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May 21, 2007

CR Review: The Plain Janes


Creators: Cecil Castellucci, Jim Rugg
Publishing Information: Minx, softcover, 176 pages, May 2007, $9.99.
Ordering Numbers: 1401211151 (ISBN10), 9781401211158 (ISBN13)

One of the pitfalls when confronting a work as high-profile as The Plain Janes, the first offering in DC's ballyhooed Minx line of book-length comics aimed at the teen girl market, is embracing the project's marketing aims as the only artistic standards that matter. Any kind of demographic focus exacerbates this by reminding -- almost warning -- that you're not the core audience. So with that in mind, let me be honest in that I have no earthly idea if The Plain Janes will reach its intended audience. I can't proclaim it a likely hit or a certain disaster. I can't be certain of its cultural impact. It looks like fine, respectable art product, and I can imagine an audience for the pleasures that it offers, but that's about as far as I can go in terms of rubber stamping the publisher's hopeful storyline regarding its release.

My personal reaction is that this is a better than average idea marched through a poorly executed story. It manages to exude enough charm to mitigate its more routine disappointments, but it ends with a heave and collapse I don't think anyone will remember fondly.

imageIt starts in promising fashion. A victim of a minor terrorist attack, Jane latches onto a comatose John Doe she helped at the scene. He's an artist who carries a sketchbook, which she keeps and uses as a guidebook for reinvention away from her popular clique. When Jane's parents move her from the big city to the suburbs for safety's sake, she struggles with finding a place in what she sees a specific group of outsiders, girls who all happen to share a variation on her name. One of the more poignant observations writer Cecil Castellucci makes is that these girls aren't a group with a different social standing, but a selection of individuals lacking any kind of cohesive relationship. This means there's no group for Jane to become a part of. Frustrated by attempts to connect with the girls individually, she ends up pushing her almost therapeutic interest in public art onto the other Janes, turning them into local art pranksters.

Like most entertainments that traffic in this sort of fanciful plot, a lot of creative shorthand becomes necessary in order to move things along. There's almost no dissension in the ranks of the girls despite an identity that is forced on them from one relatively aggressive person. None of the unpleasant aspects of Jane's initial outlook on the sophistication of her new environment becomes an issue; in fact, the narrative justifies some of those biases. Resistance to the art stunts in the form of Jane's mother and a local police officer proves buffoonish, so the moral certainty behind what the girls are doing never becomes a question. A sort-of boyfriend side-plot seem almost tacked on; it feels like a popular actor dropped into a struggling TV show to goose ratings. Except where we see it in direct conflict with an element of the narrative, none of the parents or their children have issues or concerns or life circumstances of the messy and inconvenient kind that intrude on life all the time. Everything exists to get us from point page one to page 176. A potential rollercoaster turns out to be a ride on a monorail.

It's a well-appointed piece of public transportation, at least. Jim Rugg's storytelling is as clean as fans of Street Angel will remember, and he offers up a lovely mix of page designs that provide informational and emotional context in a graceful and understated manner. Some moments unfold within sweeping panoramas within which are a half-dozen individual character moments, while others are broken into tightly focused, specific instances in time. You can almost diagram the characters' anxiety levels according to the size of panels in a sequence, but you'd have to pay attention in order to see it. It's a wonderful resume for future work of this type. Rugg's designs are much less nuanced. His female characters, his characters generally, are idealized in a way that adds to the book's depiction of an overly romanticized high school experience, despite its suggested self-aware veneer. It feels like a cheat that everyone is as generally attractive as Rugg makes them, a notion that Castellucci mirrors by making her teens amazingly articulate, at least when it comes to talking about the moment.


This soft touch makes the story feel hollow; the book ends with a sigh rather than a contented "Of course!" because the stakes have slowly been drained away. In the end, the worst thing that happens to any of the characters at the high school is one doesn't get a part in a show and another gets laughed at because of her cell phone. Add up everything bad that happens in this suburb over the several months shown in this book and you have a typical Monday before noon for most of the kids with whom I grew up. It's not like there was a danger of Jane's motivating experience seeming inadequate in comparison to anyone else's they might have shown: she was in a bombing, for pity's sake. The book's heroine has a uniquely compelling life situation and psychological profile that deserve a rich and contentious landscape in which to play out. The Plain Janes provides neither of these things, and seems at time to go out of its way to make things less interesting.

This could be the strategy by which the creators are thwarting expectations and working with a non-traditional escalation in drama, but there's a point at which I fell out of the plot entirely, and started counting the things that made little to no sense. A high school where the popular girls control the drama club? A world where it's as easy to acquire several dozen stuffed animals as it is to knit a few hats for fire hydrants? Teenagers that get fired up for public art stunts enough to be dislodged from their own focused pursuits? A suburban school without noticeable class or race divisions? For a book about the healing power of art and self-identity, The Plain Janes embodies a curious cynicism about the ability of its readers to deal with complexities in either.
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