Saturday, September 18, 2010

THE P.L.A.I.N. JANES written by Cecil Castellucci, art by Jim Rugg

After surviving a terrorist bombing, Jane is left with questions about her identity and the sketchbook of a comatose John Doe from the attack.  She resolves to find her true self through art and abandons her carefree-blond-popular girl persona.  When her family moves out to the suburbs, she soon enlists her new 'tribe' of misfits -- dramatic "Theater" Jane, studious "Brain" Jayne, and "Sporty" Polly Jane -- to spread cheer and beauty through the terrified community by forming a guerrilla art gang known as P.L.A.I.N. (People Loving Art In Neighborhoods).  Soon they're building pyramids in empty lots and knitting hats for fire hydrants.  But it's not long before the town grows paranoid about persons unknown sneaking around at night and calling P.L.A.I.N.'s "art attacks" vandalism.  How can the Janes convince them that "Art Saves"?

I've love Cecil Castellucci's quirky plots and creative heroines since her debut novel Boy Proof, and the Janes did not disappoint.  There is something infinitely appealing about the idea of taking art to the streets, and the sheer variety of PLAIN's art attacks make the book worth reading.  But of course, it's the characters that really grab you.  In a relatively short book, Main Jane goes from a girl who takes refuge in the idea of cliques in her own group of outcasts, to the girl who unites the school--from the one-man Queer Club, James, to the queen bee, Cindy--under one banner.  Her one-sided relationship with the comatose John Doe is touching and sweet, and the mysterious Damon is an excellent romantic foil.  Castellucci also avoids the pitfall of many prose authors writing comics and keeps a smooth balance between words and pictures.

Jim Rugg's art is clean, cute, and fun-- perfect for the story!  Even the bombing scene, which one would think would be far too incongruous with such a sweet art style, works fantastically, underlining Main Jane's loss of innocence.  And Damon is wonderfully swoony, even though he's just simple pen and ink.

Verdict: The PLAIN Janes is an upbeat story for anyone who considers themselves a dreamer, but it probably won't convert many cynics.  You can read a 17-page PDF preview here.


Wednesday, September 15, 2010

SANDMAN: PRELUDES AND NOCTURNES (Vol. 1) written by Neil Gaiman, art by Sam Kieth and Mike Dringenberg

The more I work on this blog, discuss it with friends, and field questions from new readers, the more I start thinking about where I was when I first started reading comics and how I got to this point from there.  So it occurred to me that I should start at the beginning and talk about the first comic book I ever read, and how it snagged me into the comics form for life.

I had heard of Neil Gaiman here and there, and one day after reading a short story he had written online, I ran to my friends and asked if any of them had any of his books that I could borrow.  One of my friends piped up that he had written a series of comic books that she could lend me if I wanted them, though it was clear she understood there was a chance I would reject them outright just for being comics and not prose.  But I was in an adventurous mood, and I wanted to read more of Neil Gaiman's work so I accepted her offer.  The next day, she brought three volumes of Sandman, and I spent the weekend buried in their glory.

It's hard to describe what Sandman is about-- it's one of those books where what happens is secondary to the ideas it explores.  But it starts with a group of dark magicians attempting to imprison Death, only to instead imprison Death's brother-- Dream, the titular Sandman.   The first volume follows Dream (also known as Morpheus, Lord Shaper, Oneiros, and about 20 other titles) as he makes his escape, gets his revenge, and reclaims his kingdom.  And it is creepy-- beautifully creepy.  A lot of that is the artwork; Sam Kieth and Mike Dringenberg's drawings are the stuff of nightmares, hallucinations, and surreal dreams.  But Gaiman's storytelling is the tree the art grows from.

By anthropomorphizing Dream in the way humans long have done with Death, Gaiman is able to explore the deepest recesses of the human psyche, telling stories that really revolve more around a common theme rather than a character or plot.  Ultimately, Sandman is about the power of dreams and imagination, for good or ill.  I shuddered in one scene, where Dream is facing a hoard of demons, and he is taunted by the Lords of Hell who ask why they should let him leave.  Dream responds calmly, Ask yourselves, all of you, what power would Hell have if those imprisoned here could not dream of Heaven?  And the final chapter of the first volume, "The Sound of Her Wings," where we meet his sister Death, is a quiet and beautiful meditation on death and life.

