HEAT VISION

How YA Classic 'The Plain Janes' Returned After More Than a Decade

The PLAIN Janes Art - Publicity - H 2020
Jim Rugg/Little, Brown for Young Readers
Cecil Castellucci and Jim Rugg talk about the revival of their comic book property.

A previously lost piece of comic book history was restored last week when The Plain Janes was reissued by Little, Brown for Young Readers. The title, by Cecil Castellucci and Jim Rugg, was originally released as the launch title for DC's short-lived Minx imprint in 2007, a line intended to appeal to young adult readers that closed a year after its debut.

Minx as a whole was an imprint significantly ahead of its time, with a number of its creators, including Castellucci, Marika Tamaki, Joelle Jones and Sophie Campbell, finding mainstream comic industry success in the wake of its closure. As the flagship title, The Plain Janes — about a group of high school friends who turn to art to escape social structures — made it two books into its run before the line was shuttered. Both books appear in the new Little, Brown edition along with a never-before-published third chapter.

The Hollywood Reporter spoke to Castellucci and Rugg about the return of the Janes and what it means for the title to re-emerge in a market that has broadly embraced the concept of YA graphic novels as a whole.

Is there a sense of validation for you both in the books returning more than a decade after they were originally published, in an era where they're more in tune with the explosion of YA and young reader material? Are either of you feeling a sense of "I knew it"?

Jim Rugg: I don't know about an "I knew it." There's a sense of opportunity in the book returning in an era where there is a YA graphic novel audience. It's exciting to put the book in front of a new generation of readers. I'm grateful that we get to finish the story. Some of what we do in the new book we've talked about doing for over a decade! It's great to finish it up on our terms. And I think we've both grown into better storytellers, which hopefully translates into a great reading experience.

Cecil Castellucci: I think we sensed that there could be a great appetite for young adult comics. That was certainly what Shelly Bond over at DC/Minx correctly believed. There was a willing audience, but there was no infrastructure to support kids' comics in the marketplace, and libraries didn't know how to collect and curate their collections yet. It's hard to believe now, but remember, The Plain Janes came out before Smile [Raina Telgemeier's YA graphic novel, widely seen as launching the current YA graphic novel success] did. So it really came out a bit too soon, or maybe more accurately it helped to lead the charge!

I felt like the book wasn't able to find its footing because of that. So I fought really hard for years — years — to get it back out there after it went out of print. Thank you, Little Brown! Like Jim said, we've been talking about this third book for over a decade, so I'm thrilled that we got to finish the story as we planned it. So it feels really great to know that this time when it gets out, there is a willing world to receive it.

What was your feeling as creators about returning to the work — or the work returning, for that matter? The Plain Janes is something that meant a lot to its fans. Was there a feeling that bringing the title back today might change that or grow it?

Rugg: Bringing it back was all positive to me. I assume fans will love seeing the conclusion. The scary part for me was revisiting characters and trying to make art that fit a style I used 15 years ago. But after a bit of drawing, it felt very good. It made me appreciate what we did in the first books.

Castellucci: I had been fighting so hard to bring it back. After Minx folded, I managed to get the first volume released on Vertigo, thanks to Karen Berger, so it could still have a little bit of a life. I felt in my bones that we weren't done telling the story. So it was great to return to the book since we'd wanted to finish it.

As The Plain Janes was the first comic that I'd written, it was daunting to try to go back [for the new material] and match that style. I've changed as a comics writer. But going back in there and revisiting what we'd done was a joy. I was proud of how it still resonated, and I think that both change and growth are important for a book. In fact, it's kind of what book three is all about. Art is a living thing after all.

Let's rewind for a second. What was the origin of Plain Janes in the first place? Jim, you had Street Angel under your belt at the time it came out, and that was a wildly acclaimed book, while Cecil, as you said, this was your first comic. What brought the two of you together, and how quickly did you both realize you'd come up with something special?

Castellucci: Shelly Bond was starting the Minx line, and she was looking for a YA author who might be interested in writing comics. Someone had passed her my novel Boy Proof, which is about a girl obsessed with comics and postapocalyptic films. Concurrent to that, I had previously been obsessed with Ed Brubaker's The Deadenders, which I felt was a YA comic and made me think that there was a place for me in comics. But I didn't know how to break in.

After Shelly read my novel, she called me and asked me if I'd ever thought about writing comics. Funny coincidence: She'd edited Deadenders! I pitched her about five ideas I had at the ready, and The Plain Janes was one of them, and then we were off and running. When I went into the office, she presented me a bunch of art styles, and I picked Jim's work right off the bat. I just fell in love with his style. Happily he was available.

Rugg: Shelly Bond, our editor, knew me from Street Angel. One day, she reached out about this new YA graphic novel line, and at that point Cecil was onboard and was writing The Plain Janes but the script wasn't done yet. I bought and read Boy Proof and I think Beige [both YA prose novels by Castellucci]. I can't remember the exact order — but basically, I wasn't familiar with YA or Cecil. So, I read a couple of her books and felt great about her writing and the genre. Soon after that, Shelly began sending script pages and I began drawing.

