The Plain Janes

The Plain Janes cover

DC Comics launched its Minx graphic novel line with The Plain Janes, written by young adult novelist Cecil Castellucci and illustrated by Jim Rugg (Street Angel). It’s the story of four high school girls named Jane who act out teenage rebellion through guerrilla public art.

It’s got a surprisingly disturbing beginning — Jane is a popular blonde girl whose parents, seeking safety above all, move her from the city to the suburbs after she survives a bombing. Once there, Jane reinvents herself, first with short dark hair, and then by choosing the lunchroom table of unpopular girls. She misses the city, but the people she knew there hadn’t been changed as she was, and so they had come to have little in common.

As a last-ditch flailing, Jane enlists the other three girls — Brainy Jayne, Actress Jane, and Sporty Polly Jane — in creating art in the dead of night in their neighborhood. Well, they call it art… some of it comes across as merely pranks, like putting detergent in a fountain. It would have been nice if we’d gotten to see more of their creations, since this book is a visual presentation. At times, they’re more suggested than shown. Perhaps that allows our own imagination to make them impressive.

The Plain Janes cover

Jane’s desire for the culture of urban life will be recognizable for anyone who’s made the same move she has, but those readers who’ve always lived in less populated areas may not pick up on some of the details that create her sense of loss. Castellucci at times writes as though we’re in on the secret with her, whether it’s a character’s personality or motivation or what a certain type of experience is like… and if we haven’t shared it, we might not be given enough to understand it. On the other hand, it creates a feeling of inclusion, of bonding, that will be attractive to the younger audience.

Elsewhere, she relies on elements we all know, familiar from teen fiction and movies — the group of outsiders who are more interesting than the other schoolkids, the edgy rebellion that isn’t actually dangerous, the nighttime car trip. Castellucci’s word choices can be eye-catching, as when Jane, hanging up after her mother’s cellphone call, thinks “It’s hard to be a rebel with a leash” or calms herself with “Om, and all that.” And the author even gives the popular girl some unexpected depth, making her more than a stick figure antagonist. It’s a shame that the other three Janes are rarely more than one-note traits.

Castellucci’s eye for detail also freshens the story. Jane’s first thought after finding herself alive is about lipstick, a plausible step inside a teen’s head. The characterization is stronger than the plotting, and while the theme of learning to process change as a part of growing up is nothing new, the soul’s need for art isn’t emphasized as often. The end of the book doesn’t live up to the power of the beginning, but that’s true of much entertainment these days. The loose end of what happened to the boy crush was likely intentional, although frustrating to the reader. There’s a lot more potential here than made it to the page; this could have easily been a series instead of just a volume, which might have allowed for more elaboration on the supporting cast.

Rugg’s art is almost reportorial, straightforward and plainly descriptive of the writer’s events. It’s easy to read, without an obvious style distracting the viewer, but detailed in its world-building. The greyscale shading helps, adding more depth than black and white alone (even if some of the resulting pages are a little dark). Choosing him for a line meant to outreach to those who may be dipping their toe into graphic novels was a good decision.

Overall, a flawed but readable first start for the line. It’s not strong enough to quell some of the concerns about the project (like why most of the books in this line intended to attract manga-reading young women are created by men), but it’s not bad, especially for a non-comic-writer’s first step into the medium.



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