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Plainly powerful

May 27, 2007|Susan Carpenter | Susan Carpenter is a Times staff writer. susan.carpenter@latimes.com

The Plain Janes

A Graphic Novel

Cecil Castellucci, illustrated by Jim Rugg

Minx: 176 pp., $9.99 paper

*

Re-Gifters

A Graphic Novel

Mike Carey, illustrated by Sonny Liew and Marc Hempel

Minx: 176 pp., $9.99 paper

*

WITH such superhero movies as "Spider-Man 3" breaking box office records and manga flying off bookstore shelves, the timing couldn't be better for DC Comics' new imprint for teenage girls.

Launched this month, the Minx graphic novel line is envisioned as a sassy, artistically enhanced alternative to the usual all-boys-all-the-time prose written for hormonal teen girls. It's also a homegrown competitor to the hugely popular book-format Japanese comics that are being devoured like boba milk tea by young American. readers.

But unlike manga titles for girls, which are set in Asia and star leggy, bug-eyed teens in all sorts of scenarios as they deal with the usual ups and downs of friends, family and unrequited love, Minx books take place in the United States and tell stories about unconventional and headstrong American girls. Written and drawn by up-and-coming talent culled from respected publishers in the young adult and indie comics worlds, these books offer plenty of romance, angst and drama, but the upshot is self-discovery.

The first Minx offering is "The Plain Janes" by Cecil Castellucci, the Los Angeles author of the acclaimed 2005 young adult novel "Boy Proof," and drawn by Jim Rugg, a Pittsburgh artist whose work has appeared in various comics anthologies. The story starts with a bang. More accurately, "there was a pop and then nothing," says doe-eyed protagonist Jane on the opening page.

It isn't just Jane's body that is thrown by the Sept. 11-esque attack on Metro City. Her psyche shaken, Jane dyes her hair black and withdraws from friends. Her parents move the family to a blase suburb known as Kent Waters. She is now the new girl in town, a freshman at Buzz Aldrin High. Even worse, she's a freshman.

What starts as a typical, if timely, misfit teen transplant drama quickly evolves into a story that is far more surprising and layered than you might expect from a book with so few words. Just as Rugg's crisp pen-and-ink drawings seem to take advantage of an entire color spectrum between black and white, Castellucci's story explores the highs and lows of an alienated teen's trek toward self-discovery.

On her first day of school, Jane is courted by the predictable popular girl -- a blond version of the girl she used to be before the bomb exploded. Jane chooses to sit with the nerdy girls instead. They look more interesting, she thinks.

Aside from the fact that each of the three nerdy girls is also named Jane, none of them wants to talk to her, so Jane attempts to win them over individually by appealing to their interests. She tries out for the school play, science club and soccer team, but she fails with each attempt. That forces her to try a reverse tactic: Looking inward, starting something of her own and asking others to join.

The PLAIN Janes are born.

As leader of People Loving Art in Neighborhoods, a girl gang of covert artists, Jane leads her crew on late-night missions: putting bubbles in the public fountain and knitted caps on fire hydrants, among other things. Jane doesn't realize it, but she's making real friends, uniting her school community, creating beauty where (post-explosion) she saw only ugliness and building a sense of self-worth and purpose.

If the message of "The Plain Janes" is that life is what you make of it, the second Minx release, "Re-Gifters," coming in June, is about staying true to the person you really are. Written by Mike Carey, an English author best known for his "Lucifer" series for another DC Comics' imprint, Vertigo, and inked by Singapore-based artist Sonny Liew and Marc Hempel (illustrator of "The Sandman" by Neil Gaiman and "Mars" by Mark Wheatley), it's the story of a second-generation Korean American teen.

Jen Dik Seong, or Dixie, has an anger problem, which is part of the reason she's a black belt in the martial art hapkido. The other part is, of course, her Korean heritage and her parents' expectation that Dixie will honor her roots. Long before she was born, her parents and grandparents lived under Japanese occupation and were not allowed to practice Korean rituals.

Motivations aside, Dixie shows promise at hapkido. Her instructor thinks she's the most talented student he's ever had, but he also sees that she isn't giving it her all and is, therefore, unable to realize her ki, or true strength. What's distracting her, of course, is a boy. Specifically, "a life-threatening crush on Adam Heller," a fellow hapkido student who makes her heart cry "Yes!" when he throws her to the mat.

Adam, it turns out, has a crush on someone else, but Dixie doesn't realize this when she buys him a present with the $100 her dad gave her to enter a hapkido contest. Because Adam isn't interested in Dixie, he doesn't appreciate the gift. In fact, he re-gifts it to the girl he has a crush on, who re-gifts it to someone else, who re-gifts it to a boy who has a crush on Dixie.

Filled with unexpected but emotionally believable plot twists that are true to modern urban living, "The Plain Janes" and "Re-Gifters" are a strong start for the new Minx imprint. Whether this new genre will last as long as the many superhero franchises that have dominated comics remains to be seen, but DC is onto something good. *

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