From Descender, we know that Jeff Lemire can be a very skilled science fiction storyteller, a genre quite far removed from his realist roots in books like Essex County. With his uncanny ability to adopt many points of view, particularly those of child characters (robot or otherwise), his style has always been reminiscent of early Spielberg. In Plutona, this connection is even more apparent, as Lemire magically conjures the spirit of ET in his depiction of quasi-remote suburban childhood, interrupted by a strange and magical visitor. Right from the first two-page splash of art by Emi Lenox, a classic Spielbergian establishing shot of rolling, wooded hills, literally and metaphorically connecting the strange visitor to the lives of local children, the tone is simultaneously knowing, gentle and tense. And just as it seems like the book will make the common comics mistake of trying to be too cinematic, Lemire and his collaborators pull a twist that celebrates the unique storytelling possibilities of our favourite medium. It’s a very strong start to what will hopefully be a great series.
One way to tell whether a writer understands children is to listen to their dialogue. People who actually remember what it was like to be a pre-teen know that they don’t talk in “aw shucks, let’s go catch a fish” Huck Finn-speak. It’s surprising, considering that we were all once that age, how many adults quickly forget and romanticize those years. “When I was a kid, we didn’t talk like that,” is a common child-directed critique. Smart writers like Lemire, however, know how wrong that notion is, and thus their child characters’ dialogue rings true. They don’t talk like “children”, they talk like real people, and actually quite a bit like adults. Their social interactions are also a microcosm of the larger adult world, with petty rivalries, jealousies, put-downs and loyalty. And very little romanticism – by which we mean, they don’t spend their time gazing brightly at the world saying, “wow!” like a “child character”, but instead recognize, and grudgingly accept, the many restrictions on their life imposed from without. They’re always aware of what they can’t do, and where the real power lies. For example, in an early scene, an older sister tells her younger brother that if her friend comes over that night to study, he has to stay in his room. Rather than this being an enormous power struggle or a big dramatic moment, the younger brother simply says, “‘Kay,” and continues playing his handheld video game. In the very next scene, a boy literally calls a chubby girl “Chubs,” and again, this isn’t played as a gigantic tragedy necessitating therapy and gnashing of teeth. The girl simply retorts, “Fuck off, Ray,” and keeps walking. That’s how a real kid would react. None of these observations would be particularly interesting if this portrayal weren’t so rare, in any medium. It’s incredibly refreshing to see real human dynamics in any piece of narrative art.
Since this is the first issue, the plot isn’t particularly fast-paced and doesn’t cover a lot of ground. In fact, this story takes place over the course of a single day, where our main characters wake up, walk to school, spend the day there (Lemire employs a wonderful snapshot shorthand for that montage) and get distracted with an adventure in the woods on the way home. It’s in the afore-mentioned woods that they meet the stranger that will upend their lives, just like in ET.
The other, somewhat parallel story here is of the title character, Plutona. It’s difficult to tell this early on how all the pieces fit together, but in essence, Plutona is a superhero, and a fairly conventional one. She’s a struggling mom by day and a cape-wearing crime-fighter by night. One gets the sense that Lemire knows exactly how cliched that whole situation is, particularly in comics, and gives Plutona her own four-page comic at the end of the main story, complete with bar code, a price of 75 cents (straight out of 1986 – the pivotal year in comics history) and a deliciously old-school Comics Code Authority stamp. Plutona herself has only a cameo appearance in the story told from the children’s perspective, but the ending suggests that she will play a larger role as the series continues. She is a well-known character in the child’s world, and one of the characters is actually a bit of a Plutona “fan”, following and tracking her exploits in the news. But an actual Plutona “sighting” in the suburbs is rare, as comic superhero convention dictates. Like most of the classic superheroes, Plutona lives and works in a city, a dense urban environment. The city is seen briefly by the children, but only through the forest and through binoculars. It’s clearly not “their world”. Which, of course, makes Pluntona all the more exotic and exciting.
The real treasure in this first issue, and hopefully as Plutona goes on, is Lemire’s handling of the main child characters. They’re a great group, as familiar and diverse as the Goonies, and just as much fun.