January 29, 2010

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The Plain Janes

Written by Cecil Castellucci
Illustrated by Jim Rugg
Minx

Slowly but surely I plan on trying to read all the Minx books, DC's unfortunately failed attempt at getting a comic line together that captured the imagination of young women readers.

I'm not going to argue the pros and cons of the idea, as that's been done to death by those with far better credentials than I have. Suffice it to say that I like the idea, but don't think they picked the best people to run with the idea as a rule. Nothing against people like Mike Carey or a young adult novelist such as Ms. Castelluci, but they aren't the first people I'd ask to write comics for a line designed to catch the eye of the Shojo Beat set.

After all, while *I* might read Hellblazer as well as Marmelade Boy, I have a funny feeling my never-going-to-happen twelve year old daughter probably wouldn't.

She'll probably only want to read Tarot and make me wonder where I went wrong.

Ahem. Moving on, then. Jane is a young woman whose parents decide they don't want to stay in the big city after a terrorist event and move to a small town where things are better for them but worse for their introspective daughter. She struggles to fit in, trying to make friends with those whom she think she'll like rather than those who might be most popular.

It turns out that the other girls she likes all happen to be Janes as well, ranging from athletic to theatrical to intellectual. They've got nothing much in common until our Jane comes up with the idea of making the mundane suburbia a hotbed of rogue art. Soon, the P.L.A.I.N. Janes are making art all over, and life is good. But what happens when the adults weigh in? After all, these acts of artistic graffiti are considered just as bad as any bomb, and the police chief will stop at nothing to end their antics.

Can Jane find a way to keep her new life going, despite overprotective parents and overreactive authority figures? Or will it all come crashing down, the way her life did once before?

Castellucci does a good job with the overall plot, pacing things just about right for a graphic novel that's roughly 150 pages long. She's probably used to working in that length, if I remember my YA books correctly. I really liked how she didn't spend too much time on set-up, allowing us to get a picture of Jane's problems before moving without getting so involved that we're halfway through the book before we get to the meat of the story.

I also liked her cast of teenage characters. The Janes are an unlikely group to be together, but that's part of the point. Their gay friend who jumps in later and the semi-boyfriend aren't given a lot of space, but I was able to get a feel for them right away. One of the girl foils is a bit simplistic but I can live with that. Without spending too much time on any of the people in the book, Castellucci let me know who they were and how they'd impact on the story. I'm so used to reading comics with multiple volumes that such brevity was refreshing.

That doesn't mean everything worked for me, however. While I enjoyed the book as a whole, there were a few points that kept me from giving this a stronger recommendation.

Castellucci's ending is a little rough, as the action kind of skids to a halt and has to resolve plot lines by the page limit, so we end up with a book that has a very strong buildup to an ending that's lacking a bit in emotional payoff. The resolutions to Jane's life as it stands seem entirely too far out of her control. I understand that she is a teenager and so much of a teen's life is spent being managed by others, but part of the point is that Jane resists this convention, and I think she deserved to be given a larger role in her life at the end.

My other issue was with the decision not to call the big city New York. It's obvious that she's referencing the attacks of September 11th, so why not just come right out and say it? I failed to see the point of covering with a fictional set of cities. Then again, I am not a big fan of thinly-veiled commentary or analogs, so it probably bothered me more than it would most readers.

I don't read a lot of YA fiction, so I can't really speak for how her characters interact with each other. Things on the teen level seemed good, but the adults all acted like paper cutouts whose only role was to thwart the kids. Their vast overreactions were almost comical and did not help the story at all. I can understand one or two to oppose the children, but the fact that there isn't a single sympathetic person over the age of eighteen bothered me. That might just be a convention of the genre Castellucci normally writes for, however.

DC made a good choice when they asked Jim Rugg to do the art for this book. Rugg is the artist on Street Angel and the upcoming Afrodisiac, with both books being highly regarded. I read the former a few years ago, and I'm looking forward to reading the latter as soon as I can grab a copy.

If you read Street Angel, you'll know that Rugg is very good at drawing teenagers, so this book is right up his alley. The characters are distinctive without going into caricature, allowing the reader to know who's talking at any given time. I also like the way people are always doing something, even if they are talking at each other. Little ticks like posture, hand movement, and even spacing between each other let us know how the kids at school are feeling.

Plus, he snuck a Crosby jersey on one of the Janes. Gotta love the hometown pride!

This is not my favorite of the Minx books I've read so far, but I liked it a lot and I think it probably is age-appropriate. Like a lot of the titles in the line, it reminds me of something Oni Press would publish, and that's not a bad thing. Castellucci's script is a bit rough in places, but I like her characters and would be happy to read more about them. (Since there's a sequel, I guess I get that chance!) Paired with Rugg's strong pencils, there's nothing plain about The Plain Janes. If you like Oni's offerings from Andi Watson or O'Malley's relationship comics and wanted to read more in that vein, this is definitely a good pick for you.