Review | Emma Steinkellner’s ‘The Okay Witch’

Graphic Novel Explores Being the “Other”

In her solo debut as a graphic novelist, Emma Steinkellner tells the story of three generations of American witches from the point of view of the youngest one, Moth Hush. Aimed at readers in their early teens, her book revels in the scope and range of effects available to contemporary graphic artists while downplaying the demonic side of witchcraft in favor of a more hopeful, feminist view. Thanks to Steinkellner’s crafty focus on the emotional magic of intergenerational empathy, The Okay Witch explores what it means to be perceived as the “other” by history in a way that teens are likely to enjoy. Older readers will appreciate the story’s steady control of its cultural context. Without ever calling attention to itself, a scholar’s knowledge of American history loads this work with sturdy and subtle reflections, and not just of what happened in Salem or to the religious nonconformist Anne Hutchinson, but also of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire. There’s even a cat who talks like he came straight from the Catskills.  

The compositions throughout are first-rate. The liminal land of Hecate, where Moth’s grandmother reigns over a timeless domain of relative safety, shares some of the design features one sees in Little Nemo’s Slumberland. Advancing her story through a constantly shifting jigsaw puzzle of rhythmically appealing page layouts, Steinkellner solves problem after problem with intense visual improvisations. The bravura technique comes to support and, in a way, stand for the kinds of improvised solutions that Moth, her mom, and her friends must adopt in order to meet the challenges posed by living in a world that’s never been welcoming to witches.

Startling overlays, full-page cutouts, and stylized coloring schemes all serve to emphasize the existence of alternative worlds beyond the normative present. Yet the closeness of the mother-daughter connection and the relatability of Moth’s concerns render even the story’s most fantastic episodes as intimate events occurring within the experience of a consistently believable young woman. As Moth learns through her coming-of-age story, sometimes good enough is actually better than great or awesome, and the best kind of witch to be might be an okay witch.

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