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Even in an age of "new media" - where a viral clip of a home video shot 15 years ago can turn a slightly off-looking person in the background into a celebrity - Jeffrey Patrick "Jeff" Kinney has taken a singularly offbeat road to stardom: Cartoonist turned professional web-game designer turned bestselling children's book author.
While working with the educational website FunBrain.com, Kinney (a cartoonist in his college days) debuted an ongoing webcomic called Diary of A Wimpy Kid. Structured in the form of journal entries from an awkward sixth grader named Greg Heffley - complete with sketchy drawings and self-inflating "unreliable narration" - and loosely inspired by Kinney's own childhood, it was a big hit. Big enough, in fact, to make the jump to print media as a bestselling book series that's been on the NY Times bestseller list for 41 weeks (as of November 2009.)
In retrospect, it's not hard to see why the series is so popular: A good-natured but unflinching look at the day-to-day existence of not-terribly-athletic boys on the cusp of teenhood in the pubescent combat zone of Middle School ("normal kids like me alongside the gorillas who already have to SHAVE!" as Greg puts it), it plays out like a variation on Mean Girls for 11-year-old boys.
The series has now had its first book made into a movie, opening wide in the U.S. today (Friday, March 19th). The film pares down the first book's sprawling, episodic narrative into a main story tracking the changes that entering Middle School brings to Greg's relationship with his best friend (aka sometime punching-bag and unwitting wing-man) Rowley Jefferson.
Shocked at his prior coolness level no longer counting in the Big Pond, Greg decides that it must be Rowley - a chubby, good-natured late bloomer who has trouble grasping (among other things) that guys their age are supposed to say "hang out" instead of "come over and play" - who's holding him back. His attempts to reform his buddy, however, only serve to turn Greg into more and more of a social pariah, while inadvertently elevating Rowley's unselfconscious goofiness into the school's new definition of cool.
In one well-observed detail, Greg watches, aghast, as a cast on Rowley's broken arm courtesy one of their believably-dopey games of rough-housing becomes a babe magnet. Why do the girls want to help feed him, Greg wonders, since Rowley's eating hand is perfectly fine? (Heh!) When Greg finally crosses the line of buddy betrayal, the two essentially break up - and Rowley proves much more capable of making new friends than Greg does. Will Greg realize that perhaps he's the one with some growing up to do in time to salvage a friendship he's always taken for granted?
So it's an Apatow-esque bromance, save that it features actual children as opposed to developmentally-arrested adult men. Interestingly, according to Kinney, he never intended to write the book for children the same age as his protagonists. As he tells it, when pitching the series as an ironic "look back at growing pains" satire for adults, a publisher offered a then-shocking bit of advice: Drop the irony, and instead of a niche spoof of kid's stories you've got a hit actual kid's story.
This was one of the many revelations when I - along with several other journalists - sat down for a roundtable interview with Kinney following a screening of the film a few weeks ago. In person, Kinney - who's also the brains behind the popular online game PopTropica, is a quintessential regular guy, exuding the same kind of offbeat Middle-American sense of insight-disguised-as-silliness humor one associates with Weird Al Yankovich, Calvin & Hobbes creator Bill Watterson or Mystery Science Theater's Joel Hodgson.