Thursday, September 28, 2023

Leigh Luna's Clementine Fox

Back in 2013, I wrote this of Leigh Luna, who at the time was still an undergrad at the Minneapolis College of Art & Design (MCAD): "Luna seems ready to cut her teeth on a longer character narrative, and a story involving anthropomorphic animals might suit her best." That was after I had read her first minicomic featuring Clementine Fox and her friends, going on an adventure at sea. A decade later, Luna's Clementine Fox And The Great Island Adventure was published by Scholastic, and it's an engagingly dense and complex character narrative aimed at a middle-grade audience. 

Like a lot of middle-grade comics (and especially those from Scholastic), there's definitely a message at work here. Luna says a lot about friendship, trust, and communication in this comic, but the real message is with regard to learning. Young Clementine hates math, is confused by it, and isn't taking at all to the way it's being taught by her. This actually spurs her to make her journey to an island where her aunt lives, stowing away on a giant turtle with her friends that she strong-arms into coming with her. Facing the idea of school as a kind of dead-end prison where roadblocks like this exist only to frustrate her otherwise creative mind is enough to get her to flee. 

Clementine is a wonderfully obnoxious protagonist. She's a creative dreamer & schemer who's pushy and blows by her friends' boundaries on a regular basis, but she is also fiercely loyal and giving. Clementine is the kind of charismatic leader of a group who makes everything into an adventure, even if it's by the seat of her pants. Her friend Nubbins (a squirrel) is the perfect sidekick: equally curious and adventurous but defers to Clementine's plans. Her other close friend Penelope (a rabbit) is cautious and cerebral, and she's occasionally resentful at Clementine's aggressive attitude. She's the perfect foil to Clementine's recklessness, just as Clementine nudges her out of over-cautiousness.  

This push-pull dynamic between Clementine and Penelope fuels the narrative, as Nubbins tells Penelope about going to the dangerous island, and she appears in order to talk them out of it. Instead, she gets peer-pressured into joining them. Assorted hijinks ensue, as everyone's parents find out about the escapade and the friends discover a race of plant-based faeries on the island and inadvertently get the island's stone giant hooked on delicious croissants. Every new plot development is carefully developed, especially when new characters and dynamics are also introduced. Luna's sense of humor and character dynamics are sometimes surprisingly tart, as slights and mean words aren't allowed to pass without some sense of reckoning. Math is a plot point throughout, and Luna slips this in seamlessly as a plot device, including the climax where it becomes crucial. 

The cartooning is sophisticated and beautiful. The character design is unrelentingly cute, which serves to soften some of the harder emotions felt in the book. The crazily detailed and colorful establishing shots (especially on the island)  are absolutely dazzling, but Luna is also adept at grounding the pages with less detail & talking heads with smartly selected pastels. The big action sequences at the end are enhanced with spectacular and complex uses of color and line. Her line weight is perhaps a tad too thin on some of the pages, but the color doesn't overwhelm it. There are just some images that would have had a stronger impact with a thicker line. Overall, this was an extremely satisfying read and one that will resonate with readers who need different kinds of educational approaches to succeed. 

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