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Jimmy Gownley is the creator of the award-winning children's comic Amelia Rules!, which centers on the adventures of a whip-smart 4th grader. The author pinpoints two female artists that inspired his characters, praises the playfulness of a former Beatle, and challenges anyone who questions the greatness of R.E.M. to a fistfight. The first ever Amelia Rules! holiday book, A Very Ninja Christmas is out now. Amelia Rules! Volume 3: Superheroes comes out in January.
For More: Amelia Rules!
1. Liz Phair: What Makes You Happy (explicit)
2. Elvis Costello: (The Angels Want to Wear My) Red Shoes
3. Paul McCartney and Wings: Magneto and Titanium Man
4. Melissa Ferrick: Happy Song
5. R.E.M: I'm Gonna DJ
Eric J. Lawrence: This is Eric J. Lawrence from KCRW and I'm here with Jimmy Gownley, creator of the award-winning children's comic Amelia Rules! We'll be playing excerpts of some songs he selected that have inspired him over the years as part of KCRW's Guest DJ Project. Jimmy, thanks for coming down.
Jimmy Gownley: Thanks so much for having me. This is a big thrill.
EL: So what's the first selection you got for us?
JG: "What Makes You Happy" by Liz Phair. I've always loved Liz's music. Way back at the very early stages of creating Amelia, I was talking to Michael Cohen, who eventually became the editor of the series. He was adamant about including some sort of rock n' roll or musical element. The whole thought of Amelia was that it would do a number of things: it would hopefully be funny, it would hopefully be edifying to a kid, but hopefully, it would also tell them something that's true.
And I wanted an analogue for that in the book, someone who would always be there to tell Amelia the truth. And I thought, well, if you had a real life 9-year-old girl in crisis, who would be the coolest aunt in the world to have, that would always be there to tell you the truth? And I thought Liz Phair.
Song: Liz Phair's "What Makes You Happy"
JG: I love Liz Phair. I think she has come under unfair criticism in recent years. People don't actually understand what they're getting with Liz Phair. They talk about different albums, but in my mind, its one gigantic Liz Phair album, documenting this weird, smart, cool, quirky, kind of dorky, romantic life. It's like having a friend that you just see every couple of years. You check in with them and sometimes your lives are joined up perfectly. Other times, you're sort of on divergent paths but, because you're friends, it's always interesting.
EL: That was a bit of "What Makes You Happy" from Liz Phair from her 1998 album, Whitechocolatespaceegg. We're here with Jimmy Gownley. What's the next selection you got for us?
JG: Alright, my next pick is Elvis Costello "(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes". I think this song has the best first line ever in rock n' roll.
Song: Elvis Costello's "(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes"
JG: I like that line so much that I actually included it in the very first Amelia story as a quote. You know, people talk about comic books a lot as being this sort of limited medium, 'oh you can't do much because it's only a comic book.' But if you think about it, pop songs are FAR more limited. Pop songs are 3 1/2 minutes; they generally have to have a hook and a good chorus that has to rhyme. But somehow, within all those limitations, Elvis Costello can write a novel.
JG: You know, comic books and cartooning is a goofy talent. Because you can sort of draw okay and you can sort of write okay and hopefully those things come together and make something that's interesting. But it's such a weird talent that you might not think much of it. But this song, to me, is all about … well you don't know which one of your gifts is the important thing, the thing that will lead you to immortality. And in this song, the image of angels, you know, the first created beings second only to the creator of the universe -- they might just be impressed if you have a really nice pair of Chuck Taylors and that could be your key into the heavens. I just love that imagery.
EL: That was a bit of "(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes" from Elvis Costello, as selected by our guest Jimmy Gownley, the creator, writer and artist of the children's comic, Amelia Rules! What's the next selection you got for us?
JG: My next pick is "Magneto & Titanium Man" by Paul McCartney.
EL: Comic book fans everywhere should recognize this one.
