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Nexus Graphica
by Mark London Williams

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Other Nexus Graphica Columns
For more information, you can try the following:
Cecil Castellucci
BoingBoing on "Janes in Love"
Jack Finney's "The Night People"
Ed Abbey's "The Monkeywrench Gang
Your free download of "Little Brother"
A student review of "No Girls Allowed"
Comicology TV interview with Alissa Torres
Recent Books of Interest

American Widow by Alissa Torres (script) and Sungyoon Choi (art) (Villard) American Widow
You've probably already seen Alissa Torres somewhere on the news. She was one of the 9/11 widows who gave birth to a child after her husband was killed in the destruction of the World Trade Center. Here she recounts -- using a non-linear, memory-sparked narrative scheme -- the story of meeting her husband, Eddie Torres, in NY, and his rise in the finance world, until he is offered a job at the Trade Center, his first day of work being Sept. 10. The story -- of coping with the loss, becoming a very unwilling media icon, facing a Joseph Heller-like bureaucracy in the Red Cross and the Federal Government, when simply trying to collect insurance, or view remains -- would be compelling no matter how it was told. It's not immediately clear what makes this a slam-dunk for a graphic novel, since the material doesn't always take full advantage of the medium (oddly, even some lines end in mid-sentence, as if the lettering was never finished), but then again, this is Torres' first GN, and one suspects the material she had to work with was a little overwhelming. Not perfect in form, but then the act of "witnessing," is every bit as critical for any kind of art as is the act of "imagining."

No Girls Allowed by Susan Hughes (script) and Willow Dawson (art) (Kids Can Press) No Girls Allowed
The subhead for this slim volume is "Tales of Daring Women Dressed as Men for Love, Freedom, and Adventure," and that alone will probably get it banned in the kinds of places that imagine Sarah Palin is serious leadership material. Which is a shame, because really the book recounts tales both real and mythical, or both, of women trying to make their way, with dignity, in a man's world, and hold the moose-hunting and end times religion, please! Here we have swiftly paced bios of women ranging from Hatshepsut, the presumed "secretly female" Egyptian Pharaoh, to Mu Lan, to more modern heroines like Ellen Craft, a light-skinned slave who passed as a white man and took her "slave" -- actually her husband -- with her to freedom. All the stories are fascinating, often layered not just with questions about gender, but of nationality and ethnicity, too. Good stuff for history shelves.

Janes in Love by Cecil Castellucci (script) and Jim Rugg (art) (Minx) Janes in Love
Our book du jour: There's a great splash page in it involving flowers -- specifically, where everyone has dressed up as flowers, under their other clothes, launching their secret foliage in a public setting, forming a sudden, no-longer-secret garden. It's emblematic of what is best about the Janes books: Cecil Castellucci and Jim Rugg develop not only well-observed characters (including in this "middle chapter," those of a "certain age" -- i.e. middle or senior) but rather ingenious unauthorized art installations, as the Janes and their growing band of cohorts push back against a "new world order" of restrictions, curfews, and no-questions-asked of anyone in authority. And along the way, they variously fall in love, some successfully, others somewhat problematically -- facing rejection, or less-than-Harlequin-Romance ideals that have to be accommodated. Just like in life. And just as real life -- 9/11 trauma an all -- affects the world of the Janes, one hopes influences might run the other direction, too, and we'll soon start seeing art where it's not supposed to be "allowed."

Queen "Janes," Approximately

P.L.A.I.N. Janes
Well, they're not really queens in the regal sense, of course, but how often can you riff off a Dylan title when writing a column?

The "Janes" we refer to here, however, have been reigning, to certain degree, over the graphic novel world. Those would be the P.L.A.I.N. Janes created by writer Cecil Castellucci and artist Jim Rugg, the kick-off title to DC/Vertigo's Minx line of graphic novels, the marketing ploy being that they are more femme-friendly types of comics, and the irony being that Cecil was one of the few actual femmes initially writing for the imprint.

Regardless, the Janes -- their first name stands for "People Loving Art in Neighborhoods" -- became a hit, and its story, about a group of high school girls (and one guy, James), doing guerrilla art installations in a small town rife with post-9/11 paranoia about unauthorized protests. The founding "Jane" herself just barely survived a terrorist bombing -- the "terrorists" are never identified -- in Metro City, and it is in suburban Kent Waters where the story begins.

The original installation had echoes of both Edward Abbey's necessary The Monkeywrench Gang, and The Night People, Jack Finney's lesser-known novel about running askance of the law as an antidote to stultifying suburban ennui.

