|Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Greg Heffley’s Journal
Amulet Books – hardcover, $12.95
By Jeff Kinney
Since writing my recent columns on all-ages and kids’ comics, I’ve become very curious about the Wimpy Kid series, the almost-comics that sell in the millions, have been adapted into two films, and will be added to this year’s Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. As befits a group that enjoys categorizing as much as comics fans do, there’s been some discussion as to whether the books technically constitute comics, but I’m happy to let in something that’s close enough (the book bills itself as “a novel in cartoons”) and is as widely beloved as the Wimpy Kid books.
Figuring it was time I saw for myself what it was all about, I placed a hold at the very comics-friendly Multnomah County library system, and found that there were over 20 holds ahead of me. Still, it didn’t take long to get a copy, as the library system has 62 copies. (By contrast, there were six copies of Ultimate Spider-Man vol. 1, eight copies of Blackest Night, and even Bone vol. 1 had a relatively paltry 18 copies.) When it arrived, I checked and saw that the copy I received is a 28th(!) printing. That’s since just 2007, and it has apparently gone back to press more times since the library acquired this copy, as amazon.com now lists the book at $13.95.
It’s not hard to see why the book is popular, thanks to both its format and its humor. The diary structure makes it perfect for bite-sized reading. While I read the whole thing in a little over an hour, the short entries instead of chapters make the book easy to dip into for a minute or two, while the way that stories build across entries easily sustains momentum for longer reading sessions. The lined paper, handwriting-styled font and the pictures, of which there are at least one on each page, many with word balloons, make the book eye-catching on a flip through. The drawings are very well integrated, coming naturally at moments when it makes more sense to illustrate a moment than explain it, and the effect adds extra oomph to several punchlines. The only problem comes when an inviting drawing draws the eye to a punchline too early, which it is more prone to do on a page of text than amongst other panels also containing artwork.
The book has a compelling main figure in Greg, just smart enough for his sarcastic observations to be funny and to get himself into unique forms of trouble, but not self-aware enough to understand why other characters see him the way they do or how he should behave to change their opinions. He’s selfish, defensive (an early entry insists that the reader is seeing his “journal,” not his “diary”), materialistic, ungrateful and rude. Like a kid, in short, but in situations amusing enough and surrounded by other students repugnant enough that it’s nonetheless easy to root for him.
Greg is chronicling his first year of middle school, and author Jeff Kinney has created a strange but familiar world for the school to inhabit. My middle school certainly didn’t have a “cheese touch,” but it had its own rituals to which the cheese touch is comparable. There are no identifiable cliques or class hierarchies, the usual fictional shorthand for middle- and high-school life. There are popular kids and unpopular ones, but mostly there are motley freaks, and whatever divisions there are are fairly fluid. Greg and his best friend Rowley have a falling out, but eventually reconnect, and while there’s little reason for any of it, that’s pretty much how it is for kids, a reality mirrored in the structure of the book, which doesn’t have a central plot so much as a series of events that make up a school year.
What I found most impressive in reading Diary of a Wimpy Kid is Kinney’s easy handling of the different timeframes that children and adults live on, and how unfathomable the difference is to each group. When Greg’s P.E. class has a wrestling unit, he temporarily develops an interest in weight lifting, in the hope that he’ll no longer be pinned so easily. Once the wrestling unit is over, this interest is instantly forgotten, and I remember from school how quickly interests changed because of details like that: what was being studied, what some friend was temporarily infatuated with, something everyone saw on TV one night. However, Greg’s dad lives on an adult timeframe and, since Greg expresses an interest in weightlifting a mere month and a half before Christmas, begins planning to buy a bench press. Of course, Greg knows nothing of this so it doesn’t appear in the book, but it’s no surprise (though it is a source of delightful horror) when Greg is presented with a bench press he has no interest in for Christmas.
The drawings have a pleasing simplicity to them at first glance, but as I went through the book, it was the artwork that ultimately presented the greatest disappointment. While Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian had Ellen Forney to provide illustrations carefully designed to look like the drawings of a talented teenager, Kinney has created art that is just a bit too aestheticized, too uniform, too carefully iconographic. The absolute slickness of the otherwise Dilbert-looking artwork appears to come from vector graphics or some other computer-created method, with an absolute uniformity and smoothness of line that becomes oppressive and couldn’t look more out of place in the “diary” setting. Even when Greg is either copying or has pasted in the work of a less talented friend, the result is only that the shapes become wobblier, but the lines remain perfect. A child who already draws with this kind of maniacal precision in sixth grade will grow up to be either Chris Ware or a serial killer.
It’s unfortunate that the comics outlet that currently has one of the biggest audiences treats illustration with so little regard, choosing to implement it as a mechanical tool of the narrative rather than as art. A more human look to a story passing itself off as a handwritten journal would have been appreciated. Still, small children are likely not so discerning in these matters, and the story and characters certainly have charms to them. I still maintain that anything that shares this much in common with comics and is so widely beloved should be embraced by comics retailers as a better opportunity to sell to children than yet another attempt to translate the superheroes that their parents enjoy. I’d rather see more books in the vein of Part-Time Indian than Wimpy Kid, but I’ll certainly take a book that is funny and integrates its flawed pictures well if it gets kids interested in comics and reading.
Images from Diary of a Wimpy Kid © Jeff Kinney.