Comic Fodder

Plain Jane – A Graphic Novel


Plain Jane Book One

by Mazen Hasan

If you’re like me, you love to read. With a limited budget and limited time, you have to try your best to pick and choose as wisely as you can. Every once in a while, I wander away from the capes and tights and try to see what more independent creators are doing. This one fell right into my lap, as a request came through to do a review of this specific book about Plain Jane. There are many things to recommend about this book, but it is definitely intended for an adult audience, as it deals heavily with topics like rape, violence, and drugs. The review will probably be one of the most comprehensive that I have ever done, and I pull no punches. Read on to see if this title is suitable to your interests.

Let’s start with the design of the book and other elements that have gone into the production of the book first, since that is the first thing a reader will see. The cover consists of a white background, with a dark solid line going down the left, and a heavy black dot filing the center, with four smaller black dots above it. Artistic? Yes. It could be the eye for a face, but if you open the book, you will find it is one of a pair of dice with the number one facing you, and the smaller dots are smatterings of blood. If the cover does not catch your eye, though, what are the odds that you would pick it up off the rack? The full picture of a hand with blood dripping down it, reaching for the die, might have been a better choice for the cover. As it is, unless you already know what is inside, you probably wouldn’t be able to guess what the cover is trying to communicate, which is a definite no-no when trying to attract a new reader.

Where are the credits? Copyright in the front, but the writer/illustrator and editor and so on are not listed until the back inside cover page. This is a matter of choice, but the traditionally accepted thing is to put it near the front, so someone leafing through the first couple pages can at least get a sense of the talent behind what he is holding. Not a big deal, but is having the credits at the very back the way to do things for an independent? This is not the movies, and even they list the big stuff up front.

The story opens on Jane herself, breaking the fourth wall and speaking directly to the audience. Or is she? It becomes clear quickly enough that she is somewhat disturbed, and is perhaps only addressing her own mind. The ambiguity leaves the reader wondering if this is a form of a bedtime story to the audience, or if we are just gaining an inside glimpse into the psyche of the disturbed lady.

The art is stark, black and white with shades of grey, and within a few pages we are treated to the shocking site of Jane injecting herself with a drug cocktail mix that is very dangerous. Throughout, there is an inventive use of lettering that Mazen Hasan uses, with a creativity that I haven’t seen since Dave Sim’s Cerebus. It is a highlight of the book, and I am tempted to recommend it to the current crop of letterers in the comic business to show them what more can be done with their field as it relates to the art of the comic book.

The writing can test a reader, as metaphors get mixed and mangled with alarming frequency. This is a good time to point out some minor problems with the construction of the plot and minor elements displayed in the story. First, Jane is a survivor of a violent sexual assault. If you had no advance notice of this, or you did not turn over and read the quick description on the back cover, there is no other introductory information to clue you in on this fact. A few more straight-forward descriptive mentions and a little less metaphor would have been better to firmly introduce the reader into the main subject which is the source of her current… attitude.

The Press Kit sent along with the book claims that Jane as evolved into a “super anti-hero” bent on revenge, which raises a problem where there did not need to be one, but forces me to lump this title into the superhero category along with the legions of other stories I read that are considered to be part of that genre. This is a real risk, for multiple reasons. One, the idea of a serial killer who goes after serial killers is getting a lot of play right now due to the TV series Dexter. While I am positive this has no relation with this book, if someone watches TV and stumbles onto the book, that’s the first place her mind is going to go. The second problem is the Batman-esque reflection of the revenge motive that now has to be compared. If only the mention of any aspect of a “superhero” was removed from Jane’s description, then people would be less likely to go there. Instead, by including the “super” part of things in the description, it begs the comparison, and risks making readers decide to just go pick up a good issue of Batman instead, without all of the emphasis on an uncomfortable topic like rape.

This leads into the third major problem with putting a “super" label in the mix: women being raped and otherwise abused in comics is a somewhat tired affair already. There are entire websites that mention women being stuffed in refrigerators (thank you Gail Simone, with special mention for Ron Marz). The last few years have seen characters with no need for such abuse revealed retroactively as rape survivors, such as Black Cat, Huntress, Sue Dibny…It is becoming one of the worst clichés in recent history, with increasing leakage over to the male side. Lumping Jane in with them only adds one more character to the tiresome drudge that has become a male writer’s attempt to portray drama and intensity in a comic format. The writer would have found much more advantage to let his work stand alone, separate from any relation to the capes other than the format of his book.

Okay, now for the more minor quibbles, which retentive people like me have to get out of the system, and then I’ll speak to the things that were done right:

1. Jane cries out from the pain of her drug injection, but the curse word is obscured in the classic comic format (not too subtle, though) when you want the audience to know it’s a cuss word, but you don’t want to print the word itself. It happens a couple of times, but then later on a rapist starts cussing with as foul a mouth as you’ve ever heard, so why bother with the cutesy captions up front, if the consistency goes away later? There is no meaning to the mild attempt at censoring bad words early on if you’re just going to throw it out later. The rest of the book is so blunt and brutal, the classic captions are too out of place.