It was also a precursor to Cory Doctorow's recent YA novel, Little Brother, where a high schooler in San Francisco is spirited away to a West Coast version of Gitmo, after being rounded up in the aftermath of another calamitous terrorist attack. Upon his release, Doctorow's protagonist decides it's time to take on the DHS and salvage what's left of America's tattered Constitution.

And while "Janes" was never that explicit, it was unmistakably of its era -- the one we're still in, where our collective fears routinely trump what Lincoln called "the better angels of our nature."

Which brings us to the sequel, just hitting bookshelves this month, bearing a title hinting at perhaps a somewhat kinder turn of events for all of us: Janes in Love.

Cecil Castellucci
On that note, we present the Nexus Graphica interview with Cecil, though I suppose some disclosures are in order: She's an old pal, whom I've known since we were both "label mates," as she put it, at Candlewick Press, initially meeting when I was a couple books into the Danger Boy series, and her first novel, Boy Proof -- which I also commend to your attention -- was coming out.

She inscribed my first "Janes" installment with "Art Saves!," and that's where we begin:

Can art really save the world? Will it? How?
"I do think that art can really save the world. One thing about art is that it changes the way that we look at the world. It has the potential to make us smile, change our state of being, regain a sense of play, revolutionize our way of thinking, move us to action, or comfort us in its arms. That's how it saves the world on a daily basis."

More specifically, talk about how/when the idea for this "Plain Janes" story emerged from the first one...
"Janes in Love takes place about a week after the end of the Plain Janes. In the first story, the girls get into doing street art and it's surprising, and the art attacks are a reaction to the bombing that Main Jane was in. But the Janes get in trouble for doing the art and I wanted to have Jane try to figure out how she could still do art and not get in trouble. She tries to solve that problem and succeeds. But it changes the nature of the way that they do art. I thought that was interesting because relationship with art is growing. They take themselves more seriously. Meanwhile, the world is still crazy and terrible stuff still happens, and the girls are in High School and they are regular teenagers who like boys. It's that blend of everything happening all at once that interested me. The next book is called Janes Go Summer and it will be about how they spend their summer vacation.

How does writing comics/graphic novels differ from writing prose? What aspects of story considerations are the same, and what's different?
"Well, a story is a story is a story. But the way that you tell it is different because the way that you move the narrative forward has changed. You're marrying text and image so you have this whole new palette to tell the story with. That is very freeing, but also was hard to adjust to at first. With words you have action that flows very freely, when you move from panel to panel action is frozen to a single moment. You have to choose that moment to tell the story."

Are you finding that ideas you once thought of as "book ideas" are now morphing into "Graphic novel" ideas?
"I think a story tells you how it wants to be written. So I haven't had any book ideas that morph into Graphic Novel ideas, I get ideas and usually it lets me know what the best way to tell it is."

The fan base for the "Janes" books seems quite enthusiastic -- have they inspired any "real life" art happenings?
"I hope so! I don't know about any art that has been made out in the wild, but I did notice that someone started a Facebook group called P.L.A.I.N. about street art inspired by the book. That was pretty cool. I am hoping that people who might not have noticed or cared about street art will now stop and enjoy it."

The ideas about love in this book are appealingly nuanced -- for one thing, the idea of friendship, as a legitimate means of two people relating to each other -- even two people attracted to each other -- is given a lot of credence. It's not the usual "all or nothing" stance found in most "romances." You seem, in other words, to run the gamut of potential "love configurations" (including some of the "bearing of wounds" that older couples must do). Can you talk about the "love ideas" that went in to the story?
"I am a big believer in all kinds of love, true love, star crossed, platonic, unrequited, etc... But I think that friendship is something that everyone can understand, something that teenagers can wrap their heads around. It's a more permanent form of love and potentially long-lasting (well... unless you break up with your friend, which sucks!) But I liked the idea that the romances in the book have the potential to be life long relationships without having the burden of being true love forever and ever or puppy love or first love. Besides, I think that your partner should be your number one best friend."

What's next!?
"Next up in 2009 is an anthology Geektastic, that I co-edited with Holly Black, who wrote Tithe and The Spiderwick Chronicles. It's stories about geeks and the geek observed and it has some great YA authors contributing. Then there is also the third Janes book, Janes Go Summer."

And next up here: Mr. Klaw's turn at the plate.

Copyright © 2008 Mark London Williams

Mark London Williams writes the Danger Boy time travel series, and works as a journalist covering both entertainment and politics, for Hollywood trade paper Below the Line. He's also written videogames, comics, and plays, and currently finds himself in an anthology of White House historical tales, recounting the Missile Crisis, the Situation Room, and drawing escape maps on the walls.


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