I'm not sure I realized I had something special for a while. I was inexperienced. The whole experience was great, but I had not had other experiences, so I just assumed this is how it works. Shelly put us together a lot — conference calls, emails; it was collaborative. Everything ran smoothly and on time. The story and characters seemed to spring to life. But I didn't realize how special it was until it was over and more experience revealed that other jobs vary a lot in terms of joy, creativity, organization, etc.

Castellucci: I think the moment I knew it was special was when I called Jim once, crying. Because jumping from writing prose to comics was hard, and as he said, he was drawing as I was writing. I was feeling insecure about how to move the story forward panel to panel. Jim said, "Just write any crazy thing you want, and I'll figure it out. We're swim buddies." And that opened up the whole thing. It was when I knew that we were really all in this together and that is what makes a comic book special.

Janes felt ahead of its time in a lot of ways. Revisiting it now, I feel as if it predicted a lot of youth culture that followed, in a strange way. Where did the underlying ethos of the characters, of the series, come from? And are you surprised by the way it feels, if anything, more contemporary now than it did when it was first published?

Rugg: I credit Cecil with a lot of what you describe. The characters, setting and ideas come from her, and I agree they felt ahead of their time but feel very contemporary to me now.

Castellucci: That means a lot. In a way, I feel sad that it is more relevant and contemporary now then it was then. It's a bit of a mash-up of my fundamental belief that art saves us all, a bit of my DIY punk rock view of the world, being socially aware and active since I was young and the attempt to make sense of the bombing that I had been in when I was a girl. Since I write for young people, that was a natural voice for me. And I always thought it was so interesting that there are different cliques (Sports! Theater! Science!) and in each clique there is a different hierarchy of cool.

I also was heavily influenced by having lived in Montreal and being around when Drawn and Quarterly was being launched. They used to have live comic jams with amazing artists like Julie Doucet, Seth, Chester Brown. And being around that in the early 90s made me know how cool comics were and how much more than superheroes they are. So, for me, it was natural to lean in that direction when doing my first comic.

Rugg: One thing I can speak to on this subject is the art and drawing style. The Plain Janes was originally published by DC; Marvel and DC comics were known for their "house styles" — their comics looked a certain way. As a reader and creator, I had discovered alternative comics like Dan Clowes' Ghost World and the Hernandez brothers' Love & Rockets in the late 90s. SPX [Small Press Expo] was one of my biggest comic book events, and it featured a wide range of styles and comics from mini-comics to imported comics.

Today's comics feature more and more of these diverse styles and influences, but that was not the case in 2007. It's definitely the direction comics and graphic novels have gone.

The new edition of The Plain Janes isn't just a reissue of the two books issued under DC's Minx imprint; as Cecil mentioned before, there's also an unseen final book as well. Was this something that was in the works when the titles were originally published, or is it an all-new finale — and if it's the latter, what was it like returning to the characters and this world a decade later?

Rugg: The third part of the book is all-new. We had started a third book in 2008 or 2009, but it was cancelled early on. So we talked about it and had ideas, but it didn't happen. When Little, Brown Books for Young Readers picked up The Plain Janes, we wanted to do a third part to complete the story. We had talked about it a lot over the past decade and Little, Brown agreed.

It was terrifying returning to these characters! I draw a lot differently now than I did in 2006-2008. But after a couple of pages, it started to feel great. I'm so proud of this new book. Cecil wrote an inspiring conclusion and it was an absolute joy to draw. I cried as I drew the ending.

Castellucci: Jim and I had extensive talks about the Janes and where the story was going. Originally we were going to be a four-book series, and we had already begun work on the third book. Coming back to the story gave us a chance to revisit our original idea and make it better. We'd both grown as comics people, and we were so glad that Little, Brown understood the vision of what we wanted to do. And that Pam Gruber, our editor, knew how to enhance what was there. I love that it's all in one so you can read the full story and see the trajectory of the Janes journey. And the addition of color really helps to show their growth and movement.

But like Jim said, it is strange to try to mimic a voice that you don't sing in anymore. But it was a great artistic challenge, and I'm always up for that. In rereading our first two books, I was so struck by the fact that our book was, sadly, more relevant. Once I merged the end of the story that Jim and I had always wanted to tell and the current climate that we live in, it was evident how to move forward. Like Jim, I cried at the end of our book when writing it. I cried again just the other day when I reread it. I think that this truly is a book of my heart.

Could there be more Janes in the future, beyond this book? Or, for that matter, more collaborations between the two of you outside of the Janes-verse, as I have just awkwardly coined it?

Rugg: Who knows what the future holds? Spoilers! No Jane dies in the book, so we could check in on them sometime…

Castellucci: What Jim says! I never say never! But for now, I am so glad we got to take the Janes where we wanted them to go, and no matter what, I think you'll see they are all poised for a grand life adventure.


 

The Plain Janes is available in bookstores now.

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