One of the many things Plutona gets right about children is how seriously they take their imaginations. It isn’t as if they don’t know the difference between what’s “real” and what’s not — they just don’t care. If they believe in something enough, especially if “reality” is profoundly uninspiring, it becomes true to them. Perhaps not literally true, but true in the general sense. In this book, some children decide that the blood of a dead superhero can be used as a source of power, that by mixing it with their own blood, they will gain some sort of superpower. They don’t actually literally gain superpower, but the act and the secret built around it helps them to grow in important ways.
Teddy is definitely a believer in the superpower theory, and he’s able to pass that faith on to an impressionable younger boy, Mike. Reinforced by this abiding faith, they both start behaving in new ways, with greater confidence and independence than ever before. The metaphor of burgeoning adolescence is fairly obvious, but Jeff Lemire is too good a writer to hit the nail squarely on the head. As always, in this fourth and penultimate issue, what comes across is the strength of the characterizations. Sketched-in stock characters here would have ruined everything: we’d just consider Teddy and Mike to be “dumb kids”, Ray would be the bully and that would be it. But instead we’re drawn into the complex relationship between Mike and Mie, his sister, or the loneliness of Teddy, or Ray’s classic avoidance behaviour towards his alcoholic father. It’s in those character relationships that Plutona gets is strength, and no superhero blood is required.
Much of the story is told here by subtle face-acting and the meeting of eyes. Consider the relationship between Die and Teddy: Ray jokes about Teddy making the unconventional looking girl the subject of his fantasies. Teddy’s response is to stick up for her, not for himself, because Ray calls her “Chubs”. Later, Die shoots Teddy a look from across the street. There’s no conversation between the two and we only get those brief little moments, but it’s more than enough to suggest that there’s probably a genuine, warm, respectful feeling between these two that, as much as anything else, plays as a pubescent form of love.
Mie is sort of our protagonist-by-default in this issue in that we see much of this story unfolding from her point of view. Structurally, the issue follows the usual pattern of spending a day with the kids: they have meals, go to school, study math and make excuses to their parents to slip out of the house at night. Many scenes feature Mie simply thinking, but usually not about what’s in front of her. She sees Teddy’s injured fingers, and then sees the same sort of injury on her little brother’s fingers. That’s more than enough evidence to suggest that something untoward is going on, but Mie doesn’t figure it out right away, which is a realistic and compelling storytelling device.
Mie’s relationship with Ray is also an inspired choice. Rather than a stock villain bully character, Ray, at least as seen through Mie’s eyes, is not half as dumb as people take him for and in fact we’re able to appreciate his boldness and creativity, and even feel sympathy for him given his family situation. The awful twist at the end of this issue doesn’t work unless we see that Ray has shades of grey. Lemire is smart enough to give us that, and more.
Another thing this book gets right is how modern kids use technology as natural and reflexive extension of their own social persona. It goes without saying that they all have phones and they all constantly text each other. Spend any time at all in the company of people under 20 years old and one quickly notices that, to them, these devices are not escapes but practically bodily organs. Unlike adults, who disappear into their phones in public places to avoid social interaction, these kids use them as they were intended: as communication devices and information sources. Sure, modern kids play lots of video games, too, but in the pages of Plutona, and in the real world, they are simply tools they use to interact with others. This comic is predicated on the notion that all the main characters share a secret, namely the superheroine whose name is in the title. If they had to pass notes or (God forbid) phone each other from the family line, they would probably quickly let the secret leak. But when they’re tied to each other every moment of every day on private devices giving them their own network, away from the prying eyes of their parents, not only is the secret kept but the legend grows in proportion. It’s as if they’re all pooling their imaginations, and that blending makes their ideas powerful.
Finally, Plutona makes the important point in this issue that imagination can only take you so far. The real world intrudes with sudden brutality in the final frames and it seems that for the next, and final issue, the kids will have to make some important, grown-up decisions. From what we’ve seen of them so far, they may very well be ready.