I don’t doubt that there’s a great graphic novel to be made about the healing power of civil disobedience in paranoid times. I don’t think that The Plain Janes (Minx) is that graphic novel, though. It’s too crowded and shapeless.
(Spoilers after the cut.)
It’s not without its strengths, though, and I’ll concentrate on those first. Protagonist Jane has a very believable kind of selfishness. She’s been through a significant trauma, followed by an unsettling relocation from a big city to a small town, so a certain level of narcissism beyond the world-exists-for-me kind that gets pinned on teens can be excused.
She wants to remake herself, and the move presents the perfect opportunity. She doesn’t even have to ditch her old friends, as they’re hundreds of miles away. And while she could easily replace them with a shallow, popular matching set, she opts instead for a more unconventional group – a jock (though not a successful one), a brain, and a drama geek. (I didn’t buy the third for a minute. Anyone that pretentious would rule the drama club with an iron fist, not pout around its fringes.)
It’s not even that Jane likes them as individuals; it’s more that she likes the idea of being part of what she perceives as a group of funky outsiders. They’re like accessories for the new Jane she’s trying on, and they fit with the new life she’s trying to construct. When she’s struck with the idea of remaking the world around her, too, her interest in the other Janes only intensifies. They can help her with her self-prescribed therapy.
That she does end up liking them and drawing them into a group of friends instead of conveniently co-located misfits mitigates Jane’s mercenary intent. Jane’s need to heal is primary, but she’s figured out a way to do it without hurting anyone else. It’s a fairly fine line, but writer Cecil Castellucci stays on the right side of it.
Then there’s Jane’s notion of guerilla art. It would have been problematic if the Janes’ activities had been too sophisticated, but they’re generally a good fit for the “art girl gang.” That results in public art roughly the environmental equivalent of kitten posters, but their hearts are in the right place.
Jim Rugg’s illustrations serve the story well. Character design is particularly solid; the cast look like real people. Settings are solidly evoked as well.
On the down side, there are simply too many elements in play here, and the book is far too short to satisfyingly execute even a third of them. This results in a daunting number of dangling plot threads by book’s end. Life doesn’t lend itself to tidy resolutions, but one or two might have been nice. The jam-packed quality of the book also generates some implausibility, and several things seem to happen simply because there’d have been less story if they hadn’t.
Then there’s the moral simplicity of it all. Classmates aside, community reaction to the girls’ guerilla art is represented by precisely two people. The first is a ridiculous caricature of law enforcement that sweats and snarls and barks out howlers like, “Art is in a museum. Not on the streets.” Issues like vandalism and public safety are singularly unconvincing when argued by this source. The second is Jane’s anxious, over-protective mother. For her, guerilla art is an uncomfortable reminder of actual terrorism, and while she gets a fairer shake than Officer Fascist, her concerns barely make a dent. It’s too bad, because the story could have used more of that kind of nuance.
And while Jane’s selfishness is generally modulated, it can be kind of jarring at points, even verging on cruelty. One sequence demands that she roundly abuse the people who care about her most, and it leaves a bad aftertaste. She also has a tendency to underestimate people who don’t fit into her life-remodel vision, like a gutsy gay classmate or the head cheerleader. (Castellucci makes both more winning and vital than the generically likable Janes, actually, even if the cheerleader is a near-direct lift of Buffy’s Cordelia Chase.)
It may sound odd after some of the preceding paragraphs, but I think The Plain Janes almost demands a sequel. There’s so much unfinished business that it seems designed to launch additional installments (or at least 30 more pages to this one). But it’s not that I’m so intrigued that I need to read more; it’s more a case of being left unsatisfied by the cramped proceedings and subsequent lack of closure.