By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 3, 2009
"Awesome! Awesome! Awesome!" the boy says. The famous author just keeps smiling.
And why the heck would Jeff Kinney be doing anything else?
Three years ago, Kinney was a failed cartoonist who couldn't get in the door at a comics convention. Literally. When he arrived at New York Comic Con -- where he was hoping to show off a sample of the half-cartoon, half-prose opus he had worked on for eight years -- he discovered that the convention was sold out.
Giving up and going home was an option he seriously considered.
Now he's sitting in the Fairfax Borders on a Saturday afternoon, slapping hands with fourth-grader Brian Cheng ("Awesome!") and basking in the adulation of hundreds of other young fans. Kinney will spend a happy couple of hours signing their newly purchased copies of "Diary of a Wimpy Kid," "Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules," a "Wimpy Kid" do-it-yourself book and the latest in the series, "Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Last Straw."
There are now more than 11 million "Wimpy Kid" books in print, Kinney's publisher, Harry N. Abrams, reports.
None would likely exist if Kinney hadn't persevered that weekend in February 2006.
Parents, librarians and teachers wouldn't be lauding his work as a magic bullet for reluctant readers. He would have no contract for books four and five. Twentieth Century Fox wouldn't be auditioning kids 10-13 for the role of main character Greg Heffley in a live-action film. (Are you "slight and skinny, physically unprepossessing, not overly cute or precious, with a quirky, memorable face"? Check out www.iamthewimpykid.com.)
The "Wimpy Kid" saga, already congealing into myth, is full of such unlikely turning points. There's what Kinney calls the "accident" that got him started cartooning two decades ago. An inspirational billboard message plays a part. So does a Billy Joel concert.
But here's the most unlikely thing by far:
Throughout those eight years before Comic Con, as Kinney was creating what would become one of the most successful kids series ever published, he thought he was writing for adults.
* * *
He's too tall to be cast as the Wimpy Kid himself and, at 38, definitely too old. But if the phrase "boyish grin" has any meaning, Kinney's is the prototype.
"Local boy makes good" fits, too.
These days, he lives with his wife, Julie, and two young sons in Plainville, Mass., a few miles across the border from Pawtucket, R.I. But he grew up in Fort Washington and got his first taste of media stardom as a cartoonist for the University of Maryland's student newspaper, the Diamondback.
" 'Igdoof' Takes On the World" read the headline on a 1994 Washington Post story that outlined Kinney's plan to move his strip about a "jug-eared, big-nosed, bug-eyed freshman with a fondness for booger jokes" into the real world.
The comic had debuted at Villanova, where Kinney spent his freshman year. Looking to get involved in the student newspaper, he volunteered to write a crossword puzzle. "They laughed at me, openly laughed at me," he says. "To save face, I said, 'Actually, I want to do a cartoon.' "
When he transferred to Maryland, "Igdoof" came along.
Kinney graduated in 1993, having switched majors from computer science to criminal justice in order to give himself more cartooning time. He figured his character could graduate with him. The plan was to move Igdoof off campus, maybe send him to night school. Surely a newspaper syndicate would snap him up.
It didn't happen. Kinney would work for months, send batches of cartoons out and get "these horrible anonymous rejection letters."
By the mid-1990s, he was living in Massachusetts, drawn there by "a brief first marriage." He put his computer skills to use in a series of jobs that led eventually to a position as a game developer with the Family Education Network, a creator of Web content for parents and children.
The cartoonist in him almost gave up, but he started keeping a journal, filling it with both words and pictures, hoping "to shame myself into working on my cartoons." One day he drove by a billboard that featured, for some reason, a quotation from Benjamin Franklin:
"Well done is better than well said," it read.
The notion hit Kinney hard.
"There's so many people who tell you what they're going to do and then they don't do it," he explains. "So I was like, 'I'm going to do something and I'm going to keep it really quiet.' "
The reason the syndicates weren't biting, he figured, was not just because there were so few available comics slots but because his work lacked "a professional veneer." But what if he did a book instead?
What if he set it in middle school, where the awkwardness of his characters might mesh with his unpolished style?
What if he made it a hybrid like his journals, with cartoons dropped into chunks of prose where they'd function like punch lines?
In January 1998, he set out to fill a small sketchbook with ideas. Now, sitting in a newspaper conference room the day before his Fairfax appearance, he fires up his Dell laptop and shows off a photograph of the sketchbook's first page.
"Here's where Greg Heffley was born," Kinney says.
Sure enough, there's the Wimpy Kid, three-strand cowlick and all, looking very much like his finished self. His best friend, Rowley, is recognizable, too.
Now Kinney clicks ahead to the last of the sketchbook's 77 pages. It's shockingly different from the first, so dense with words and images that it's nearly impossible to read.
Well, the plan was to confine the idea stage to that single sketchbook, and Kinney stuck to it.
He expected it to take a month.
But "I started writing smaller and smaller," he says, "and it ended up taking me four years."
* * *
Four years after that, Kinney found himself in New York for the convention that would change his life. His mission at the 2006 Comic Con was to acquire more content for the Family Education Network. But that didn't stop him from bringing a few sample pages of "Wimpy Kid" -- bound that morning at Kinko's -- just in case.
Why not? He had accomplished a great deal since filling that final, dense sketchbook page.
He had photocopied the sketchbook, chopped the copy into tiny slivers, thrown out maybe 90 percent of his material, then meticulously pasted the rest on poster boards to create a story line. He had spent a whole year redrawing the characters for consistency.
