It’s highly likely that you have never heard – or, if you have, only recently heard – of The Lunch Witch, but that’s a crying shame. The hideously beautiful offspring of artist and children’s book author Deb Lucke, the first Lunch Witch blew me away with its incredible art style and sincere, but never maudlin, character moments. Though I’m hardly a connoisseur of the genre, it’s definitely the best children’s/YA graphic novel I’ve read in a long time, so it’s perhaps no surprise that I’ve been awaiting the sequel for months and, now, it’s finally here.
Knee-Deep in Niceness returns us to the world of Grunhilda the Black Heart, the witch turned lunch lady, some time after her last adventure. Though all’s well that ends well, Grunhilda is still harboring a – literal – soft spot for Madison, the young girl at the center of the first book, and this sets off a series of events that ends with all of Salem magically forced to be happy and Grunhilda forced to track down her familiars to put things right. As before, the situation is complicated by Grunhilda’s sinister ancestors, who return from their graves beneath her house to ensure that she never stray from the witch’s way of unapologetic evil.
A lot of the same ideas from the first Lunch Witch are at play again, but, especially for an episodic young reader adventure, the focus on different elements of the premise keeps it feeling fresh. I admit that there’s not a lot of lunch lady-ing in this one and that seems a waste. In fact, my biggest problem with this story is that the plot isn’t all that gripping from a bird’s eye perspective. The structure of the story is a little repetitive and it isn’t as polished as its predecessor. It feels much more in the tradition of old serial stories and, for any deviances from traditional story structure, the energy of the constantly diverging and recombining plot threads is infectious.
One of the greatest strengths of the Lunch Witch series and Knee-Deep in Niceness is its willingness to be honestly sharp and subversive. This is a book that is entirely appropriate to hand to an elementary or middle schooler but that utterly lacks that numb, disinfected feeling that so often plagues children’s media. From the stained look of the pages to jokes that never speaks down to the reader, The Lunch Witch appeals to me as an adult as much as I imagine it would have when I was a kid. And it’s not just gross out humor either. You could easily write off cracks about standardized testing or the folly of ‘positive thinking’ as appeals to adults but not only does that underestimate the graphic novel format’s ability to encourage self-sufficiency but the writing’s willingness to trust a child reader.
Knee-Deep in Niceness manages to at least pay respect to most of what made the first installment so enjoyable, but what it best brings to the table is the sense of stakes. Particularly as the story goes on there’s a legitimate feeling of worry and escalation, one which is rather impressive for a story that holds so fast to its inherent silliness.
The art is superb. Though the colors are used sparingly, Lucke creates a world that’s easy to get comfortable in and instantly communicates the tone of the story. Faux stains in the gutters and sketchy lines that only observe the panel boarders’ authority when they feel like it give the book a personality that can’t be beat.
Knee-Deep leans into the value of its imperfections, creating a coarse, extra-detailed take on the style as well. Though I waffle on whether I find it a change in line with the vibe of the series or an amusing weakening of the series’ look, it obviously has a striking appearance. I find it weakest when the line weight grows heavier and strongest when depicting hair or fur. While this is perhaps one of the most noticeable additions to the art, there are a slew of clever tricks that return, or feel like they must be returning, from Lunch Witch #1. Wispy mists too soft for the rest of the art give magic an otherworldly quality while tactical blasts of color and wild motion lines convey the madcap enthusiasm of the book. One of my favorite panels combines bulging eyes and extreme perspective with strong motion, clever dialogue balloons, and some of the boldest, flattest color in the story to really sell one of the most resonant moments of the script.
- While pretending that The Lunch Witch is a deep and serious meditation on almost anything kind of misses the point, I have always loved the role that Grunhilda’s Ancestors play in these stories. Basically there is one rule to Grunhilda’s magic, it is NOT to be used for good. But Grunhilda never fit in as a witch. It’s not that she’s a nice person, per say, she just sees the world differently, with more curiosity and a mite of empathy. However, dead though they may be, Grunhilda lives in constant threat of retaliation from her own ancestors if she ever does anything to prioritize her own feelings over their tradition and, in this, I find a surprisingly potent metaphor for life, prejudice, and the failings of and opposition to modern social justice. I absolutely adore that this volume gives Grunhilda a moment of not just escape but triumph over the Ancestors. It feels like it was barely conscious, at least at first, and, if that changed, Lucke wisely didn’t beat us over the head with the implications, but it’s such a wonderful element of these stories that I felt remiss in leaving it out of my review entirely.
Though I find it a different and slightly lesser reading experience than its predecessor, this second Lunch Witch graphic novel affirms the strength and staying power of this idea and this series. Grunhilda’s saga of betrayal and self reflection is told clearly but without harping on morals or capital-T ‘Themes’, opting instead for relatable and seriously fun storytelling.
A tale in the tradition of Jon Scieszka or Hendrik Drescher, The Lunch Witch: Knee-Deep in Niceness brings a welcome edge to kid’s comics. In art and storytelling, Lucke is clearly still in touch with the child she was and that incredible, slightly manic energy infuses the book, producing a comic that children, parents, and even we single weirdos will thoroughly enjoy.