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Oct/Nov 2007 Reviews & Interviews

Understanding Teenage Girls: a Round-Up of DC's Minx Line

Reviewed by Maryanne Snell


Buy now from Amazon! Minx is a new line of graphic novels from DC Comics, touted as "the first imprint from a major American comic book publisher devoted to reaching the teenage girl reader." Four books have been released to date, with another released for review. Warning, these reviews contain small plot spoilers.

The Plain Janes, by Cecil Castellucci and Jim Rugg is the story of Jane, a young woman starting high school in a new town. Following a terrorist bombing at which Jane was present, her family leaves Metro City for the safety of the suburbs, and Castelluci's story deftly explores the effect that the randomness of terrorist acts has on individuals and communities. Jane fights to overcome her fears as she watches her parents struggle; at one point observing that while her mother used to look at the sky and see castles in the clouds, now all she sees is danger. Jane's growing awareness of the fallibility of her parents is just one of the effects the bombing has on her life; she "meets" a man in the aftermath of the explosion who lies in a coma, and inspired by his sketchbook, turns to art as away to heal.

As she begins at her new school, Jane decides to start over, cutting and dying her hair, and rejecting the call of the popular crowd in favor of courting the friendship of three girls (all also named Jane) who she believes could really understand her. The only problem: they don't want to have anything to do with her. After some work, she convinces them to participate in a secret plan: committing random acts of art around the city under the name People Loving Art In Neighborhoods (the P.L.A.I.N. of the title). Their adventures have the combined effect of bringing the group closer together, helping Jane heal, and disturbing the adults in their lives. The parents and police view the art installations suspiciously, and in the wake of the attack in Metro City, assume the worst.

The four Janes are realistic teenagers; it was a promising sign that Jane's first thought after being thrown to the ground by the explosion wasn't something of global scope, but that she would miss her math test and her mom would be mad. That she cuts and dyes her hair is cliché, but it rings absolutely true—the reason the cliché exists is because just about every girl (and some boys!) goes straight for her hair when she want to make or reflect a drastic change in her life. The other Janes each have a niche, there's the brainy Jayne, the drama Jane, the sporty Jane; but they never feel like stereotypes, and each has a consistent personality and qualities outside of their "thing." The adults do sometimes veer into one dimensionality, but their actions and reactions are always consistent and believable; it never feels as though they're simply plot devices. The one character misstep is James, the lone gay boy at the school; while his inclusion in the Jane's group underscores their attitude of acceptance, as a character, he never feels fully developed.

Rigg's art complements the story and characters, with lovely, clean, sharp lines and expressive faces. His panels are beautifully balanced—ranging from precisely detailed backgrounds to talking heads with no backgrounds, as the scene requires. Again, the one weak link is James; compared to the others his character design is loose and cartoonish.

The Plain Janes has a Nancy Drew style feel of being slightly outside of reality; the Janes pull off some art installations that seem a stretch for real 14 and 15 year olds to accomplish with no one noticing (especially over protective parents), but the tone is inspiring rather than exasperating. It's a call to use art and expression to work past the horrors in life, and to counteract random violence with random beauty.

At the center of Regifters, written by Mike Carey and drawn by Sonny Liew and Marc Hempel, is Dixie, a Korean teenager who studies the martial art discipline of Hapkido. She's one of the best in her dojo, and is ready to take on the competition in a tournament when she loses her concentration by falling for a boy (Adam). That the boy is also studying Hapkido and will be competing against her doesn't help anything. Neither does the fact that he likes someone else. Dixie follows her impulses and spends her tournament entrance fee on a birthday gift to impress him, and when he passes the gift along to the girl he likes, things get messy. Having spent her entrance fee, Dixie has to find a way into the tournament and along the way discovers that she's been taking her talent and her parent's support for granted, as well as learning a little bit about the kind of boy she should be spending her time on.

