Art as Rebellion in Cecil Castellucci and Jim Rugg’s The Plain Janes

Cecil Castellucci and Jim Rugg’s The PLAIN Janes adopts the phrase “art saves” but there’s so much more happening in their book that saves Jane Beckles, a teenage girl who survived a bomb attack at a local cafe in the city but carries hidden emotional scars with her when her parents move her to the much “safer” suburbs. In that suburb and her new high school, Jane finds a group of friends who practically share her name; Jane (the theatrical one,) Jayne (the brainy one,) Polly Jayne (the sporty one) and James (the one who will try anything.). Even her rival in the final chapter has the similarly sounding name Payne. Jane finds friends and cohorts who don’t suffer from the same trauma that she does but long find something outside of themselves to share with the world. Through Jane’s drive, they all find art, creating guerilla installations anonymously around their town trying to incite something in themselves and in their fellow students and citizens. It’s art as secret community service.

At first, there’s a rebellious streak in their artwork; they’re doing it secretly and there are people, like the police chief, who think they’re doing it to be disruptive. That rebellion eventually transforms into community. For Jane, both the rebellion and the community are healing that she uses art to build a place for herself in this suburb and this post-attacked world. Everything changed in her life with that explosion and art gives her a chance to rebuild and redefine herself. Her love and need for art tries to shove out the fear and insecurity that the attack produced. Art creates a positive substitute to occupy her thoughts and moments.

The PLAIN Janes has plenty to say about fear. The books begins with an act of terror that’s only meant to induce fear in its victims. And it works as Jane and her mother are horribly traumatized by these events. Jane was in the middle of it but her mother almost lost her only child. It is fear that makes Jane’s parents decide to leave the city and move to the suburbs where they hope they will deal better. It’s fear that Jane is trying to overcome with her art, both her own specific fear and a more general fear that exists in the world. As Castellucci and Rugg depict it, fear is both personal and tribal. Fear is an unhealthy motivator in our lives and we see two very different reactions to it in Jane and her mother. Fear is also normal; it’s something important that Jane is allowed to feel in this story as long as she’s dealing with it.

As Jane tries to use art to engage with the world, her mother retreats from it, a far less healthy reaction to it. This multigenerational experience of fear rings true as one character wants to process the fear into something productive and the other tries to shelter her daughter from the fear. Jane is continually looking for new experiences, for something to replace the memory of the experiences that she’s already had. That’s a youthful reaction to the horrible acts that she was caught up in. In that way, art becomes a form of teenage rebellion, not against her parents, but against the status quo of the world. In a teenage story that’s stripped of the usual teenage discovery of worldly vices, art is the intoxicating substitute that all the kids are doing.

Rugg captures this morally squeaky clean high school with a similarly neat artwork. As a book about the healing power of art, The PLAIN Janes stays within its visual boundaries, creating a safe place for this story to live in. As this book was originally created over 10 years ago, Rugg is largely responsible for setting the visual character of all of the YA comics that have since followed. His concentration on character and personality, using simple but expressive art, creates an environment where we can identify and understand the experience of these people who are different from us. There’s clarity in Rugg’s art that cuts through the emotional turmoil.

The PLAIN Janes is a work of its time, the mid-2000s, when terrorist attacks on American soil were still a fairly recent development in the world. We weren’t too far from September 11th, 2001 and that fear is still out there. This book may be Castellucci and Rugg’s way of processing that fear through the art of comics. Jane and her mother are scared of the world; they are scared of getting hurt again. Their fear are our fears. Castellucci and Rugg just give a specific shape to it.

The PLAIN Janes
Written by Cecil Castellucci
Drawn by Jim Rugg
Published by Little Brown