*Excuse me while I make this (already late enough) post short, since I’m in the middle of sprucing up my apartment for some high-stepping events tomorrow. Sorry, random Comics’ Greatest World back issues - you’re gonna have to sit this one out in the car.

The Plain Janes

Surely you’ve heard of this, the initial publication of DC’s Minx line of teenage girl-targeted original graphic novels. If your local chain bookstore is anything like mine, you’ll find it tucked away in the manga section, where (let’s face it) it’s more likely to get picked up and flipped though. The manga section looks like the fun place to be anyway. Everybody sitting around and chatting, while somehow reading comics at the same time. Meanwhile, the last time I was by the Marvel/DC section some kid ran up behind a guy browsing through Civil War (or something) and screamed “COMICS I LOVE ’EM” right in the fellow’s ear. Really spoiled the reading experience, I reckon.

Anyway, I don’t actually have much to say about The Plain Janes that hasn’t been mentioned in just about any other review you can find, since the book seems to have prompted strongly similar reactions, so let me give you this - it’s the sort of book where I’m genuinely a bit down that it didn’t shape up to be a little better. DC could have quite easily coughed out something grossly derivative or especially pandering, but this book really does evidence some genuine ambition, and a good faith attempt at thematic sweep. Writer Cecil Castellucci clearly wants to grapple with meaty notions of beauty and security, the prison of anxiety and the freedom of whimsy, and does manage to ultimately project enough of it that the book at least seems a respectable thing.

Unfortunately, it all winds up filtered though the sort of shorthand character development and faintly contrived scenarios that might work as part of an ongoing television program on Nickelodeon or Disney, where the audience has had time to come to grips with the cast and premise, but come off as hasty and ill-fitting in a standalone work such as this. The plot concerns young Jane, a girl whose placid life in busy Metro City is upset when she’s caught in an awful café bombing; her mother becomes a trembling bag of nerves and the family packs off to suburbia, but not before Jane experiences a personal awakening through her ‘interactions’ with a now-comatose victim of the blast, and his black work journal emblazoned with the brand “Art Saves.” Indeed it does, as Jane sets out to wake the sleepy, latently paranoid town to the beauty of the world with a little help from a band of easily-identifiable character types, all of them more-or-less also named Jane.

So Jane and The Brainy One and The Sporty One and The Dramatic One go out and stage whimsical, vaguely anti-homogenization ‘art attacks’ on the town under the auspices of P.L.A.I.N. (People Loving Art In Neighborhoods) -- putting hats and scarves on fire hydrants, wrapping mundane sidewalk fixtures as gifts, etc. -- which naturally whips the town’s equally simplistic authority figures (cue the crew-cutted, gritty-toothed police official!) into a frenzy of anxiety, all while gradually capturing the support of The Swishy Gay Boy and The Moody Handsome Loner in Vintage Jeans and the other kids. Oddly, in the midst of all this, Castellucci manages a surprisingly shaded, sympathetically complex sketch of the obligatory Mean Popular Girl, who oscillates convincingly from disgust at things outside her sphere of interest to a deep-seated desire for total acceptance. It’s gratifying to see such a bright little portrait in there, but again, it makes you wonder what could have been for the rest of it.

Protagonist Jane, it should be mentioned, is a fairly compelling character, and all of the personalities are keenly realized by artist Jim Rugg’s skill with expressions and body language. The whole book is visually low-key, with classy bits of flair displayed at appropriate intervals - it effectively grounds the action in teenage realism, even as the script largely neglects to convince us as to the friendship of these characters beyond plotting necessity, or trips itself up on the comatose guy subplot (which eventually becomes more of a distraction than anything), or stumbles into a finale that somehow manages to be a bit too final to tantalize a sequel, yet abrupt enough that it doesn’t really satisfy on its own merits.

But the failures of this book are relatively noble ones, as I’ve mentioned above; if they don’t do the book itself any favors, they do at least evidence a desire to reach forward on the part of the creators, and indeed the line that’s meant to be launched. Don’t take that as a rousing recommendation, but I’ve seen many worse displays out of the front of Previews.