Diary of a Wimpy Kid – comics or not?

Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney

Here at CoreyBlake.com, we like to give you truly cutting edge coverage of the comic book and graphic novel world. That’s why almost exactly four years after its release, we’re taking a look at Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney, published by Abrams’ Amulet Books.

OK, maybe this isn’t the CNN of comics, but where there may be a lack in timeliness, I hope quality and analysis picks up the slack. (Side note: follow me on Twitter, and you’ll see me comment on, tweet and retweet comics-related stories I think are worth a closer look, so there’s your fancy CNN breaking news coverage! Sorta.)

So yes, the first book in the series was released on April 1, 2007, and eventually topped the New York Times Best-Seller List. All subsequent books have done the same. Much like the Harry Potter books, each release has become a bigger and bigger deal. And two movies adapting the first two books have done very well. In fact, the second one was released just last weekend and dominated theaters. It was around then that I thought maybe it’s past time I check this out to see the big deal. I’m also considering buying a TV set.

Having read the first book, I’m not breaking the internet by saying that it’s a very enjoyable read. It’s fun and funny. It’s a light read, a quick read, and it’s very easy to get sucked into the pages. Jeff Kinney writes with an authentic voice for the main character, a middle school kid named Greg Heffley, and he has a charming cartooning style to match. It’s real easy to see why this became a big hit.

So now the big question: Is it comics?

My answer: Sometimes.

To qualify as comics, and not simply an illustrated children’s book, there needs to be a sequence of images with or without words. In the case of most illustrated children’s books, the cartoons or illustrations merely echo what is being said in the prose. They may add aesthetic information, but they are not a sequential moment in the story all their own. Sometimes this is the case with Diary of a Wimpy Kid, but just as often, the cartoon drawing is the punchline to a joke or is a story beat of the story or adds details and information to the story that isn’t revealed in the prose text. And as is the case of the snowman scene (below), there is a series of drawings that sequentially tell the story at the same time the prose is doing the same, yet they aren’t completely redundant to each other. Both words and images are playing off of each other and forwarding the story with new information. In a sense, the blocks of text themselves become a part of the sequential storytelling of the images, almost like a comics panel. And I think in those moments, Diary of a Wimpy Kid is very much sequential art, or comic books (or graphic novels, if you prefer).

Part of the snowman scene (from BarnesandNoble.com - click to buy)

I believe there’s actually a level of formalistic innovation involved in those scenes. It’s not the first or only to try this hybrid form of prose and comics. In 2006, J.M. DeMatteis and Mike Ploog released a short-lived series of books called Abadazad through Disney’s Hyperion Books. They were an adaptation of their earlier comic book series of the same name which sadly ended prematurely due to the bankruptcy of its comics publisher CrossGen Comics. Disney bought the company up at an auction because of their interest in Abadazad. Unfortunately the experiment didn’t work out or the marketing efforts fizzled or both, and the series of books ended early. Of course, Diary of a Wimpy Kid first appeared online in 2004 (slightly different from the published version), so it’s possible Hyperion and/or DeMatteis and Ploog were influenced by that in their attempts with Abadazad. Either way, the execution wasn’t quite the same. Abadazad more often than not switched from full comics pages to full prose pages. There were occasional illustrated pages to accompany the prose, like a children’s book. This back and forth might’ve been what kept the books from taking off. With Diary of a Wimpy Kid, the integration is visually consistent throughout with only the increased frequency of cartoons causing the sequential effect I describe above.

So what do you think? Is Diary of a Wimpy Kid comics? An illustrated children’s book? Something else?

(As a side note, I was kind of astonished to learn that Jeff Kinney apparently still has a full-time job outside of handling the growing Diary of a Wimpy Kid empire. Considering the stellar sales these books have had and continue to have, and the big success of two feature film adaptations from Hollywood, I have to assume that he chooses to work because he loves it, and he’s not somehow trapped in some terribly restrictive contract where he’s only seeing a fraction of the profits he’s due. Anyone know more?)

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