13 March 2008

Plain Talk on The Plain Janes

The one nominee for the 2007 Cybils Award for Graphic Novel for Teens that was undoubtedly Young Adult Literature with a capital "YA" was The Plain Janes, written by Cecil Castellucci and drawn by Jim Rugg.

The Professor's Daughter and Laika were created in Europe for graphic-novel readerships that include more adults. The Arrival has a simple story appropriate for younger readers. Flight, vol. 4, is an anthology, with selections for every age group. But for high-school social angst, irrationally strict adults, self-centered self-righteousness, and recovering a sense of hope after a difficult experience, the only option is The Plain Janes.

And for all those things, which I don't particularly seek out in my reading anymore, it's not bad. I read The Plain Janes first on my own, then returned to it as a Cybils judge and found more to like than I'd remembered. It still feels more like a short story that brings up issues than a novel that fully explores them. I think Bill Sherman at Blog Critics Magazine hit the nail on the head when calling this book:

a well-intended piece of adolescent lit whose modest charms threaten to be overwhelmed by its status as a Significant Publishing Event: DC Comics' much-touted attempt at snagging the long elusive tween- & teen-girl audience.
DC contacted Castellucci, an up-and-coming YA novelist and comics fan, and commissioned this book for the inaugural list of its Minx imprint.

The Plain Janes begins with a terrorist bombing in "Metro City." The details are deliberately unclear because all that matters is how this affects our heroine, Jane. She's survived and even helped save the life of an injured young man (who remains in a coma), but her parents--especially her mother--are so psychologically traumatized that they move to a much smaller town. Jane responds with moping, a completely new hair style and color, and a one-sided correspondence/infatuation with coma guy.

"Making friends at her new school is nearly impossible," says Chicklish's review, but that misreading makes Jane's situation more common and less novel. The cool girls actually invite Jane to eat at their table in the cafeteria. Instead, wishing to keep a low profile, she decides to make friends with the school's social outcasts.

I think the social milieu at Buzz Aldrin High School is the strongest element of The Plain Janes; Castellucci understands teen culture, and Rugg makes familiar character types into something closer to individuals. (Rugg literally adds grays to the book, working in grayscale rather than the black-and-white that predominates in his Street Angel comic. I see Ghost World influence, with gray instead of blue.)

Jane has picked up coma guy's small sketchbook, and decides that what her new home really needs is art--mild guerrilla art left in public spaces by a group that signs itself P.L.A.I.N. These projects help to build a friendship among the Janes and, as the months pass, to unite the rest of the high-schoolers as well. Because, you see, the town's police chief doesn't appreciate such art. As the book's designated villain, he makes John Lithgow's character in Footloose seem like a monument of intellectual open-mindedness and depth.

It doesn't really matter if P.L.A.I.N.'s art is good or, as Geoff Hoppe at Comic Book Bin argues, little more than attention-demanding clichés. Because this part of the book assures us that Art is Good. Free expression is Good. Having confidence in yourself is Good. Seeing the value in different sorts of people is Good. It's all very reassuring.

For me, the story of The Plain Janes ended with a dangling, and troubling, loose end: the character of Damon. He's another new kid in school. He reads. He has floppy hair. He's nice to the cafeteria staff. His name is almost like "Dylan." Can you tell he's going to be the love interest?

One night Damon just happens by while the Janes are preparing one of their artworks, and he helps them avoid being caught. Another night he just happens by while Jane is trying to hitchhike back to Metro City; he drives many miles for her sake and is there when she learns that coma guy has recovered and returned to Poland. Damon insists Jane come back home rather than hop a plane to Warsaw, and they end up snogging in the car.

But shortly after that, Damon tells Jane he doesn't feel as much romantic interest in her as he thought. And for that, of course, he must die.

Well, not die, but be arrested and charged with all of P.L.A.I.N.'s acts of vandalism/guerrilla art, having participated in only one and that for Jane's sake. A panel tells us that Jane's tried to see Damon again, but couldn't, so she gave up. The book never shows or mentions him again. Instead, Jane goes back to dreaming about Poland guy. And this is growth? Well, the Janes all feel better.

(As I wrote before, I really liked another of the first Minx titles: The Re-Gifters. It, too, explores a teenage subculture in interesting ways, but I thought its plot and characters offered more surprises and came together at the end.)

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