2. When we get to talking about the actual victim of her intentions tonight, we are told he has raped six girls in two months, but the flashbacks of her cab rides go back six weeks and two months, which can confuse the reader. Was she tracking this rapist after his first attack, before it became clear he was a serial attacker? Or were we given a glimpse of her routine as she has hunted down previous perpetrators in the past? (I think his prose is making me lapse into alliteration as I go!)

3. The mangled metaphors start to contradict as, among Jane’s mental musings, she views what she does as getting rid of rats and other vermin. However, all of the setup for her story has her living among the rats, and peacefully co-existing with them. True, they may not be friends exactly, but she actually does NOT go after the rats, implying that the prey she hunts should be lower than even them. It is small things like this that a more careful writer would avoid.

4. The grammar is not 100% perfect, as a reference misplaces a couple apostrophes. The “victim’s of Hotch” should be “victims,” and “Its possible” should be “It’s possible.” (I told you this review would be comprehensive.) Most comics try very hard to get the spelling and grammar 100%. There are mess-ups every month, but for an independent, it is even more important to make every aspect as close to perfection as possible. The mangled metaphors make things difficult enough, but when avid readers are confronted with mistakes like these, the brain stops and jars out of the story, as it figures out how the words should really be.

5. Another small difficulty is following the flow of the panels on a particular page or two. As someone who has read every comic imaginable, from the surrealistic drawings of Steranko and Bill Sienkiewicz, to independent titles with unconventional transitions like Cerebus, to Alan Moore’s final issue of Prometheus, which can be disassembled and re-assembled in more than one way to compose a different reading experience, I know how to read a comic, and good artists tend to give the reader additional help when they go experimental on you, so your eye can track which panel you’re supposed to go to next. Although the lettering is clever, there are a few places where you start to read, then have to backtrack and follow to a different panel to maintain the proper flow of the story. Sometimes being too artsy can backfire, as I know several people who read trades, but are not heavily into comics, and a difficulty in following the transitions can put off potential readers.

The story seems to meander suddenly as the scene shifts to other characters, and we are introduced to a sick and twisted photographer. Jane’s psyche is twisted enough as it is, now we have to try to relate to even more darkness? No sooner are we exposed to that dose of repugnancy than the scene ends up changing to the viewpoint of the disembodied presence of Jane’s latest victim. This jumping around might fit in better with a serialized comic book, but here it starts to wear down a reader. There is no real transition to help the reader move to the next viewpoint, so you’re on your own.

Aspects of the art throughout the story are eye-catching. For example, the detail Hasan presents to show the lengths Jane goes to in order to become presentable are impressive. Every aspect of camouflage and dressiness is used to transform Plain Jane into something of a looker. Visually, it is very striking. The description of her encounter with her current prey, a rapist, is descriptive and brutal and violent; most people would tend to find the description itself repugnant, which is probably a good reaction for a normal person to have.

The verdict? The story content is not for me, personally. My nephew is 18 years old, just barely into the age that someone could handle this content, and he was turned off in the first few pages, readily recognizing that it was not appealing to his interests. The writing is not half bad, although the critique I put forth above does point out the room for improvement. The real standout of this book is the artistic lettering and placement of the text, incorporating it almost as an entire character unto itself into the story. It would be interesting to see what the creator could do with other subjects. As repulsive as some of the images and content are, I had the sense that the writer was not trying to just do whatever he could to shock the reader, but that this was a genuine attempt to explore the darkness, and the impact of such an event on a person.

If you are capable of stomaching brutally frank descriptions of violence and gore, and are willing to explore the dark, unfriendly topics that are depicted in the depressed, emotionally crippled life of Jane, this is worth a look. Hasan puts the graphic in the graphic novel, there’s no doubt about that. I would be tempted to make it required reading for creative teams for the lettering alone. The topics dwell in the abyss of human experience, exposing the reader to the feelings associated with them: disgust, revulsion, pity, depression, and so on. It is a sign of how good the book is that it is able to summon those emotions to the reader; at the same time, for many people those feelings are uncomfortable and might make them put the book down and find something cheerier.

You know when you watch a movie and the villain makes you recoil? That’s good acting. When you realize it, your level of respect for the actor playing the villain goes up a notch, because he managed to make you feel a genuine emotion. The emotions in this book are mostly exploring negative terrain, so only pick it up if you are willing to face those dark places in life.

There you have it. The critique went to very nit-picky items at times, because independent books have to have a thorough “scrubbing.” In the graphic novel format, the vast majority of popular reading is still monopolized by the super hero genre, and to compete, you can’t be just as good as the average cape book out there. You have to compete among the best. So everything gets torn apart and examined. There are a lot of things that show potential and some nice talent in different aspects of the book. If the people involved do a little better job with the packaging, and the creator works on a few of the improvements mentioned above, we could see some knockout products from him in the future. For my personal taste, I just hope they are not all as dark!

Tpull is Travis Pullen. He started reading comics at 5 years old, and he can't seem to stop.