The Plain Janes
by Cecil Castellucci, Jim Rugg (DC/Minx, 2007)

If you liked Ghostworld (the movie and the book), then The Plain Janes is a story for you. The debut title in DC's new Minx line, featuring female-oriented young-adult fiction, TPJ leads Minx off to a great start.

After she survives a terrorist bombing in fictional Metro City, Jane's parents decide that a move from the city is exactly what's needed. Packing up their daughter and their hair salon business, they hope to find peace of mind in the suburbs. To the still traumatized Jane, the quiet little town of Kent Waters feels like another planet entirely.

Those who have survived the trauma of a violent incident discover afterward that the world immediately divides itself into a "before" and an "after," and the world of "after" is very confusing for Jane. Cutting her long blond hair short, dyeing it black and dressing up in clothes more suitable for Transylvania than suburbia, Jane decides that her makeover is to be psychic as well as physical. She wants to remove herself completely from the Jane who was clueless and vulnerable, to a Jane who doesn't see the world in the same self-centered, innocent way in the world of "before."

Jane puts her evolving attitude to the test when she refuses to go along with the same type of exclusive girl clique she once hung out with in Metro City. Her new outlook on life demands a set of friends who are radically different from any she's had before. She makes it her mission to gain egress into the most exclusive group of friends in school, the "loser" group composed of three other girls who are also named Jane. She even finds a way for them to pool their respective nerd/jock/artistic talents into action by creating "acts" of art and beauty around their otherwise dull, sleepy neighborhood. Their club is called P.L.A.I.N., an acronym for People Loving Art in Neighborhoods. Or, as Jane calls it, a "secret art girl gang" that commits a whole new kind of terrorism, the sort that inspires joy instead of fear. Under cover of night the foursome stage "art attacks," such as placing garden gnomes all over the front lawn of the police department and putting bubbles in the town's fountain.

The adults, especially the police, are taken by surprise, as much as by the support for the mysterious group as by the "terrorism" itself. Where others see art, they see vandalism and even insurrection. The response is classic: they place restrictions on the students' freedom in the form of a curfew. When that fails to curb P.L.A.I.N.'s nocturnal activities, the police extend the curfew to the town in general, declaring a sort of martial law.

Of course this only spurs the Plain Janes to further action. Soon the whole high school is in on it, from the gay outcasts to the ultracool mean girls. Everyone, it seems, has something painful they want to work out of their system. Maybe, for once, art can put all the differing social castes on the same blank page.

It wouldn't be a proper girl's coming-of-age story without a romantic interest in the form of fellow outsider Damon, on whom Jane has a major crush. Damon quickly becomes the kind of stand-up guy anyone would want for a friend. Maybe even a boyfriend, if things work out that way....

Cecil Castellucci expertly mines the same sources as the movies Mean Girls and Thirteen as well as MTV's cult cartoon, Daria. Though the Janes are somewhat exaggerated, based as they are on rather typical stereotypes of any teenager in any high school, they could still be real people for whom the uncertainty of life, and the need to belong, is as scary as it is silly.

Jim Rugg's neat, clear art keeps the action moving. The characters are distinct from one another (one of the hardest feats to accomplish in graphic storytelling, as most artists, even the best ones, have a tendency to make all the characters look like one another) and convincingly expressive. As far as style goes, Rugg isn't dramatic or innovative, but he is consistent and straightforward. The story doesn't need anything over-the-top in terms of the illustration. Rugg wisely allows the art to serve the theme. The result is crisp, concise storytelling. Understatement is best when dealing with rebel artist girls who are out to undermine convention.

When life becomes ugly, the only thing to do is to see the beauty of it all. Being angry and paranoid every waking moment is not the answer. There is nowhere that is truly safe but to surrender to this reality by being churned up and grieving all the time is not living. If we suppress ourselves we will end up like the humorless adults who turn the town into a police state.

"Does art save?" Jane asks herself. "And is it going to save me?" Will art change anything, except to make us feel a little bit better about all the hate in the world? And wouldn't it be a better world if we could walk down the street and see something beautiful every day? Anything is possible.

review by
Mary Harvey

22 November 2008

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