Carey's story is entertaining, with highly likeable characters. Dixie's confusion about her crush and the way it's throwing her out of whack is realistic, as is her frustration at Adam's cluelessness. Dillinger, the boy Dixie should be with, has a believable soft side under his tough, street smart exterior, and their exchanges are enjoyable, fun flirting, which is an effective contrast to her interactions with Adam. Dixie's little twin brothers are amusing secondary characters, providing occasional comic relief. (One of the funniest moments follows Dixie coming home angry from a party and her brothers plying her with questions, "Did you do any Dirty Dancing? Were there pizza bites? How about spin the bottle?" and when she slams the door in their face, sharing the interchange, "Do you think she killed someone?" "Oh yeah.") Adam and the girl he likes, Megan, are the kind of characters necessary to these sorts of romances; pretty, shallow, thoughtless, and fairly unlikeable to the reader, but believable as the object of high school crushes.

Liew and Hempel's art flips between a loose cartoon sketchiness and tighter lines, and while the transition doesn't always work, at moments it's quite effective. Because of the art style, Dixie's age is hard to visually pin down, and she and her friend Avril look anywhere from ten to fifteen years old throughout the book. Adam, Megan, and Dillinger stay steady at around sixteen, and while the contrast could have been intentional, it can be jarring. The fight scenes are very well portrayed, communicating with clarity not only the action, but also the speed of the motion.

With a strong main character and entertaining romance reminiscent of John Hughes films, Regifters is a book that will appeal to teens and adults alike.

The title of Clubbing, by Andi Watson and Josh Howard, is a double (quadruple, really) entendre that reflects the path the main character travels before the book is through. It begins when Lottie, a fashion obsessed Goth girl from London gets caught sneaking into a nightclub with a fake ID, and is sent to spend the summer with her grandparents and work in the golf shop at their country club. (The fourth "club" reference is a major spoiler, so will be left unsaid.) While she's there, she stumbles upon a murder, and sets out to solve it with a boy who may or may not be romance material.

Watson is a veteran story teller, and he presents Lottie's culture clash with humor and wit. Lottie is a reader of classic literature, and while she looks to darker books like Tess of the d'Urbervilles and Wuthering Heights, her story is more in line with Jane Austen's novels. Echoes of Emma and Pride and Prejudice resonate as Lottie, thinking she knows everything, makes assumptions about people and their intentions; flubbing up romance, friendships, and her murder investigation. Her confrontation with the "country Goths," and her subsequent realization that her interests in the fashion and social side of the Goth lifestyle pale in comparison to the blood and death the farm teens live with daily, pays homage to Emma's recognition of her own shallowness.

Howard's art is sharp and angular, with distinct character design and clean, open lines. The design of Lottie's clothes is lovely, but often falls on the unbelievably scanty side; which not only has the effect of causing the reader to wonder what happens when she sits down, but also unfortunately makes her seem like more of a bimbo than was perhaps intended.

While the resolution of the murder mystery takes an unexpected turn more reminiscent of the recent film Hot Fuzz than Jane Austen, it works in a zany and highly enjoyable way, and presents a perfect segue into the next volume, out next year.

Good As Lily, by Derek Kirk Kim and Jesse Hamm, is the most "high concept" of the Minx titles to date, with the plot hinging on a Quantum Leap style manifestation. On Grace Kwon's 18th birthday she's visited by herself as a child, a 29 year old, and an old woman. Unlike Scrooge's ghosts, these versions stick around, causing hijinks and misunderstandings during an already busy time, as Grace struggles to save the school play which is being cancelled. Each of her "selves" is there for a reason, and as Grace comes to understand and appreciate herself at different ages, she is able to see the course her life can take, and has the opportunity to make better decisions.

Grace's interactions with her younger self are the most poignant, as she confronts her parents about her deepest held fear—that they loved her older sister (who died as a child) more than they love her. As Grace reconnects with her childhood pain and experiences, the reader is taken with her. Once she resolves those issues, however, the book hits a skid as she relates to her older selves. As Grace has yet to live these parts of her life, she, and the reader, have little context in which to base these personas and their actions. While the elderly Grace manages to be three dimensional, her 29 year old self is harder to pin down, and her motivations harder to grasp.

