Tuesday, August 14

The Plain Janes

by Cecil Castellucci and Jim Rugg
Minx/DC Comics 2007

On a casual spring day in the big city Jane is suddenly thrown to the ground when a bomb in a nearby trash can goes off. In the wake of this her parents decide to move out of the city and into the safety and peace of the suburbs.

Jane's fish-out-of-water attempts to fit in at her new school are coupled with her desire to create something meaningful in a sketchbook she recovered at the scene of the bombing, property of a comatose John Doe at the hospital who was also there. It's her desire to bring together her two worlds, her private "art saves" world and her very public attempts to start her life anew, that allows her to gravitate toward a cafeteria table of outcasts who share versions of the name Jane. With a little effort and some careful scheming Jane manages to bond with the others and create an activist group dedicated to bringing the people of their small town "People Loving Art In Neighborhoods", the P.L.A.I.N of the The Plain Janes.

Naturally it's the adults in town who can't tell the difference between guerrilla art and guerrilla warfare and they fear what they've long since closed their minds to; the idea that you can question what goes on in the world around you, that you don't have to accept every mini mall as inevitable, that life consists of fun and play as well as work, and that fear doesn't need to rule your life. When the Jane's New Year's Prank is busted, and the comatose artist awakens and returns to his native Poland, the outward appearance is that everything has ended but Jane knows she's found her tribe and that the Jane's will continue to thrive and create. Jane has come out the other end of her long ordeal understanding that the future is hers to create.

When I heard that DC was starting a girl-driven line of graphic novels I found myself not as excited as I wanted to be. The problem being that DC has made its fortune knowing and catering to the male-dominated worlds of fantasy, superheroes and action -- Batman, Superman, the entire Justice League, those folks. Not that this isn't a legitimate world for girls to explore, but when you aim your sights at a specific demographic that is generally the opposite of what has been your bread and butter for almost half a century there's lots of room for error and miscalculation.

Additionally, this isn't the first time the comic book world has attempted to corral the female market. Few would consider the romance comics of the 60's and 70's little more than attempt to capture the romance novel crowd, complete with their stereotypes of weepy wallflowers, silently suffering secretaries, and wasp-waist whiners... and important issues of the day like finding a suitable husband and occasionally dealing with the serious issues of having a child out of wedlock or falling for the dangerous type, occasionally also a married man. There was only one "correct" ending for these stories, generally involving a white dress, with everything else a morality play about what could happen if you, gentle reader, made the wrong choice.

Things have changed, the world has changed, and from the looks of things perhaps comics for girls have changed. A little. It was a shrewd choice to pick Castellucci for this initial offering and to deal with a story celebrating freedom of expression amongst teens (and girls especially) who often feel their voices squeezed out of the equation. Castellucci has a good feel for the outsiders and by casting the story in an age of post 9-11 security anxiety she is able to give these girls an opportunity to show us both how much and how little things have changed. Girls are still getting locked down for their own safety (ironically from themselves in this case) and that the Jane's acts of public expression are less confrontational than they are nurturing hints both at the changes and challenges ahead in graphic novels for girls. I'd like to see girls get a little more fierce without getting too hard, not to turn into boys but to definitely take the reins and challenge the status quo both in the world and in the books.

On repeated readings the flaws in the storytelling show their rough edges and I'm going to give Castellucci a pass here because writing for visual media is a whole different beast. It's primarily pacing and scene-setting I have issues with, places where I think more time or more explanation or even a simple "look" might have made a huge difference. I buy into the opening scene and the jump from that to Jane's family moving to the suburbs because I am conditioned to accept action at the beginning of a story (novel, comic, movie, play, etc) in exchange for details that will come later. But later I'm left wondering how Jane emerged from her trauma relatively unscathed, how this transformation into her mature self actually differs from who she was before. I'm also not entirely convinced of her transformation at the hands of Art, as much as I personally believe in it.

What is interesting, and perhaps totally unplanned, is how with a little shift in details this story could have been set during the cold war in the 1950's. The US government was widening streets (anything called a Boulevard in this country) and creating highways in order to mobilize armies and process huge evacuations in the event of war with the Soviets. Fear was as palpable as our terror levels today and people fled to the 'burbs (and later built gated communities) in order to affect a level of peace and security for themselves and their families. This shows itself in The Plain Janes most obviously in the way the older generation accepts the fear they blindly accept (or run from) while the younger generation is more occupied with questioning their world in an effort to find their place. To make the then-to-now transformation complete Jane and her cohorts would have to take on the more confrontational elements of the Beatniks and their art (poetry in public places?) but otherwise the stories are the same.
Minx has a couple more titles I'm hoping the check out -- the time warp that is Good as Lily, the family drama of Confessions of a Blabbermouth and the strangely compelling girl-meets-shark tale of Water Baby, in case anyone from Minx is interested in sending me a care package -- and with any luck it will be DC who gets the head start on graphic novels for middle grade and teen readers done right, not just for girls and not just as comics but as literature.

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