The Plain Janes
I couldn’t sleep last night (I was stressing about deadlines at work, and I couldn’t stop thinking about poor Stubby), so I got up and read the graphic novel I’m giving my niece for Christmas.
I’m really glad I did, and I’m really glad that I bought this for her. The Plain Janes, written by Cecil Castellucci with art by Jim Rugg, is just the book for a young girl on the cusp of entering high school (at least, I assume so, since I’ve never been one myself). It’s about four girls who band together to make art in the face of adversity, and unlike the typical Babysitter’s Club teen fare, this is written from a very grown-up perspective. There are real dangers, and mixed-up emotions, and make-out sessions, and gay dudes at school. Plus there are moments of magic and beauty that ring so true to anyone who was awake and alert during their high school years.
The protagonist is a girl whose parents move her away from the big city to a suburb, after an urban terrorist attack knocks her flat outside a cafe. While face down on the ground, tears streaming from her eyes as people rush past her to escape the carnage, she notices a dandelion in the sidewalk and realizes that beauty can be found even in the most terrible of circumstances (and no, not in a hackneyed “American Beauty” plastic bag way), and that it can be a motivating factor for change. The struggle for art’s ideal purpose (is it to inspire? to rile? to enliven? to beautify? to terrorize?) then goes on to permeate the rest of the novel and Jane’s life, as she uses her involvement with this struggle to make friends and win over hearts in what becomes an increasingly interesting suburban life for them all.
Some critics have chided Castellucci for the wooden archetypes assigned to some of her characters: the sporty jock, the science club geek, the draconian cop-dad who equates performance art with terrorism. But you remember when you were that age? You didn’t see the side of teachers that worked hard for little pay! You only saw the strict task-master who gave you homework and sent you to the principal’s office. The world of the young person is one of a quest for freedom that’s constantly impeded by a fiendish alliance of adult disciplinarians, who won’t let you stay out at night, kiss people behind the bleachers, or go to the big city with your friends. And aside from your bestest best friends, you probably do dismiss other kids as band geeks, jocks, nerds, metal-geeks, gangsta wanna-bes, stoners, goths… the list goes on. If anything, Castellucci gives her heroine (and us) more insight into the nuances of others than a typical self-absorbed teen would have.
And if the characters are not fully fleshed out in the writing, Jim Rugg’s artwork goes a long way to enlivening them and giving them a vibrancy. This is damned good art! Every panel is clean pen-and-ink, with great perspectives and close-ups and character. It reminds me a lot of the Hernandez brothers.
My only regret in this book really, is that the one gay kid in their school is so… gay. I know that having a gay kid who hates traditional gay culture and listens only to Slipknot or something would in itself be a construct, but I really don’t want my niece (who lives in Oklahoma and is surrounded by right-wing homophobes and religious bigots) to read this and think all gay kids want to throw glitter around and be fey. Nonetheless, having a gay character who’s brave enough to risk suspension from school and even arrest to help these girls hopefully will be a positive lesson for her, perhaps in the same way that seeing Herge’s caricatures of Incans when I was a kid nonetheless made me fascinated and respectful of Incan culture.
I dunno… this world is full of crap culture forcing, nay, demanding that kids listen to fucking Hilary Duff and go shopping. I want to show my niece that there’s an alternative, and that being creative and choosing to sit with the nerdy kids instead of the cool kids can be a wonderful, transformative experience. I think this book can be one little tug in the right direction for her.
P.S. This comic does one more thing that all teen-friendly art should do, which is give them some leads to pursue on their own. Fer example, there’s a part of the book where the sciency Jane tells them a long list of all the famous Janes in history, from Jane Austen to Jeanne D’Arc to Jane’s Addiction to Jane Wiedlin! If my niece is a good teenager, she’ll go rushing to google or the library to check out just who the hell all these references are, and then, boom, my plans to convert her will be too late for her mother to stop!