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The Plain Janes Are Back

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Fans of a cult favorite graphic novel from a decade ago are celebrating today. The original creators of "The Plain Janes" have returned with the series' long-delayed conclusion. Bill O'Driscoll of member station WESA in Pittsburgh spoke with artist Jim Rugg and Cecil Castellucci about the release of the new hardback.

BILL O'DRISCOLL, BYLINE: Pittsburgh-based artist Jim Rugg first made his name in comics with "Street Angel," the edgy series with writer Brian Maruca about a homeless, skateboard riding, dumpster diving pre-teen girl superhero.

JIM RUGG: I had just grown very dissatisfied with what I was seeing at the comic book store, which was mostly, you know, Punisher, Batman, 30 or 40-year-old white male protagonists. And they all just felt like the same.

O'DRISCOLL: This was around 2003.

RUGG: A lot of the stuff I make tends to be that way, where it's like I'm looking for something. I don't find it, so I'm going to try to make it myself.

TOM SCIOLI: The thing with Jim is he's about like 10 years ahead of the industry.

O'DRISCOLL: Pittsburgh-based artist Tom Scioli’s credits include Marvel Comics' recent "Fantastic Four: Grand Design." Scioli's a big Rugg fan.

SCIOLI: Anytime I see one of his comics, it's like every page has at least like one new trick that I've never seen in comics before.

O'DRISCOLL: Jim Rugg says one of the things he focuses on is rendering his character's eyes.

RUGG: It's like, communicate this almost like an emoji or something. You know, how quickly can I make sure the reader understands what I want them to understand here? And so eyes are a shorthand for that. You know, it's arched eyebrows, pointed eyebrows.

O'DRISCOLL: "The Plain Janes" broke new ground. While Japanese girls have been devouring manga for decades, American comics have mostly been made for boys. "Plain Janes," written by Cecil Castellucci, follows a teenager named Jane whose family flees cosmopolitan Metro City after a terrorist bombing. Jane is an aspiring artist, and in her new suburban school's cafeteria, she approaches some fellow misfits in this dramatization.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Jane) Hi. I just moved here. My name is Jane. What's your name?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Jane) Jane.

O'DRISCOLL: That's theater Jane.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As Jayne) Jayne.

O'DRISCOLL: Bookish science Jane.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As Polly Jane) Polly Jane.

O'DRISCOLL: And sporty Jane. Their secret club is called the PLAIN Janes. PLAIN stands for People Loving Art In Neighborhoods. They do playful guerilla art like building pyramids in vacant lots and spiking the town fountain with soap bubbles. Their goal is to make people see their environment differently, though they do tend to aggravate the local authorities. "Plain Janes" debuted in 2007. With its realistic setting in girl heroes, it was like little else in American comics. Robin Brenner is a young adult librarian and comics expert in Brookline, Mass.

ROBIN BRENNER: Specifically with "Plain Janes," I think we all liked the idea of the kind of art collective and the, you know, for lack of a better term, the kind of rebel girl storyline.

O'DRISCOLL: "Plain Janes" and its 2008 sequel, "Janes In Love," were critical hits. Sales were another matter. This was before publishers latched on to young adult graphic novels, says "Plain Janes" writer Cecil Castellucci.

CECIL CASTELLUCCI: Librarians did not really know how to curate because there were barely any titles, you know. So there was no infrastructure to support a line like that, you know, graphic novels in bookstores and in libraries.

O'DRISCOLL: Worse still, the adventurous DC Comics imprint that published "Plain Janes" - Minx - folded that very year. Rugg and Castellucci, who's based in Los Angeles, moved on to other projects. But Castellucci says fans would not let the Janes go.

CASTELLUCCI: I still get emails probably like once a month, every six weeks about "The Plain Janes" and have for the last decade.

O'DRISCOLL: So Castellucci and Rugg found a new publisher and set to work on finishing the story. The new "Janes" hardback includes the first two installments alongside the long-awaited conclusion, titled "Jeans Attack Back," which takes the girls to high school graduation. In a publishing landscape where young adult graphic novels with women protagonists now have a ready market, Rugg can't wait to see how it's received.

RUGG: It's all one big story. Even though they were published as smaller volumes, they kind of continued. There were subplots that were going on. This book wraps it all up. Is really is a novel in that there is a beginning, middle and end. And that's the most exciting part for me is actually getting to finish this.

O'DRISCOLL: It's almost like Rugg and Castellucci are finally getting to graduate high school themselves.

For NPR News, I'm Bill O'Driscoll in Pittsburgh. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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