And he had -- by accident! without planning it! -- published "Diary of a Wimpy Kid" on the Web.
This happened because a children's site Kinney managed, Funbrain.com, had a seasonal traffic problem. "When kids go home for the summer, they don't visit the site as often," he explains, and his boss was looking for a hook to keep them logging on.
Well, Kinney said, there was this book he was putting together. He hadn't written it for kids, but it was "benign enough in its sensibilities" that it could work for kids.
Up it went, one Greg Heffley journal entry after another. Within a year, it was getting something like 70,000 visitors a day.
Results like this, you might think, would have made Kinney give up his notion that "Wimpy Kid" was for adults.
You would be wrong.
"I don't think of cartoons or comics as being for kids," he says. When he thinks of his target audience, he thinks of his father, a military analyst "who still, as a 65-year-old man, reads the comics pages and appreciates the jokes."
Adults are interested in childhood, Kinney adds. Haven't his own ears always pricked up when people started telling childhood tales? With "Wimpy Kid," his goal was to create "the ultimate childhood," featuring the kind of nuanced irony that only adults, looking back on their own childhoods, could fully appreciate.
He thought a "big fat 700- to 1,000-page book" was the proper vehicle for this ambition.
And he was still thinking that way, despite his Web success, as he headed for the comics convention that Saturday morning -- only to be turned away at the door.
Comic Con organizers, it seemed, had wildly underestimated its appeal to fans, and New York's Javits Center was sold out.
What should he do? Go home or try again on Sunday?
"I lucked out and got tickets to a Billy Joel concert," Kinney recalls, "so that kind of made me stay."
At Comic Con the next day, he only pulled out his "Wimpy Kid" sample a few times. The people manning publishers' booths weren't exactly receptive. "It was like a vampire seeing garlic or something," he says. He noticed other wannabes walking around with submission packets, "and they were awful, and I thought: 'I must be one of them.' " He got laughed at just for mentioning the idea of a 700-page book.
Nobody was impressed by his Web success, either. Millions of online eyeballs proved nothing, apparently, about what might work in traditional publishing. But someone in the Hyperion booth did mention "Mom's Cancer," a Web comic another publisher had recently turned into a book. As Kinney was heading for the exit, he noticed a copy on display at the Abrams booth and thought he would risk pitching "Diary of a Wimpy Kid" one last time.
"I'm just thankful I wasn't an idiot," says Charles Kochman, the editor he encountered there.
Kochman's background included stints at DC Comics and Mad magazine. Abrams had hired him a year earlier for his commercial instincts and expertise in graphic storytelling. Kinney, looking back on his lucky break, thinks he may have met "the only person in the country who might see value in this kind of thing and have the means to get it published." That may be exaggerating things a bit, but Kochman certainly lost no time expressing interest.
"I took one look at the cover and the title, and I just absolutely fell in love with it," he says.
As for that pesky audience question: At the time, Kochman had no involvement with Abrams's children's publishing efforts. He saw Kinney's work as something with nostalgic appeal, like television's "The Wonder Years."
"He was doing adult books, and I already had in mind that this was for adults," Kinney says. "To me, it didn't seem like it even came up."
* * *
"Wimpy Kid" mythology has Kinney securing a deal with Abrams within days. In reality, it took longer -- he didn't actually sign his low five-figure contract for many months -- and the adult-kids decision was a factor in the delay.
Kochman won't talk for publication about the reactions he got when he first presented Kinney's work. But according to the author, there was a good deal of suspense involved. "I would ask him, 'What are the odds?' " Kinney says, "and it was like, 'One in seven make it past this stage, and one in 10 make it past this stage.' "
Then came the phone call that scrambled his brains.
"Brace yourself," he remembers Kochman saying. "They want to make this into a series. And they want to make it a kids book."
Kochman had approached his colleagues at Abrams's kid-focused Amulet imprint, he says, "when I realized this was not going to fly as an adult book." But to Kinney, the decision felt like a huge loss.
"I felt like the publisher was saying, 'It looks like a kids thing, so we're going to make it into a kids thing,' " he says. "I felt like it was going to lose its edge."
Eleven million copies later, Kinney can laugh at himself -- "Don't ask me what I was thinking!" -- but he also sees his adult fixation as a blessing in disguise.
"Had I been thinking that I was writing a kids' book all that time," he says, "I would have written a much different book." He might have talked down to his audience and filled "Wimpy Kid" with obvious moral lessons, rather than holding up a mirror to the ambiguities of childhood as actually experienced.
Even his youngest readers, he thinks, are perceptive enough to sense the difference.
And here's Brian Cheng, back at the Fairfax Borders, ready to prove the point.
Kinney's books have turned out to be popular both with kids who have read almost nothing else and with kids who read voraciously. Brian, who goes to Flint Hill Elementary in Vienna, falls into the latter category. "He loves reading," his mother says. "You cannot stop him from reading."
So what does he like about "Diary of a Wimpy Kid"?
"It stars this teenage kid going to middle school. He gets into some pretty wacky adventures," Brian begins. "It's kind of exciting, sometimes embarrassing, sometimes really funny."
Grinning, he elaborates.
"You see these innuendos, whatever that means, I'm not really sure."
Maybe not. But it seems clear he's talking about the kind of humor that's benign, yet spiced with grown-up nuance -- the kind, in other words, that Jeff Kinney was going for all along.