/ Cory Doctorow / 4 am Tue, Jan 7 2020
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  • After more than a decade, Cecil Castellucci and Jim Rugg's YA classics The PLAIN Janes are back!

    After more than a decade, Cecil Castellucci and Jim Rugg's YA classics The PLAIN Janes are back!

    [I adored Cecil Castellucci and Jim Rugg's YA graphic novels The PLAIN Janes and Janes in Love, which were the defining titles for the late, lamented Minx imprint from DC comics. A decade later, the creators have gotten the rights back and there's a new edition Little, Brown. We're honored to have an exclusive transcript of Cecil and Jim in conversation, discussing the origins of Plain Janes. Make no mistake: this reissue is amazing news, and Plain James is an underappreciated monster of a classic, finally getting another day in the spotlight. If you haven't read it, consider yourself lucky, because you're about to get another chance. -Cory]

    Cecil to Jim: How interesting or difficult was it for you to go back to match a style from 11 years ago?

    Jim: It was impossible!

    When I started drawing Janes Attack Back, I was so anxious. You can’t unlearn how to ride a bike and a lot of my style from 11 years ago included my limitations as an artist. I hope I’m much better now than I was then. But when it comes to style, I just couldn’t quite do it the same. After a page or two, I stopped trying. I figured that as long as the character designs, grayscaling, and lettering were consistent that it would be a 90 percent match. Combined with the different ink colors, I think it flows pretty well. But it was definitely tough to figure out in the beginning.

    It was interesting for me to revisit the original art and to get back into characters that I had spent so much time with, but that was over 10 years ago. It was a very strange feeling in my head. Nostalgic but also filtered through thousands of pages of progress since I drew the first two books. It was like studying a different artist, trying to get back to that style.

    How much of an issue was this from a writing perspective?

    Cecil: It was the same!

    When we first did Plain Janes it was my first time moving from prose to comics and I remember that I called you up crying once because moving the story from panel to panel was so difficult to figure out at first. Comics is not prose! But now I have a better understanding of comics and I would write those books way differently now. So it was hard to go back to being more naive. But it was an interesting challenge for sure.

    Cecil to Jim: We had sort of hammered out this story as a four book thing back in 200. For Janes Attack Back, we compressed. Is there anything that we left out that you kind of wish we’d been able to keep?

    Jim: I’m very happy with how this turned out. I remember we planned to have the Janes all go their separate ways for the summer. I think you did a terrific job compressing that. We still see them do their own things and drift apart. I like these characters so our original plans were fun--seeing them on their own allowed a different side of them to emerge.

    But I think the story works best in this final version. I don’t miss the longer solo adventures. Although I refer to the Janes as my X-Men, since they are a team, and team books often have spinoffs where characters have solo adventures. So maybe a longer solo adventure would be fun. I did draw quite a bit of Brain Jane at space camp many years ago! But overall, I say no. I’m so happy with this final story that I don’t regret anything we cut to make this final story! Who knows, we could always follow the Janes as they go off to different colleges and post high school adventures...

    Cecil: I’m glad I have those Brain Jayne space camp pages. But yeah, I don’t miss their solo stuff. I’m glad that we just really follow Main Jane. But it’s interesting because I think that kind of goes with the question above. I think writing that whole Janes Go Summer was the book that I would never write now because I’ve learned that you can just go to the next best part and you don’t have to tell every part. Like moving time from panel to panel.

    Cecil to Jim: What was the hardest thing to draw? And which art attack did you love the most?

    Jim: Not exactly an art attack, but I think my favorite art thing was when Jane visits the museum in France and she appears in several paintings. That was fun to draw, but also it fit the story perfectly. As a cartoonist, that’s the best I can hope for--when the art gets to shine within the context of the story. That moment feels magical to me--in terms of both the story and the art.

    Does the school dance count as an art attack? I like flowers so when the gang covered their dresses in flowers and Brain Jane hit them with a spotlight, that was something I enjoyed drawing.

