The first entry in DC Comics new Minx line, Cecil Castellucci & Jim Rugg's The Plain Janes is 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.
Janes' story is narrated by a city girl named Jane Beckles, who survives a seemingly random terrorist bombing (writer Castellucci keeps the details behind the attack vague, though an early visual reference to Orange Alerts can't help but bring up thoughts of 9/11) as she's strolling past a street-side café. Following this life-changing event, Jane dyes her hair black and becomes a More Serious Person (though we're not really shown her past as a frivolous blond). When her parents, freaked out by the newly perilous-seeming city, move to suburban Kent Waters, our heroine has to find a new set of friends as she's simultaneously working toward building a fresh identity.
She settles on a group of "misfit" girls sitting together in the lunchroom: a bespectacled science nerd, a pudgy drama type and a strapping girl jock – all of whom are also named Jane (or a variation thereof). Though the threesome initially rebuffs our girl's advances ("Even the reject table doesn't want to sit with me," she grouses), Jane ultimately wins 'em over by proposing that they band together as an Art Gang.
Her creation of this group, which she calls P.L.A.I.N. for "People Loving Art in Neighborhoods," arises from two moments that had occurred immediately after the bombing: the sighting of a dandelion growing out of the sidewalk ("If that dandelion could survive, so could I," Jane thinks) and her acquisition of an artist's sketchbook dropped close to where she's fallen. On the sketchbook is the legend, "Art Saves," and Jane takes this as her new personal credo. With the other Janes, she creates works of guerilla art throughout the town of Kent Waters, first being a trio of pyramids on the site of a proposed strip mall: "The pyramids lasted thousands of years," the piece's poster notes. "Do you think this strip mall will?"
Though Jane's stated intent is to bring a moment of beauty into mundane suburban life, the response to the P.L.A.I.N. Janes' work is decidedly mixed. To Jane's parents and the local authorities, even something as harmless as an "art attack" serves as a reminder of how tenuous their safety is. Instead of seeing the P.L.A.I.N. statements for what they are – fairly obvious adolescent didacticism — they react as if the terror alert's been just been upped. What started out as an effort on Jane's part to bring a new sense of control to her life ("I feel like I'm asking the world to keep me safe by making them pause just one minute," she states) winds up sparking new terror fears throughout much of the community.
There are plenty of lesson plan-worthy ideas in The Plain Janes: the place of normal adolescent rebellion in a post-9/11 world; the question of whether art's function is to sooth or unsettle; the simple difficulties of being uprooted and making a place for yourself in a new neighborhood. (It's worth noting that Jane's fellow bombing victim, the artist who dropped that "Art Saves" notebook, himself was a visitor from Poland.) Where scripter Castellucci, the author of three young adult novels, falters is in her characters and basic story mechanics. Aside from our engagingly unreliable narrator, none of the Janes come off as more than a type (though artist Rugg works hard to invest 'em with more personality – and comes closest with Jane the would-be drama diva), while the adults in the story fare even worse. At times, reading the mouthings of the Kent Waters cop who seems suspiciously over-eager to enforce the town's new curfew, I felt like I was reading a graphic novel remake of Don't Knock the Rock or Footloose.
There are several moments in the book which read as if Castellucci has plans for a series featuring her Kent Waters characters (the fate of a would-be suitor, in particular, is frustratingly left unresolved in the book's rushed finale) – perhaps dependent on the Minx line’s success. If she does, I hope the writer selects another Jane to present the next part of the story: it’d definitely help to see these characters from a different egocentrically adolescent PoV. Maybe science nerd Jane can explain where they get all the materials for their Art Attacks?
As to whether the new Minx line's first offering is the start of a brand new day for mainstream American comics companies, I could see this book selling in the Teen Readers section of your big chain bookstore, with enough advanced word and some good cardboard displays (though whether it'll rise to the level of a successful girls' manga series like Fruits Basket is a whole different question). After all, there's always room in adolescent lit for halfway decent Adults Don't Understand stories; isn't that really what the original X-Men was all about?