As DC Comics recently announced, the comic book company behemoth announced a new line of comic books aimed at the broader female audience, with a new imprint called Minx. The first book scheduled to hit in May is the 176 graphic novel "Plain Janes," from writer Cecil Castellucci and artist Jim Rugg. Both the new imprint and its books have been quite the lightning rod for discussion, so CBR News sat down with Rugg to talk more about "Plain Janes," the Minx imprint, and how the artist got involved with book.
As Rugg explained to CBR, it all began one year ago with call from DC Comics Editor Shelly Bond, and the appealing concept of Minx. "There are a few things that make Minx unique," Rugg told CBR News. "The scale of the imprint is one. I realize that seven books in the first year isn't an enormous line of books, but when I say scale, I'm including the resources DC has allotted for marketing as well as the amount of time and money invested in putting these books together. Obviously other publishers have done graphic novels and comics aimed at teenage girls, but I think DC's market position distinguishes this effort. Companies like Slave Labor Graphics (SLG) and Oni Press have remarkable catalogs, but they have built those catalogs over time and without the fanfare that Minx seems to be generating, which goes back to the size of DC and the resources they are able to put behind this launch. In comparison to Tokyopop and other manga publishers that also have a diverse readership, I think the Minx books feature a different style of cartooning (that's not to say it's better or worse, but it is part of what separates Minx)."
There's also the appeal of working with Castelluci, of whom Rugg is a fan. "I like her writing first and foremost," he revealed. "That's why I wanted to draw 'Plain Janes.' But we had a lot of conversations and back-and-forth during the book's creation, and her personality is fantastic. I tend to be reserved and pessimistic, and she's filled with energy and outgoing, and for me that worked really well."
Minx has also been separated from the pack due to the debate over the connotations of the imprint's name - that of a flirtatious or promiscuous female. "It's a non-issue," said Rugg. "Think of Vertigo, Helix, Marvel Age, Max, First Second, Graphix, Image, Oni – do any of these names mean anything on their own? The product has defined these names, not the other way around. It's the same with large, corporate branding. Do consumers wear Nike products because they want to be associated with or in some way they identify with a Greek goddess? Of course not. Furthermore, if the name of a product line aimed at teenage consumers offends adults, I assume that's a good thing. I was a teenager once, and if memory serves, pissing off adults wasn't a bad way to waste an evening.
"Brian Wood made a comment about the quality of the books ultimately being the important thing and I agree with that. If the books are well regarded upon release, and they find their intended audience, then within the context of the book market, Minx will come to be known as good graphic novels for teenage girls.
"The only way a name matters is if it's something atrocious, something hard to remember or pronounce – Minx is fine, and just in case it does matter, DC commissioned focus groups in order to test various names. Minx won. So assuming that the name of an imprint/company does matter, I will defer to the teenage girls in the focus group rather than my opinion or the opinion of other adults."
In addition to those aforementioned compelling elements, "Plain Janes" itself was a big draw for Rugg, who has invested over a year of time into illustrating this tale. Though 176 pages might be daunting to some artists, it was the sheer scale of the project that played into Rugg's desire to be involved with "Janes." "I wasn't sure I could draw a book of this size in the time frame they gave me," he explained. "But I thought it was a challenge that would benefit my development as a cartoonist.
"Obviously, I found the story captivating or I wouldn't have considered drawing it. I find Cecil's characterizations refreshing, articulate, and thorough. And the story was unusual compared to my idea of young adult material. I pictured 'Mean Girls,' and the story isn't like 'Mean Girls' at all. The antagonists aren't evil or bad. Conflict doesn't lead to some big showdown. There aren't any easy answers to the problems the girls encounter. After reading Cecil's books and the 'Plain Janes' proposal, it was clear to me that working with her would be creatively rewarding."
Though Rugg isn't about to give away all the details, he was happy to share some details about the story in "Plain Janes," and explained, "It's about a girl named Jane who survives a traumatic event and decides that being popular isn't nearly as important as enjoying life. She and her parents move to small town America and she befriends a group of girls who may not be the most popular, but are definitely interesting. Unfortunately this group doesn't see itself the way Jane does. And the story follows the relationship between these girls, as they become an underground, terrorist art gang."
If the term "terrorist art gang" doesn't pique your interest, then turn your attention to the main characters, as introduced by Rugg. "Main Jane (and keep in mind, these are nicknames we use, the girls don't actually call themselves Main Jane and Brain Jane and stuff) likes art and hates being bored," the artist explained. "So she's constantly coming up with stuff to do and she's very interested in the other Janes and their interests. She's a little disappointed by moving from a big city to a small town, but she tries to make the best of it. She's pretty upbeat and tries to be strong but her world has undergone dramatic changes, and sometimes that tends to overwhelm emotionally.
"Polly Jane (who really is called Polly Jane, unlike Main Jane and Brain Jane and Theatre Jane) is a sports nut. She's very tall and kind of awkward so unfortunately she's not a very successful athlete. But it doesn't stop her from trying. Polly Jane slouches sometimes because she's a little self-conscious about her height.
