Relevance has long been prized by the comic book industry. During the Depression, then-young superheroes like Superman and the Green Lantern spent most of their time trust-busting and cheerleading the New Deal, rather than trouncing interstellar foes. And by the 1970s, Green Lantern/Green Arrow had tapped the cynical zeitgeist, while Stan Lee bucked the Comics Code to release a three-part Amazing Spider-Man story about drug abuse, a taboo subject under CCA guidelines.
Of course, we’ve seen plenty of fantastic exploits along the way too, but comics as a medium have always exhibited an acute sensitivity to the real world. And 9/11 and the ensuing War on Terror have brought new challenges for funnybooks to face up to: Spider-Man stood in shock at Ground Zero, and Captain America took the fight to the terrorists, while the Vertigo series DMZ has taken to depicting the realities of life during wartime by staging a divisive civil war on American soil — to say nothing of Marvel’s own Civil War, where the usual metahuman fisticuffs served to dramatize anxiety over vanishing civil liberties.
Cecil Castellucci and Jim Rugg’s graphic novel The Plain Janes (published by DC’s new Minx imprint) takes a more subtle approach. In a similar slice-of-life indie style as comics like Ghost World and Teenagers from Mars, The Plain Janes tells the story of Jane, a well-adjusted girl from Metro City whose family retreats to the placid suburb of Kent Waters following a terrorist attack that nearly claims Jane amongst its victims. In the aftermath, Jane manages to rescue an unidentified male victim whose only possession is a notebook with a cover that reads “ART SAVES” — a notion that Jane spends the rest of the story putting to the test.
The Plain Janes revolves around P.L.A.I.N. (People Loving Art in Neighborhoods), the titular guerilla group of similarly-named girls — plus, later on, a gay boy named James — who resolve to bring art out of the galleries and into the streets of their hum-drum hometown. It’s the kind of trickle-down Situationism that any artistically-bent teenager can love, and like a lot of activism it doubles as psychotherapy for the Main Jane: by detouring terrorism’s extra-legality into a mission of beautifying and inspiring her community, she hopes to exorcize the painful memories she carries with her from the attack.
At first, the world of The Plain Janes seems as flattened out as Thomas Friedman’s, and as black-and-white as its own stylish artwork: The Big City stands as the arbiter of all cultural value, while Jane’s high school (“Buzz Aldrin High”) is split down the quad, as a Popular Front of geeks and artists stands against a junta of cheerleaders and footballers. Jane, an ex-blonde, actively rejects the popular kids for the pariah Janes, who initially rebuff her; it’s a twist on the Heathers/Mean Girls approach, where the sensitive protagonist somehow finds herself on the side of darkness. But the more you read, the more complexity and nuance Castellucci and Rugg ladle on — and the more you remember that when you’re a teenager, the world often does resolve into a high-stakes hormonal clash between Good and Evil.
And more to the point, The Plain Janes uses its moral landscape to underscore its central point: for the average person faced with the cruel reality of terrorism, the choice isn’t between anything so grandiose as freedom or tyranny (since adults have their own dualisms to throw around) as much as deciding whether or not to live in fear. The attack on Metro City spooks Jane’s parents into fleeing to the suburbs, while Jane, who after all was closer to ground zero than anyone else in the story, realizes that no place is really safe (one of the story’s deepest conflicts is also one of its most immortal, that of the young against their elders). But despite her gutsy resolve, Jane carries her own psychic scars, and she acts out of the hope that the dictum from John Doe’s notebook (“ART SAVES”) can redeem her along with her button-down surroundings.
Many comic book bids at relevance have stumbled, with all the complexity and moral ambiguity of the real world varnished into easy answers and neat solutions as clean-cut and unrealistic as the capes fighting over them. But The Plain Janes spins a story of outsider-dom with affecting charm and poignancy, thoughtfully confronting the emotional costs of terrorism without becoming a humorless polemic. It reminds us that the present is, as ever, full of grim challenges eager to seduce us into shutting the world out and locking ourselves up from it — but The Plain Janes, like its eponymous heroes, is an endearing inspiration towards overcoming that fear. As Raoul Vaneigem once wrote: “Suffering is the pain of constraints. An atom of pure delight, no matter how small, will hold it at bay.”