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Twins Ashley, left, and Kara Spangler, 14, of York City flip through graphic novels in the Teen Room recently at Martin Library. Graphic novels are becoming more popular reading material for teen girls as publishers target them with niche titles, including the manga magazine Shojo Beat, and DC Comics' new Minx line, which kicked off with "The Plain Janes." (Steve Russ photo)
Popular culture is steeped in images of strong, handsome men with superpowers who wear funny outfits and save the world from mad scientists and alien invaders. Boys imagine themselves with Superman's ability to fly or Batman's cool gadgets.

And girls? Mostly they're the love interests and the damsels in distress.

But DC Comics is challenging the boys-only stigma with a line of graphic novels targeting an often-overlooked audience: teenage girls. The Minx imprint launched this summer with "The Plain Janes," a realistic high school story written by Cecil Castellucci, an award-winning author of young adult fiction.

"I don't think girls have the same type of power fantasies that guys do," said Karen Berger, executive editor of DC Comics. "Their whole makeup is less on the physical power and more on internal wisdom, individuality and assertiveness."

The Minx line will publish about eight books a year, Berger said. Unlike many manga comic lines targeting teens, including DC's own CMX imprint, Minx will feature all original material with no reprints or translations of books popular in other countries.

"We've been watching the impact that manga has had in the market and particularly how it has attracted teenage girls" to the graphic novel format, she said. Minx grew out of a desire to develop "our own line of books that were specifically designed for the American reader."

To that end, DC "cast a wide net in looking for writers and artists for the Minx books," Berger said.

Getting into comics: The chance to pen a graphic novel was a thrill for Castellucci, best known for her young-adult fiction novels "Boy Proof" and "The Queen of Cool."

"It was something that I always kind of thought would be awesome to do ... but I didn't really know how to go about it," she said in a recent interview. Castellucci, 37, had read her brother's comics while growing up and rediscovered the format just a few years ago. As luck would have it, a friend passed on the Minx project and suggested Castellucci instead.

In working on "The Plain Janes," she partnered with artist Jim Rugg to bring the story from words to pictures.

"What I'm doing is a suggestion, and then he really goes crazy with it ... which really is wonderful,    'cause it's sort of
like we're jamming with each other," Castellucci said. "We're both on the same page about how the characters are feeling and where they're going."

The story centers on "Main Jane," a teenager whose family moves from the big city to the dullsville suburbs after she gets caught in a bombing outside a cafe. Jane is dealing with emotional fallout from the bombing, overprotective parents and being the new kid at school. The outcast art geek finds friendship and purpose when she forms P.L.A.I.N. -- People Loving Art in Neighborhoods -- with three other misfit Janes. But their commitment to the guerrilla art project is tested when it raises terrorism concerns in a security-conscious society.

Although the theme resonates in a post-9/11 world, Castellucci didn't set out to make a statement about the 2001 attacks. Her aim is broader.

"I was in an IRA bombing when I was younger," she said. "I was scared, I was young, and I was in a bombing, and I'm an author and I want to talk about these kinds of fears and things."

The fear is the same, she said, even when the threats change, and people are "trying to make sense of a mad world and trying to find beauty in it."

Expanding the audience: If "The Plain Janes" were a traditional superhero comic book, the bombing might be the catalyst for Jane's transformation into a masked avenger or unleash radiation that gives her special powers to make her more than human.

But Minx "looks like they're trying to break away from the capes-and-tights crowd," said Maggie Ahrens, who purchases graphic novels for Martin Library in York City. "The thing people need to remember about graphic novels is that they're a format and not a genre."

Although superheroes might be the most familiar face of comic books in popular culture, the combination of words and pictures isn't limited to those stories. In recent years, publishers have broadened their reach with graphic novels that shy away from superheroes, trying to tempt tween and teen girls with familiar names like Nancy Drew and comics based on the popular novel series "The Baby-Sitters Club." Even DC's main rival, Marvel Comics, has a girl-friendly twist on superhero stories with "Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane."

The growth in readership and niche markets for graphic novels has been "explosive," Ahrens said. "Once people realize we have these graphic novels, we get swarmed."

