parents) that some things can’t be put back together. However, in this book comes the idea that there’s always an opportunity to make something new. It’s a wonderful touch of optimism. I came away encouraged and energized, after struggling and suffering with and worrying about Amelia and her friends.
Gownley really understands and appreciates comics as a medium. I love when he uses callback and references to elements of comic history, as in the opening pages. For his flashback showing how close Amelia, Rhonda, Reggie, and Pajamaman used to be, he’s created fake comic book pages, yellowed, torn at the ages, and taped. It suggests age, a different time long ago, immediately and visually.
Plus, Gownley’s lettering is some of the best in the business, drawn as much as the images are. It’s got expression and color and style all its own, and it’s so well-integrated into the pages. I don’t know why he isn’t better known for it. (The creator provided a digital review copy.)