The Plain Janes
By Cecil Castellucci and Jim Rugg
Media outlets covering the world of alternative comics have spent a considerable amount of time and effort attempting to convince a mainstream audience of that now clichéd adage: comics aren’t just for kids anymore. Such attempts have been met with a varied amount of success, but there’s something to be said for living in a time when it’s slightly less shameful for a grown man to read a graphic novel on a subway train.
Still, despite some noble attempts to justify the reading of funny picture books amongst a grownup audience, one thing has remained fairly consistent in the world of sequential art: comics may not be just for kids any more, but they’re still, by and large, for dudes. It’s for this reason that, every time a scandal erupts on comic blogs and message boards, decrying some piece of unquestionably misogynist imagery, the retaliatory response is, generally something along the lines of: that sucks, but there are far worse things out there. Besides, who do such portrayals hurt, really? Certainly not impressionable young woman—girls don’t read comic books, right?
In an article published late last year, Comic Book Resources referred to the upcoming DC imprint, Minx Books as, “the first imprint from a major American comic book publisher devoted to reaching the teenage girl,” a claim that few publishers likely challenged, at the time. The qualifier “American” is of course quite important here. For years, Japanese comics targeted at largely adult and female readers have been far from an anomaly.
It can hardly be considered coincidence then, that the imprint’s maiden release, The Plain Janes, resembles traditional manga both in terms of its dimensions and Jim Rugg’s black-and-white artwork. After all, it’s Japanese comics’ success in American that have proven that the teen girl market is a fruitful one for sequential art, in a way that no voluptuous spandex-clad American superheroine has been able to in the past. Fitting too, that the book never attempts to fit into any of our American comic book trappings, instead fitting snuggly into the young adult fiction category for which author, Cecil Castellucci, has already penned two novels.
The Plain Janes marks Castellucci’s first go at graphic novel, and as such, the book gets off to something of a rocky start in terms of pacing, cramming a bit too much exposition into the first few pages—we get a brief explanation of protagonist, Jane’s back story: after experiencing first-hand, a September 11th-like attack, she rescues a sketchbook carrying John Doe, and upon going home and suddenly realizing the importance of art in life, cuts her hair and dyes it black. Her parents also opt for a rash course of action, moving her from the skyscraper-lined Metro City to the suburban sprawl of Kent Waters.
As the new girl in school, Jane encounters some standard YA characters. Offered a seat at the cool girls’ table (“I know this girl. Her name is Kim or Zoe or Cindy. I used to be this girl”), she opts to sit with a group of equally stock characters—the science geek, the tom boy, and the theater girl—all, of whom sport some variant of the name Jane.
Castellucci’s story soon recovers from its rocky start. Using the main Jane’s newfound artistic obsession as a starting point, the girls form P.L.A.I.N., creating guerilla art exhibits around the city in the middle of the night, designed to shake things up in the stolid suburban town. However, the stock characters continue to propagate, along the way, with the Janes eventually recruiting Damon, a long-haired rebel and James, a shopping-obsessed gay classmate, along the way.
Despite these first time stumbling points, Castellucci has crafted a tight and entertaining book, sure to please her target audience. There are plenty of important lessons to take away, as well, involving friendship, popularity, and even the importance of art in this post-9/11 society. The Plain Janes is far from perfect, but it’s an extremely promising first graphic novel for both Castellucci and Minx.