JG: The only thing in pop culture that I love as much as The Beatles is probably Charles Schulz's Peanuts comic strip. But no one needs me to go on the radio and tell them that "Strawberry Fields Forever" is a pretty good song. However, I do think that Paul's solo work has been unjustly underrated. You know, everybody talks about his sense of melody and how great it is but I think what interests him in being a writer is the same things that interests me in being a writer. He's interested obviously in structure, he's interested in the formal properties of what he's doing. He, in these songs, creates interesting characters, he communicates well with an audience, there's a certain playfulness and a certain optimism. And somehow, in this one little throw-away song from Venus & Mars, he managed to incorporate all of those things, plus it is about comic characters, so what more could you want?
Song: Paul McCartney's "Magneto & Titanium Man"
EL: That was a bit of "Magneto & Titanium Man", a song by Paul McCartney and his band Wings from their 1975 album Venus & Mars as selected by our guest, Jimmy Gownley. Now do you actually listen to music when you're doing your cartooning and writing your comic books?
JG: Nonstop. Even when I'm writing dialogue, so many writers I know find music with lyrics distracting in that way -- but for me it's just entirely part of the vibe that I need to get into to be creative. So I've always listened to music, even when I'm writing really late at night and cranking the music is annoying to the rest of my family, I still try to listen to it.
EJ: The next song you selected is from Melissa Ferrick who actually does get name dropped in the comic. The song is "Happy Song." Tell me about that.
JG: I used to do a comic book series called Shades of Gray in the mid to late-‘90s. It was a black and white, self published, very independent thing. And while I loved doing it, I sort of felt that I needed to be doing something else. I had Melissa's album on at the time while I was writing "Happy Song" was on, and I just decided to turn the page I was working on over and I just started drawing this character. It was this little girl character. I kind of liked the way she looked and I showed it to the woman who at the time was just my long suffering girlfriend. She's now my long suffering wife. And I said, ‘Hey, what do you think of her?’ She said, 'Oh she's cute.' I said ‘Well maybe I should do something with her. What should we call her?’ We both said at the same time "Amelia." So I took that as a cosmic sign and I started working on Amelia Rules! as soon as that next issue of Shades of Gray was done.
Song: "Happy Song" by Melissa Ferrick
JG: I don't know if it had a direct influence on me creating Amelia, but the fact that "Happy Song" is about being happy but there's an anger to it and a "fighting" to try to get that happiness. I can still see that reflected in the character of Amelia, even to this day.
EJ: That was a bit of "Happy Song" from Melissa Ferrick selected by our guest Jimmy Gownley. What's the next track you've got for us?
JG: "I'm Gonna DJ" by R.E.M. which obviously has an appropriate title for this. I'm going to make a bold statement now. I think R.E.M is THE best American band. Certainly since the Beach Boys but maybe…ever! And I think anyone who disagrees with that, I'm willing to challenge to a fist fight if they want to email me.
Song: "I'm Gonna DJ" by R.E.M.
JG: One of the things that's sort of sad about American popular culture, I think, is there's a point where people say ‘All right that's enough.’ You know "X" band or "X" director whatever, they haven't made a good piece of art in ten years, so they should give it up. The classic thing is "burn out or fade away," the two choices. But I think in "I'm Gonna DJ" they posit a third choice, which is ‘Or we could just stand here and make our noise even in the face of the apocalypse regardless of what anyone thinks.’ At their stage in their career to put out a song like that? I think it's really incredible and really fun.
JG: I grew up in a place called Girardville, Pennsylvania. Which is a town of 1,200 people, right? R.E.M. came from Athens, Georgia. Which sounded as podunk as Girardville Pennsylvania to me. For someone who is 15 years old and thinking ‘oh I'd like to live some sort of creative life, I'd like to get into a creative field.’ To be able to see that example and have it continue for so long, it was amazing. It's still inspiring to me.
EJ: Well Jimmy thank you so much for joining us here at KCRW.com.
JG: Thanks so much for having me. It was a big thrill.