Review: ‘The Okay Witch’
The Okay Witch
Writer/Artist: Emma Steinkellner
Simon & Schuster
I can’t be sure if our pop culture’s tendency to identify witches by their morality or quality—think L. Frank Baum’s The Wicked Witch of the West and Glinda The Good Witch, Jill Murphy’s The Worst Witch, Hallmark Channel’s The Good Witch series—inspired the title of Emma Steinkellner’s debut graphic novel The Okay Witch or not. But “okay” certainly seems to be the sort of adjective a 13-year-old witch might assign herself, evoking as the word does a level of insecurity and uncertainty common in pre-teens.
Moth Hush, Steinkellner’s protagonist, has a lot more to be uncertain about than the average junior high schooler. Raised by a single mother above their second-hand shop in the small Massachusetts town of Founder’s Bluff, Moth always felt unusual and out-of-place, and on a particularly eventful Halloween Day, she lives out the common childhood fantasy of learning that she’s not who she always thought she was, but that she’s actually special and magical. See, Moth experienced her “first magic,” when she accidentally made her thoughts manifest, freaked out, and, upon returning home, learned from mother that she’s actually a magic-powered witch. As is her mother.
While that might at first seem like a dream come true—there’s a neat sequence wherein Moth’s mom says she kept knowledge of her magical lineage from her so as not to scare her, and Moth dramatically gestures around her room, decorated with posters of faux Sailor Moon and Sabrina The Teenage Witch-like TV shows and containing a bookshelf full of a Harry Potter-like fantasy series—Moth and the readers find out it’s much more complicated than having secret super-powers.
Moth’s mother was born in 1676, and is about as old as Founder’s Bluff itself, but she rebelled against her own mother and rejected the life of a witch, deciding instead to live as a human being in the human world. Moth’s grandmother, however, was a powerful witch who, after repeated clashes with Founder’s Bluff founder Judge Nathaniel Kramer, decided to take her people to a different, timeless land they called Hecate, where they could live out and proud as witches, free of the persecution of the Kramers and their ilk in the mortal world.
Moth, then, finds herself forced to navigate her dawning powers in a New England town obsessed with its own highly ahistorical pilgrim vs. witches origin story—to the extent that she’s handling costumes for the annual Founder’s Bluff Witch Hunt pageant—while being asked by her mother to forget about magic and their family’s fantastical, otherworldly history, and asked by her grandmother to forsake the broken, mundane world to join her in the witch’s paradise of Hecate. Whew!
There’s also a talking black cat suggestive of Sabrina’s sidekick/familiar Salem, a new boy in school that shares a similar outsider status and some unexpected secrets and unwelcome encounters with the modern-day descendants of Judge Kramer, who have secretly kept up the family witch-persecuting business.
It’s quite a lot of story for such a relatively small package—about 270 pages broken into 15 chapters—and Steinkellner reveals it at a quite quick clip, seemingly unworried about holding anything back for potential sequels. It also helps that Steinkellner avails herself of shortcuts whenever possible, of the sort evidenced in the previously mentioned scene where Moth’s consumption of witch and wizard pop culture has so prepared her for this sort of narrative that it takes little more than a “By the way, we’re witches” for her to process what that means and move on to the questions and challenges that fact raises, rather than get stuck on the fact that magic is real.
Steinkellner alludes to various tough topics without dwelling on them, particularly race and violence. In the case of the former, the dark-skinned, amber-eyed Moth gets teased by a couple of boys at school for various reasons, including her family’s place of origin. “And where are you from, Moth?” one asks her in class, and when she says “I’m from here,” he presses, “But where are you FROM from?”
Moth’s grandmother, the notorious Fire-Eye Witch of the Witch Hunt story, originally hailed from an island off the coast of 17th century France, although she repeatedly mentions being different from the other witches and facing pressure because of it, presumably because of the color of her skin.
Like the witch-hunting being presented more as a chase than the real-life witch trials and executions of American and European history, there’s a sort of careful, soft touch applied to the harsher subjects. They’re there, but not presented in such a way that might traumatize young readers.
Steinkellner’s care may be a result of her writing for such a young audience—the fine print suggests this book for readers ages 8 to 12—or it may simply be a matter of tone. Despite some serious parts, particularly regarding Moth’s conflicts of where in the world/s she belongs and an intense battle with angry ghosts at the climax, The Okay Witch is essentially a comedy. Most of its most effective jokes are character-based, stemming organically from the clash between the various characters’ personalities and their differing desires and opinions, as opposed to being centered on characters that are quite easy to imagine being relegated to comic relief status elsewhere (remember, there’s a talking cat involved).
That tone is immediately apparent in Steinkellner’s artwork. Her character designs suggest nothing so much as the human beings that appear in modern big budget, computer-animated films from Pixar, Disney and their ilk: Big expressions, lots of soft, round shapes and the two main body types consisting of exaggeratedly thin, long-limbed adolescents or especially squat and round grown-ups. Steinkellner is particularly strong with facial expressions, and one could remove the dialogue from just about any page of the proceedings, and it would still be abundantly clear what the characters were feeling or thinking.
They are, in a word, cartoony, which suits the cartoon-nature of the book’s approach to American history, seriocomic-but-mostly comic tone, and the highly animated pacing of the story.
Although Moth talks a lot about what she wants to do in the future at the end of the book, and several other characters express a desire or need to change going forward, The Okay Witch is so thoroughly, completely told that a sequel seems more superfluous than it does necessary. Because of that, I don’t really expect a second Okay Witch book from Steinkellner, but, given the quality of this book, the cartoonists’ first as both writer and artist, I’m definitely looking forward to a second Steinkellner graphic novel.
About J. Caleb Mozzocco
J. Caleb Mozzocco is a way-too-busy freelance writer who has written about comics for online and print venues for a rather long time now. He currently contributes to Comic Book Resources' Robot 6 blog and ComicsAlliance, and maintains his own daily-ish blog at EveryDayIsLikeWednesday.blogspot.com. He lives in northeast Ohio, where he works as a circulation clerk at a public library by day.
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