"Theatre Jane is a bubbly, outgoing (always smiling) thespian. She loves theatre and tends to be a little melodramatic whenever possible. She's very animated most of the time.
"Brain Jane is introverted. She's an attractive bookworm, but either she doesn't realize she's attractive or she's kind of embarrassed by attention. She dresses conservatively and tends to shrink into the background at times with her hands are in her pockets or her arms wrapped around books held tightly to her chest. She loves science."
There's always constant speculation over how to attract more female readers to the comic book medium, and while there are many answers, Rugg explained that, "I have no idea. Any answer I give you will be pretty generic. Well developed characters? Thoughtful, intelligent stories that ring true while avoiding cliché and delivering entertainment? Not insulting or objectifying women?
"I really don't know. I try to make work for myself. In order to maintain the commitment necessary to produce a comic, I need a high level of enthusiasm for the material. I'm not trying to make work for some future audience, I'm trying to make a page or scene or story that appeals to me. I value clarity when I'm designing a page or sequence but to imagine what other people want is impossible because every single person wants something different.
"Let me give you an example, I was Christmas shopping this past weekend and the local mall was full of people. Many of them were young people. So I'm waiting for my wife and watching people walk by and I'm fascinated. I wanted to draw all of them in their different sweaters, vests, body types, hair cuts, etc. To me, that's interesting, better than the teen magazines and advertising and TV programs where everyone sort of looks similar. But do those things I notice and respond to, appeal to female readers? I don't know. Trendy women and teen magazines sell millions of copies, full of models advertising clothes, hair styles, makeup, etc. Perhaps those trends are more interesting to a typical female reader? I have no idea, y'know?"
Fans of Rugg's art on the critically acclaimed "Street Angel" series will notice that his art, as seen in this article, is a bit different that his work in that series. "It's less fantastic and dynamic than 'Street Angel,'" Rugg said of his "Plain Janes" art. "The contrast is less extreme. I tried to emphasize more natural body language, a little more attention to clothing and fashion. The setting is suburban, rather than urban. My use of grayscaling looks different on the surface compared to my past black-and-white work, but my goals of using contrast for emphasis and eye movement remain the same. Same with the less dynamic artwork, my focus on storytelling clarity and composition remains in tact; the characterization and setting just dictate less foreshortening and action. I think fundamentally, it's not that different. My approach and cartooning values haven't changed much, but the surface style looks a little different.
"From a storytelling point of view, working with a large cast of characters has been different. The point-of-view and focus changes more often and staging is a bit more important with this book than it was for 'Street Angel.' It's sort of like X-men in that way."
Tackling "Plain Janes" required a strict schedule to maintain quality and output of the book, both of which Rugg accomplished with a specific game plan. "First I went through and broke the script into eight page printouts (this was just for convenience, easier to carry around than a 150 page script). Then I made a template in Illustrator of pages sized at 50% of the printed, final page. I printed a stack of these, 4 templates per page, for thumbnails. I woke up an hour earlier than normal each day (I'm a morning person and it's easier for me to do problem solving work like breakdowns and pencils in the morning). I drew a thumbnail, and then I ruled borders on a page (based on a pre-approved thumbnail) and lightly penciled it. Then I went to the day job. During my lunch hour I'd thumbnail another page. Then I came home, finished prepping the page for ink, and started inking. Break for some food. Finish inking (usually while I ink, I listen to NPR or an audio book). Spend half an hour or so with the wife, read for a little bit, and fall asleep. On Fridays or Mondays I sent scans of thumbnails, inks, and grayscales to Shelly for revision/approval. Once the grayscale pages were approved, I FTPed them to DC. I did grayscaling whenever I could find spare time. On weekends, I tried to catch up or get ahead (ha ha, in theory at least. I'm not even sure getting ahead is possible. Curse you, Father Time). Friday and Saturday nights I usually drank, but only moderately, not much of a tolerance anymore."
If fans enjoy "Plain Janes" and respond strongly, Rugg said that he'd be up for another graphic novel in the series. "I think it could continue. Cecil has populated the book with a lot of interesting characters, and they still have most of high school ahead of them so…"
Outside of "Plain Janes," Rugg and his "Street Angel" collaborator Brian Maruca have some creator owned projects on the docket. "Brian and I are working on a new series featuring Afrodisiac, but it's so early in development that it's not worth talking about. I'll be sure and make noise if it ever comes to fruition."
As for "Street Angel," while Rugg may not have a firm release date in mind for more issues of everyone's favorite skateboarding heroine, he didn't rule out her return either. "We have more 'Street Angel' stories, but there's so little time. We continue to write 'Street Angel' material, and we have a few stories I want to draw so bad. I'm kind of at a crossroads creatively and I'm just not sure where I'm going from here. I hope I get back to Street Angel some day."