State of the Art: Emi Lenox Grounds the Fantastic with Clarity and Emotion in Plutona

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With a history of putting fantastical spins on the banal and mundane, Emi Lenox is the perfect artist to illustrate the new Image series Plutona. The comic, written by Jeff Lemire (Descender), focuses on a group of kids living their lives in a world where superheroes are an accepted part of everyday life. Lenox describes her working relationship with Lemire as “flawless,” beginning with a mutual agreement on the stories before they’re scripted. That synchronous process comes through in the confident, assured storytelling of Plutona’s first chapter, which released early this week.

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Lenox draws in an understated style with a thin line, emphasizing clarity and compelling acting. Most famous for her slice-of-life series Emi Town, her body of work falls in the vein of independent comics that sit just outside the stereotypically “indie” tradition. Her art is meticulous with precise line work, though Lenox surprisingly describes her uninked pencils as “sloppy.”

Her compositions in Plutona alternate between close-ups and mid-range shots, and the panels themselves never seem too busy or flat. Even the introduction to lead Mie—in one of the issue’s rare close-ups—maintains gracious space around her, keeping the image and scene from feeling claustrophobic. This comfortable roominess recurs throughout the issue, as if it were a motif. The resulting clarity and accessibility open up Plutona to the most inexperienced reader. Lenox also leaves plenty of space for Steve Wands’ lettering, inelaborate and unobtrusive.

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Plutona #1 Interior Art by Emi Lenox

“I can’t imagine that I’ve made it easy for him,” Lenox says, though this is hard to fathom when considering how navigable her panels are. The resulting issue is understated and packed with beginnings—it is a first chapter, after all—but Lenox handles the story’s suburban mundanity with verve.

The most compelling facet of Lenox’s cartooning, though, is her confident “acting”—the ability to render a wide and subtle range of emotions through facial expressions and body language. The series’ cast is a group of children—more precocious and emotionally complex than they’re given credit. This introduction brims over with moments of pettiness, jealousy and obfuscation.

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Plutona Sketch by Emi Lenox

“The characters really revealed themselves through Jeff’s scripts and dialogue,” Lenox notes.

She packs her panels with slight peeks at characters’ interiority. Diana, a young blonde girl no older than 14, lends her new custom jacket to Mie, but she’s unable to ask for it back because she’s scared of coming off as uncool; Lenox draws Diana with pursed lips, narrow eyes, arched brows—a hesitant desire to reclaim her precious jacket that she only just holds back. The sequence is brief—only two panels—but Lenox instills an inordinate amount of emotion and expression into infinitely subtle facial expressions. These details go a long way toward selling the tumultuous thought processes of the series’ adolescent characters, and it does so quickly.

In the average superhero comic, these kinds of subtleties can be steamrolled by a tradition that emphasizes the extremism of status quo conservatism and violent resolutions. In this first issue, the super heroics barely infringe on these kids’ lives, and, bucking the trend, Lenox renders the titular superheroine, Plutona, with vulnerability.

SPOILER ALERT

When the kids find her body, it appears limp and disheveled—not gored or mauled; the life drained from her frame and her extremities hung at awkward angles. In keeping with the ethos of the rest of the issue, the reveal is gloriously understated. Lenox substitutes the superhero staples with a quiet tenderness; a “How could this happen?” instead of an “Oh god!”

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Plutona Sketch by Emi Lenox

Part and parcel of the rich texture of Lenox’s finished Plutona art are Jordie Bellaire’s soft colors. Lenox says that she leaves most of the coloring decisions up to Bellaire, describing the “mood” colors as “the icing on the cake!” Bellaire’s purple and burnt skies recall the stylized neon landscapes of Michael Mann’s Miami Vice, and the distinct colors give the book a heightened, stylized sense of reality. The orange-red of a hat or the complex subtleties of Mie’s skin or Diana’s hair showcase Bellaire’s eye for the complex color range of life. Her coloring proves a stunning complement to Lenox’s line work, and Bellaire brings the series’ solemn moments to their dramatic zeniths with muted, somber hues. Her use of purples, blues and blacks in the issue’s final pages creates an atmosphere of drama, of dread—like the music swells in a tragic film.

Plutona ultimately stands out amongst the sameness of mainstream superhero comics and presents more than just the sum of its parts. Read holistically, each image shows the skilled interplay between Lenox’s compositional choices, her acting decisions and the clarity of her line. Bellaire’s colors and Steve Wands’ lettering are the bow on top, added just that little oomph to the neatly wrapped package.