The library system has added nearly 200 graphic novels to its collection so far this year, bringing the total to more than 1,100 copies split among 685 different titles. This year alone, the 1,156 copies already have been checked out nearly 3,500 times. Titles are split into three groups -- adult, teen and children's -- and shelved separately near other age-appropriate books.

"They're so thin, they're easy to miss," Ahrens said. "We found people were just zipping over" graphic novels when they were mixed in with other formats. But if perusing the shelves doesn't turn up a title patrons are seeking, she said they can always fill out an online request form. "Unless it's so obscure that it'll never go out again, we'll probably get it for you."

The library's graphic novel collection is one of its most popular, and funding has increased in recent years.

"We are constantly adding, because they are in the top three of turnover at the library," Ahrens said. "We can't keep 'em on the shelf, which is how we like it."

-- Reach entertainment editor Mel Barber at 854-1575 ext. 458 or mbarber@yorkdispatch.com.

The Minx line
DC Comics' Minx line targeting teen girls rolled out in May. Three books are available now:

--- "The Plain Janes" by Cecil Castellucci and Jim Rugg. After getting caught in a bombing, Jane moves with her family to the suburbs and learns to deal with the fallout.

--- "Re-Gifters" by Mike Carey, Sonny Liew and Marc Hempel. Hapkido star Dixie lets a surfer boy distract her during her drive to a championship title.

--- "Clubbing" by Andi Watson and Josh Howard. London party girl Lottie finds mystery and romance during a summer in the countryside.

Tips for finding good reads
Maggie Ahrens, Martin Library's graphic novel book buyer, has some advice for parents looking for suitable comics for their teens and tweens -- or even for themselves.

--- Take a look at graphic novels again. Adults might base their opinions on the comics popular when they were young, but "it's a whole new world with new opportunities," Ahrens said.

--- Comics aren't just for kids. Graphic novels come in plenty of genres for a variety of ages. "Don't make assumptions," Ahrens said. "Just because it's a cartoon doesn't mean it's OK for the kids."

--- Ask for help. Large retailers carry some popular titles, but smaller comic shops can have a wider variety and recommend specific titles to suit readers' needs. For the library's collection, Ahrens gets some books through the local shop Comic Store West, 2111 Industrial Highway. "They're the lifeguards, and they'll keep you from drowning in bad stuff," she said.

Further reading
Maggie Ahrens, Martin Library's graphic novel book buyer, has some recommendations for tween and teen girls who are ready to give comics a try. These books aren't "instant classics," she said, but fun stories for "recreational reading." Here's what she suggests:
16 AND UP
--- "Sparks: An Urban Fairytale," by Lawrence Marvit. A fantastic story of a young woman who works as a mechanic by day, and who has built her "knight in shining armor" from scraps.

--- "Wonder Woman: The Hiketeia," by Greg Rucka. Even if you're not a fan of capes and tights, this is a fantastic read. Blurring the lines between what is justice and what is vengeance, this tale deals more with people and circumstance than superpowers.

--- "Ghost World," by Daniel Clowes. Two girls -- best friends -- have graduated from high school. Much angst, life, romance and growth ensue.
MOST TEENS
---"Marmalade Boy," by Wataru Yoshizumi. Despite the weirdness of the dynamics -- the housing and parent issues go beyond bizarre -- this "crush on your stepbrother" book is funny, sweet and amusing.

--- "Mary Jane: Circle of Friends," by Sean McKeever. Well before she met Peter Parker, Mary Jane had her own life. Nicely done, and really involving.

--- "Castle Waiting," by Linda Medley. For those who like "Ella Enchanted," or who cheered for Fiona in "Shrek," this one's for you. The Eisner Award-winning series is for smart strong women who don't need Charming to rescue them.
13 AND UNDER
--- "Nancy Drew," adapted by Stefan Petrucha. You won't recognize Nancy; she and Bess are thoroughly modern. The girls are still solving crimes, but harnessing the power of technology.

--- "To Dance: A Ballerina's Graphic Novel," by Siena Cherson Siegel. Just as it sounds.