The pacing of the story is uneven, with Grace's sister Lily only mentioned once in passing before she's revealed to be the cause of Grace's insecurities, and that's sixty pages into the book. Had she been included earlier, the reader could have shared in the experience of her presence tingeing everything Grace did. In addition, the scene where she's mentioned would have captured a deep poignancy as Grace feels her talents dismissed as her parents remember her sister; instead the scene is slightly puzzling and then forgotten. When Grace comments that she's finally slept her "first real sleep since Lily's death," there's nothing other than her words to indicate that this had been her mental state leading up to that point. Likewise, much of the story feels cramped as many events seem to have been inserted to serve the plot, rather than because they are organic to the characters.

The art suffers similar ups and downs as the story, with Hamm opting for a sketchy and overly simplistic style that doesn't showcase his talent as well as his previous work.

Unfortunately, Good As Lily falls short of the potential of its premise and the strengths of its creators.

Confessions of a Blabbermouth is the only Minx title to feature an actual teenage girl as part of the creative team, and it shows. (Louise Carey, 15, joined her father Mike Carey to pen the tale.) Tasha Flanagan, the self professed blabbermouth of the title, is the most genuine sounding, acting, and feeling girl in the Minx line.

As the school year begins, Tasha is bombarded with problems—ranging from her mom's irritating new boyfriend and his professional editorial columnist daughter to an impending clobbering by upper classman bullies who are bitter that she's been put in charge of the yearbook. As she navigates her way through these issues, all the while venting to her blog, she comes to suspect that things aren't what they seem when it comes to Jed, her mom's boyfriend, and his relationship with his daughter Chloe. There's some neatly done misdirection in regards to this—leading one to suspect a secret far more sinister than what is revealed.

Tasha is a complex and very fallible heroine, and along the way she makes some big mistakes in judgment, but they're believable mistakes. She's loud and confident, but when pressured by the bullying girls, she cowardly lies about Chloe to move the attention off herself, and then immediately feels guilty about it. Her wavering on whether or not to accept Chloe is realistic, as are her seemingly over the top reactions to various situations.

The book is quite humorous and the art, by Aaron Alexovich suits it perfectly. Tasha's extreme facial expressions and movements mirror her extreme reactions, and Alexovich expertly handles such hilarious scenes as Tasha pretending to be crazy and imitating Winston Churchill. Distinct choices were made in regards to character design, the most interesting being to make the bullies reminiscent of the large, manly girls often appearing in girl gangs in manga. This gives the book a very different feel than it would have had the bullies been typical gorgeous mean girl types.

SPOILER ALERT: There are a few logic flaws in the climax of the story, with the handling of dyslexia being slightly puzzling. Dyslexia generally makes reading and spelling difficult, not constructing sentences. Therefore, Jed's solution of coming up with the words while Chloe takes dictation seems to be exactly the opposite of what would work to solve the problem. His admonition for her to use spell check on a difficult word seems out of place if, in fact, she would likely be depending on spell check for most of the words. If the intent was that she was both a poor writer and had dyslexia, that point was muddled. However, these issues didn't pop to mind until after finishing the book—-the narrative was entertaining enough to distract from them while reading. SPOILER END

Themes of finding your own voice and struggling to live up to parents' expectations form the foundation of this enjoyable work; which, with fresh, engaging art and an endearingly real heroine and supporting characters makes Confessions of a Blabbermouth a high note in this first release of Minx titles.

 

The Plain Janes
Cecil Castellucci and Jim Rugg
DC Comics 2007
978-1-4012-1115-8

Regifters
Mike Carey , Sonny Liew and Marc Hempel
DC Comics 2007
978-1-4012-0371-9

Clubbing
Andi Watson and Josh Howard
DC Comics 2007
978-1-4012-0370-2

Good as Lily
Derek Kirk Kim and Jesse Hamm
DC Comics 2007
978-1-4012-1381-7

Confessions of a Blabbermouth
Mike Carey, Louise Carey and Aaron Alexovich
DC Comics 2007
1-4012-1148-8

 

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