Neil Gaiman has become far more successful and famous in 15 years since Sandman ended than possibly any other comics creator before him, and Sandman is barely even in the top ten of his most well-known works anymore, but if any of his works deserve to be read, it's this one.  This series grabbed me in a way only few works have before or since, and it showed me what I was missing by not reading comics.  That an epic work of such imagination was outside my ken before I stumbled into it was to me a massive oversight that had to be corrected.  And since I have immersed myself in the comics medium, I have only found more and more of such works, works that could not and would not have been done in any other medium.  It is what addicted me and why I am such an evangelist of the form.  If you read no other comics in your life, give Sandman a chance.

You can download a PDF of the first issue from the DC/Vertigo website.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Teen Girls to Get Comics Magazine-- Based on Stereotypes.

I emerge from under a pile of textbooks, not to post a review alas, but to vent some spleen.

You may or may not have heard of Mark Millar.  He's a comic book writer whose works Wanted and Kick-Ass were the basis of the films of the same name.  He also recently launched a comics magazine--with both comics and general pop-culture articles--called CLiNT, aimed at the 16-30 male demographic.  Now he's talking about starting a similar magazine for teenage girls, featuring mostly female talent, and edited by a woman magazine editor friend of his.  So far, so good.  What sort of material will this magazine contain?
It will have a definite Twilight-style supernatural theme.
Okay, cool-- I love the supernatural trend in YA lit.  While I hope for a little more variety than just the Twilight sort of supernatural stories, I'll give him the benefit of the doubt that he's using "Twilight" as a buzzword.  Though, I'm a little concerned that he doesn't seem to have done quite enough research into the field-- a lot of YA pundits are foretelling the decline of supernatural YA (and even I'm getting a little fatigued every time I go to Borders), and there has been a rise in other genres (hello, The Hunger Games!)  Still, nothing would prevent them from shifting genres once it gets going.  What else does he have to say about that?
That’s the difference between male and female tastes: men are interested in superheroes while women look to the supernatural.


Women don't like superheroes?   Forget how nearly every superhero movie audience is half women or how much of a sex-symbol Robert Downey Jr. has become since donning the Iron Man armor.  Never mind the outspoken female comics blogosphere, or that one of DC's top writers is Gail Simone.  Millar wants to build this magazine off of Twilight's success, but is completely oblivious to the fact that Stephenie Meyer herself is a huge comic book fan who gave all of her vampires a unique power like the X-Men have, and has never hesitated to drop a reference to Batman or Iron Man in any of her interviews.

And men don't like the supernatural?  Ironically, one of CLiNT's main features is a comic called Turf about a female reporter in 1920s New York investigating mysterious and bloody deaths that seem to follow in the wake of a strange and pale Hungarian family (spoiler: They're vampires!)  And it is written and drawn by two men!  Not to mention, one of comics' biggest success stories of the past 20 years is Neil Gaiman, who launched to superstardom writing the supernatural comic series Sandman, before going on to become a New York Times best-selling and award-winning author.

Mr. Millar, what do you have to say to that?
“– though, obviously, that’s a sweeping generalisation.”
Oh, I guess that's all right then!  Yes, sweeping generalizations are a-okay if you simply point them out afterwards.  It's much easier, I suppose, than just not making them in the first place.   I suppose that there's no better way to explain why he was going for the supernatural angle than "girls don't like superheroes."  It's not like citing one of the decade's biggest-selling series would have been enough to convince us.  And you couldn't just say "It will have a supernatural theme because that's what girls are reading today," because then everyone would wonder, "But what about the boys?"

Look, I have every hope that such a magazine will get off the ground, and that it being run by a woman will smooth out all of these stereotypes and assumptions that Millar thoughtlessly spouted.  I hope it will become a showcase for all the great female talent out there.  I also hope there will be room for all genres--including superheroes.  Because if the rise of YA lit has shown us anything, it's that teenage girls love stories, and any magazine that forgets that or tries to pigeonhole them does so at its own peril.
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