The Plain Janes original graphic novel
Writer: Cecil Castellucci
Artist/Cover artist: Jim Rugg
Letters: Jared K. Fletcher
Editor: Shelly Bond
Publisher: DC Comics/Minx imprint
Price: $9.99 US/$11.99 CAN
DC’s Minx line has finally arrived with this inaugural release, and if The Plain Janes is any indication of what we can expect from Minx books, it’s going to be a strong imprint. This graphic novel should appeal to female readers, especially teen girls, but the characterization is so strong and the ideas so grounded yet offbeat that the book should achieve a much wider appeal. The Plain Janes taps into a modern angst about a world that seems to be growing more and more violent with every passing day. More importantly, writer Cecil Castellucci offers a story that will appeal to anyone who felt excluded by the It crowd in high school, who felt his or her parents ignored needs and pleas or who felt, well, like a teenager. The story and characterization boast definite universal qualities, but at the same time, this is about a smarter group of alienated teens. This is about constructive rebellion, but the tone of the story isn’t all that celebratory either. There’s a definitely downtrodden atmosphere at play, and the black-and-white art enhances that atmosphere quite well. Jim Rugg’s art is simple but effective. Sometimes his characters’ faces and his eye for perspective are a bit off, but overall, he conveys a convincing, realistic world in which this quirky, John Hughes-esque drama can unfold.
When a teenage girl named Jane has a near-death experience after a violent incident in the big city, her parents spirit her away to the suburbs where they hope to live their lives in relative safety. Jane, changed as a result of her experience and a connection to a comatose victim of the same bombing that threw her world into upheaval, seeks to follow a new path. Instead of seeking out the popular crowd, she happens upon a trio of outcasts that she sees as kindred spirits. As Main Jane, she leads Brain Jayne, Theatre Jane and Sporty Jane on missions to create spontaneous, rebellious and anonymous works of art around the small town. The Janes become People Loving Art in Neighborhoods, but their acts of non-conformity end up taking the community by storm. Many revel in P.L.A.I.N.’S efforts, while others fear these benign acts of civil disobedience will lead to more violent incidents.
Jim Rugg’s art here reminds me of Mike (Madman) Allred’s style on several occasions, with a hint of a simpler tone a la Andi (Little Star) Watson. Rugg’s eye for character design makes for an accessible read. He doesn’t resort to extremes to distinguish among the predominantly female cast of characters, but he also offers a variety in the designs. More importantly, the characters look and move as though they’re living, breathing teens, but the clothing they wear isn’t fad-specific, bringing a more timeless look to the book. There are a couple of odd moments in the visuals that took me out of the story, such as the warped perspective in the scene in which Main Jane faints in front of her house or the occasional enlargement of her eyes in closeup shots. Though he’s working for DC Comics here, the indy credit Rugg established with his work on Street Angel is just as strong here. He brings real humanity to the characters with his simple but expressive depictions of the characters’ faces.
The role of graphic novels and trade-paperback collections in the comics industry has grown to be a vital one in the past few years, and it’s widely proclaimed as good news for the business and the medium. Sometimes those books are priced beyond some readers’ reach, though; I’m especially disappointed in the larger publishers that are charging more for a trade paperback than the combined cover price of the recently released comics collected within. But one has to give DC credit for The Plain Janes. This 176-page OGN is more than reasonably priced, as forthcoming Minx releases will be as well, apparently.
My one qualm with the story itself is the ending. It really struck me as being rather conventional in tone, and it’s telegraphed a little early as well. It also treads a fine line when it comes to possible interpretation. One could argue that in a book aimed at female readers, the bravest figure turns out to be the mysterious, brooding teenage boy. On the other hand, Castellucci avoids a more cliched ending, such as Jane standing up before the community and delivering a heartfelt speech or taking responsibility for her artistic acts with some inspiration, selfless admission.
A big part of this story is an exploration of fear. We live in a world in which Americans accept the loss of personal freedoms, in which kids learn color-coded alert levels and the notion of a madman entering a room with guns blazing is something that’s all too common. Castellucci explores the notion that some people are so obsessed with their fears that they’ve forgotten how to feel joy. From Jane’s mother’s irrational fears about random violence to the community’s overreactions to unexplained acts of inspiration and introspection, fear is a dominant force in this story. Fortunately, Castellucci’s characters embrace impulsiveness, beauty and inspiration. In what is often a sad story, there’s some real joy and hope to be found, and it’s infectious.
The greatest strength of this book is the characterization. Castellucci’s various Janes are well-realized characters, and I think just about every reader will be able to recognize a piece of herself or himself in one of the Janes. I found the Main Jane to be the most intriguing character, as she is the central protagonist, but I would imagine other readers will favor other Janes based on their own experiences. The writer wisely ensures her main character isn’t so unconventional that she’s not believable. Her relationship with Damon, though it made for an ending that didn’t quite feel right to me, does bring her down to earth and adds an everyday quality to the character. It brings balance to the character and a pleasantly diverting subplot. Overall, The Plain Janes is a solid first step for the Minx line and serves as a great introduction of the creators to an audience they might not have reached before. 8/10