Jane by Aline Brosh McKenna

Jane is a new graphic novel that retells the story of Jane Eyre in a modern setting. The story itself gets a little wacky in places, but the art elevates it into something special. If you haven’t read Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, then this comic will work for you as a solid Cinderella/billionaire romance. As homage to Jane Eyre, it’s uneven.

In Jane, Jane is an orphaned art student who moves to New York City. Her scholarship is dependent on her having a job, so she becomes the nanny of a rich, lonely kid named Adele. Adele’s mom, Rochester’s first wife Isabel, is dead. Adele’s father, Rochester, is seldom home. There’s a lurking housekeeper named Magda, and a door that Jane is forbidden to touch. Adele has had a lot of nannies, because they always get creeped out and leave. As Jane puts it to her roommate:

Clearly, Rochester is the worst father in the world. Then the apartment. No way it could be creepier. Locked doors, a strange man wandering in, all these portraits of the dead wife…the whole thing overseen by Magda the Crypt-Keeper. I’m telling you, something weird is happening in that apartment.

Jane considers quitting several times but can’t bring herself to leave Adele, with whom she identifies (because they are both orphans or, in Adele’s case, half-orphaned). Eventually, Jane falls in love with Rochester, who is brooding and cantankerous. So far, this plot is pretty much a perfect parallel to Jane Eyre, but from this point it slides off the rails into soapy territory (it does recover, though, with a lovely ending).

SPOILERS AHEAD

SERIOUSLY A LOT OF SPOILERS

I WILL HIDE MAJOR ONES BUT IF YOU KEEP READING YOU’LL LEARN MANY THINGS

Jane breaks up with Rochester when she discovers that

Show Spoiler
his supposedly dead wife (Isabel) is actually on life support in the upper floor of the building. Rochester is guilt-stricken because Isabel took a bullet for him (there’s a whole plot-against-Rochester conspiracy thing), and he keeps hoping doctors will be able to save her after all. He keeps her existence a secret both for Isabel’s safety and to protect Adele from potential disappointment since it’s very unlikely that Isabel will ever recover.

Anyway, everyone ends up on an island for Reasons, and Mason, Rochester’s brother-in-law, tries to kill Rochester and there’s a fire and Rochester and Mason are so busy fighting each other (dudes, what can you do, amirite) that Jane has to try to rescue poor unconscious Isabel, which sadly does not work. Jane goes her way, the now-widowed Rochester goes his, and they reunite romantically at Jane’s first art gallery showing.

So.

Various changes are both liberating and problematic. For instance, the reveal of Isabel as an innocent victim of a plot mitigates some of the slut shaming and racism of the original, but it also turns Isabel into a literal object, remembered only in the most idealized terms. In the original Jane Eyre, Rochester has a mad wife named Bertha in his attic. Bertha’s character is problematic as all heck but at least Bertha got to have a personality, and express certain desires of her own. Poor Isabel is a most egregious example of fridging. She is remembered as beautiful, perfect, and utterly without any personality.

A page from Jane showing her first subway rideHaving Jane attempt to save Isabel instead of having Rochester try to save her (he is injured trying to save Bertha in the original novel) is interesting because it sets up a dynamic in which the women are not pitted against each other. On the other hand, Rochester trying to save Bertha is supposed to be part of his redemption. In this version, he’s a blank. His charm and magnetism don’t come through, and neither does his repentance for lying through his teeth all the time.

Jane’s roommate is gay and Latino and thankfully he not sassy, although he is a loyal sidekick. This just made me long for an m/m and a f/f Jane Eyre. Jane is aided by a Black bodyguard, which made me edgy because in the original Jane Eyre, Rochester has a very protective black dog named Pilot. The bodyguard’s name in Jane is named Ben, so it’s not an exact parallel, but it makes me uncomfortable that there is only one male character who is obviously Black (I read Rochester as being multi-ethnic) and he’s a stand in or parallel for a dog. Ben is a fine character on his own (and, for that matter, so is Pilot), so if you don’t know that little bit of trivia it’s not an issue – but I do know that bit of trivia and now so do you.

While the plot is uneven, the art is uniformly stunning. The book is illustrated by Ramon K. Perez and colored by Perez and Irma Kniivila. The fine ink drawings are reminiscent of old romance comics, while the water-colored panels are soft and romantic. In every panel, the presence or absence of color, and the tone of that color, helps tell the story. During the time that Jane is being raised by neglectful relatives, the art is completely black and white, unless Jane is thinking of her parents who died at sea, in which case there are glimpses of blue-gray. There’s a particularly stunning sequence in which Jane climbs her apartment stairs for the first time, with more color on every stair until when she opens the door it’s full color happiness. Plotwise, this book is a C+, but the art elevates it to a B-.

I adore the art in this book and will go back to it many times. I liked some of the story and disliked some of the story. I do think that this book captured the most important qualities of the character of Jane. She has a strong sense of self before she meets Rochester, she hangs onto that sense of self, and she finds professional and personal happiness before she and Rochester have their own HEA. However, I wanted Rochester to be a more fleshed-out character. He comes across as more of a billionaire fantasy than an actual person, and that weakens the story which in other respects features well-developed characters and a plausibly updated story.

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