    Cars are hard to draw. Kissing is hard to draw. Crowds are tough. Perspective...I could go on and on!

    Jim to Cecil: Craft--is there a difference between writing a novel and writing a graphic novel? If so, what are those differences?

    Cecil: There are more words in prose. That seems obvious, but it’s a big deal because that’s what you paint your pictures with. So you can really dive into the minutiae of a moment but it’s very different than with comics where you dive into a moment because you are really dictating what you want the brain to pay attention to. And you have to really understand that each reader is going to have a wildly different understanding of what that picture should be. In comics, it’s right there. So you can be very specific and focused and the words are not really important. They are but I throw out a lot of them.

    I think I over-write my script as a scaffolding for you, the artist, so you don’t have to do all the mental heavy lifting. But the best thing about comics is the throwing out of words. And silence. You can use words to describe silence but it’s still very busy and loud. But in a comic, a silent page or panel speaks for itself, and you can have a pause and rest that you can’t have in prose. I love writing both and that is why I really think that a story tells you how it best wants to be told. Because prose and comics have different gifts in terms of telling the tale.

    Jim to Cecil: I sometimes describe The PLAIN Janes as my X-Men comic since it is a “team” book. So I’m curious if you have a favorite character in The PLAIN Janes?

    Cecil: Oh! That’s so hard! I mean of course it is a team book and I love that you always referred to it as an X-men comic. They are superheroes in my mind; each overcoming things inside of them and bringing their own special skill to solve a problem.

    But it’s too hard to pick which one I love! I mean, I identify with all of them for different reasons at different times. I guess that is what makes a good team. But I do have a soft spot for both Brain Jayne and Theater Jane. I think that they both have such distinct voices and points of view that they were fun foils to write for Main Jane.

    Do you have a favorite?

    Jim: I love Theater Jane’s exuberance! And of course there are things I love about all of them. Good job on giving them unique traits and personality. But I would say in the end, I enjoyed Payne. She was a foil and heel and that brought the best out of all of the Janes. She was like a mirror that forced the Janes, especially Main Jane to really think about her values and what she wanted to do in her art practice. We had talked about Payne for a decade. Seeing her in action and seeing Main Jane play off of her was the best. Plus her anger at the status quo is something I remember feeling as a teenager.

    Jim to Cecil: Write what you know, right? With that in mind, what parts of The PLAIN Janes are closest to your own personal experiences/truth?

    Cecil: Yes. Although the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, of course it is put through the ringer and shook up to come out as something very different. Like Main Jane, I was in a bombing when I was young. The IRA blew up a stage where the British Army band was playing. I was in the most damaged house, a beer museum. A window shattered above me and it was very scary. (I write about this incident in my memoir, Girl on Film).

    I remember the next day, my family took me to an art museum and there were huge skylight windows everywhere, and I thought they would explode down on me. So I kept focusing on the art. And so while no one was injured in the attack that I was in, and I did not find a John Doe, I certainly found solace in art when I most needed it.

    Another thing that came from my life directly was just engaging in street art and loving conceptual art. How that kind of art can say so much and be so profound. I’ve talked before about walking through subway stations filled with Keith Haring chalk drawings in the 80s and that being so inspiring. That idea of art being everywhere and being a delightful surprise. The core truth of The PLAIN Janes is that ART SAVES. That is probably the most true thing I believe.

    How about you? Was there anything that you brought to the book that was close to your experience or truth?

    Jim: I was an art kid in school, so that made sense. And also the feeling, like I was an outsider and wanted more than school and a small town could provide. Some of the art class stuff brings back memories. The biggest thing for me were the friendships. The way the Janes pulled for each other and supported each other as they followed their own interests. I’ve been lucky to have that kind of support in my life. Some of those moments felt true to my own experience. And yes, I believe art saved my life--whether it was the stories and art I consumed or made. It had a huge impact on my life and helped through good and bad times.

    The Plain Janes [Cecil Castellucci and Jim Rugg/Little Brown]

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