This article was originally published at ComicBook.Com on August 17, 2015.
I’m not going to bury the lede. You should check out Plutona #1, even if it’s just so you know who Emi Lenox is, because she is the breakout North American comics artist of 2015. Seriously, she’s really good.
Plutona is a five-part mini-series created by Lenox and Jeff Lemire that combines Stand By Me and Powers for an elevator pitch. It features five neighborhood kids, without very much in common, who discover the body of one of their world’s greatest superheroes in the woods. While superheroes exist in this comic, it’s definitely not a superhero book. Instead, they provide a bit of fantastic flavor to what is really a story about childhood. The titular character (read: dead body) doesn’t even arrive until the final page. But that’s not really a spoiler, because this comic is all about character.
That’s where Lenox shines. In a comic that features one of the most popular, flashiest genres in American pop culture today, she draws your focus and concern to the mundane and human. Who needs laser vision and freeze breath when you have five characters who live and breathe in every panel they occupy? The manner in which she summons Teddy, Diane, Mei, Mike, and Ray to life makes Plutona #1 one of my favorite debut issues of 2015.
The opening sequence of the book beautifully juxtaposes these five characters against the adventure promised in the premise. On the very first page, Plutona’s body is shown lying battered and broken in the woods in a series of close ups. Small details like a foot pointing in the wrong direction, or a single fly resting on her forehead, make the page feel disconcerting. The stillness of each moment, along with a pallid color scheme make it clear this person is dead. It acts as a brief prologue, a promise of what will inevitably affect the living in Plutona.
That beginning comes in the most obvious of starts, as a sunrise is presented in a spread. It washes across the small town and massive forest, which holds the secret at the heart of this story. There is a contrast to the darkness of the previous page as the imagery is lifted far above the forest floor. Jordie Bellaire colors the sky in light blues and lilacs that roam the atmosphere, realizing the potential of a fresh day, as do each of the characters in the four pages to follow.
Each of the following pages opens with a close-up on one of the children and an introduction to their lives. These are one-page plays, making the personality and circumstances of each character clear through a few concise choices. The placement of parents, or lack thereof, reveals the freedom these children experience and where they are coming from. Their attitudes toward minor morning struggles help readers connect or, at least, sympathize with who they are. It’s small stuff, like the frustration at babysitting a younger sibling or taking care of a new puppy, that makes these scenes connect.
Those opening seven pages and their succinct structure build the world of Plutona incredibly well. The hook of the plot is clearly set, the setting is established, and the characters have all been clearly established. Clear presentation and an awareness of what is most important to the story makes these opening pages irresistible, an example of excellent comics craftsmanship. Sometimes it takes creators an entire arc to really connect with readers, but Lenox and Lemire have accomplished the feat by page 8.
Watching all five of these children act on the page is a joy. Every encounter and interaction is dense with information. Facial expressions and body language is purposefully poised in each panel. Even when characters are not at the forefront of a situation, they are responding to it in the background. This level of focus allows readers to quickly form impressions and an understanding of the cast. They’re consistent visual characterization makes them breathe on the page. Consistent, subtle cues like downward glances and avoiding eye contact (Diane) or quick shifts in expression and tight lips (Ray) make the subtext in these “performances” clear and more easily understood.
Lenox provides a lot of information without making these characters act, respond, or think though. The fashion found amongst children is diverse and reflective both of personal abilities and life circumstances. Diane’s makeup and outfit reveal her to be a careful, meticulous person who puts great care into herself. Ray, on the other hand, evidences the opposite effect with hair and clothes that both look like they haven’t been washed in a couple of days. Given their age, this not only provides clues about their personalities, but the homes they come from as well.
Lemire has shown a knack for presenting children realistically in the past in comics like Essex County and Sweet Tooth, and continues to do so here. There is nothing infantile or diminutive about how these five interact with one another. Instead, they feel like real people aware of their world, but lacking in experience and sometimes empathy. He effects the minor cruelties of childhood in a way that is both saddening and sympathetic. The juvenile manner in which Ray lashes out at others reveals a great deal about himself. Mei’s use of and attitude towards Diane’s hand-crafted jacket feels saddening because of how realistically it connects with the smallest injustices and dismissals we all experience as children.
Plutona is a comic about childhood. The inclusion of superheroes feels like garnishment in the first issue, saved for a page of prologue and final reveal. The heart of this one issue is the five children at its core. Lenox and Lemire put all of their efforts into bringing them to life on the page, and the results speak for themselves. In these five children, both of the world and in many way innocent of it, it is possible to see reflections of the people we once were and wished to be. They all live on the crucial moment before adolescence when every choice could mean the world and the world could mean anything. The stakes of Plutona are high, not just because they reflect the perspective of children, but because the potential found within each of them feels truly limitless, if only for this one moment.
You can pick up Plutona #1 in comic stores and on Comixology on September 2, 2015. Also be sure to check out the exclusive ComicBook.Com interview with Lenox and Lemire from the books Image Expo announcement here.