Graphic Novel Review: Mooncakes, by Suzanne Walker & Wendy Xu
by Brittany B. | 10/07/2020
Mooncakes, by Suzanne Walker & Wendy Xu is a magical graphic novel that will cast a spell over your heart. This self-contained story follows a diverse cast of characters and pulls the reader right into the magical setting. Walker & Xu have crafted a touching story that weaves magic into the modern realm through the tale of a capable hard of hearing witch, a non-binary werewolf learning their own innate magics, a science minded best friend, and delightfully supportive and queer grandmas:
A story of love and demons, family and witchcraft. Nova Huang knows more about magic than your average teen witch. She works at her grandmothers’ bookshop, where she helps them loan out spell books and investigate any supernatural occurrences in their New England town. One fateful night, she follows reports of a white wolf into the woods, and she comes across the unexpected: her childhood crush, Tam Lang, battling a horse demon in the woods. As a werewolf, Tam has been wandering from place to place for years, unable to call any town home. Pursued by dark forces eager to claim the magic of wolves and out of options, Tam turns to Nova for help. Their latent feelings are rekindled against the backdrop of witchcraft, untested magic, occult rituals, and family ties both new and old in this enchanting tale of self-discovery.
This book was everything I didn’t know I wanted from a graphic novel: it had capable characters, diverse characters from Nova who is hard of hearing and requires hearing aids, most of the characters are (I believe) Chinese, and no two characters have the same body type. Mooncakes starts off somewhat abruptly but immediately drags you in. Even though the narrative glosses over specifics of certain things (how magic exactly works, or who everyone is and how they know each other), the readers learn about the setting and characters gradually. At no point does it feel like an information dump but rather organically built up upon the small clues left behind from previous panels. It is one of my favorite ways to get information when reading any written work.
The characters in this story truly brought it to life. Not only does Walker’s dialogue of each individual character bring them to life, Xu’s illustrations makes them jump off the page as whole complete characters that the reader quickly becomes attached to. The characters are expressive, unique, and instantly relatable.
First panel – Nova who is wearing a green cardigan over a pink dress, black tights and boots stands, saying “Maybe the Nanas were right. Maybe we need to experiment.” Tam, who is kneeling on the ground in an orange hoodie, jeans, and purple converse, looking up as Nova is speaking. Tat, a larger girl in red flannel, black shirt, jeans and boots is bending over petting a black cat, responds: “Yeah, I think you two should definitely experiment.”
Second panel – up close picture of Nova’s blushing face, saying “Oh my God.”
Third panel but out of frame – is Tat walking away with a playful expression on her face, tongue sticking out, and a three fingered peace sign up, saying “Nanny duty calls. But let me know how experimenting goes.”
Nova, as mentioned before, is a hard of hearing witch who relies on hearing aids. The narrative doesn’t shy away from talking about them and does so in a tactful way. Her crush comments on if they’re new and that they like the color of them; Nova uses them to eavesdrop on a conversation; and she also uses them to amply her magic. But the narrative also allows her time to be sad about the fact that she needs them, despite having found a way around the world with them in her life. Nova is loyal and trusting to those she holds dear – she hasn’t been reunited with Tam for more than a few hours before she swears she’ll help them with the reason their back in town and won’t take no for an answer.
Tam is a gender-neutral young adult werewolf. Much of the story revolves around why they’re back in town and how to manifest their werewolf magic, something that none of the witches in the story are very familiar with but are determined to help Tam figure out, not matter how long it has to take. Tam’s illustration is perhaps one of my favorites, as their dynamic haircut often articulates their emotions in certain panels. They are also drawn intentionally and with their gender-neutral body in mind – their illustrations never drawing attention to their chest or pelvic region. And the inclusion of Tam correcting Nana Qiuli on their pronouns was wonderful:
Panel one: Nova and Tam entering the house as Nana Nechama and Qiuli meet them dressed in robes. Nova says “Is it alright if Tam stays with us for a night or two?” to which both Nana’s respond “Of course it is.”
Second panel: Nana Qiuli saying “There are towels in the closet she can use…”
Third panel: Tam, looking a bit uncomfortable with their hands crossed over their stomach, “They.” Qiuli responds with “Beg pardon?”
Fourth panel: Tam who is now smile and have uncrossed their arms says “I use ‘they’ pronouns now.” Qiuli has a hand on Tam’s back and one up to her mouth. “Of course. I’m sorry, dear! My mistake.”
This four panel scene was one of the most heartwarming scenes in the entire book; not only does it show that Tam and Nova know each and have known each other for quite some time, building on the Tam’s perspective from the first few pages of the book, by having the Nanas simultaneously agree that of course they can stay, but it also shows how supportive, accepting, and loving they are. This is the only scene in the book (I believe) where Tam is misgendered. It demonstrates how to correct someone and the best possible outcome for responding.
There are of course other characters that I enjoy. I truly enjoyed the main cast of characters, including Tat (Nova’s best friend) and both Nanas. Tat is a science minded friend who is just learning about the magical world and watching her discover the world alongside the reader is just funny. She provides much of the needed comic relief in the story without being jokey or portrayed as dumb. And the Nanas – well, they’re queer old women who love their family and have a touch of mischievous nature themselves! They clearly love their granddaughter, Nova, and want what is best for her on her own terms – not forcing things on her as tradition would otherwise dictate.
The narrative wastes no time showing the closeness between the various characters, too. In many young adult cartoons or graphic novels, affection and kissing are usually saved towards the very end. Mooncakes establishes early that Nova and Tam have lingering feelings for each other from when Tam lived in the area before and when they find each other again, those feelings blossom anew. They are quick fall back into a routine of physical affection and move to sharing kisses relatively early in the story and the reader gets to see them kiss several times. I know it might sound a bit odd to be applauding a book for showing several kiss scenes over time, but it is one of my biggest complaints in young adult cartoons and many adult queer stories – kissing is held off until the absolute episode if ever actually allowed on screen in a cartoon. And in books it’s often teased and teased and teased until it usually become unrealistic that the two characters would restrain themselves from something so simple as a kiss without having believable barriers. But with Nova and Tam it was organic, I didn’t find it rushed or out of place; it was just them finally being able to act on feelings that they weren’t able to act on when they were younger when Tam moved away.
I really don’t have any complaints about Mooncakes aside from I guessed who the antagonist was from the first panel they showed up in, but I wouldn’t necessarily put that as a negative. It might have been a bit strong on foreshadowing in the way the character was drawn or I could have just picked up on a writing technique to introduce an antagonist at a specific point in the plot or it could have just been a random realization for myself. The narrative strongly hints at the antagonist the more you see them in the narrative as the foreshadowing wasn’t super subtle as the story progressed, but it was still satisfying and emotional when the protagonists realize who it is. My only other complaint is that I’m not entirely sure what the goal of the antagonist was. They mentioned “doing it for the sake of the community” but it was left unclear what would happen if they were to succeed in their plan. I think we just needed one or two more panels of explanation there and we would have been golden.
Those minor complaints aside, I cannot stress enough how wonderful Mooncakes is. It has just enough backstory to keep the reader in the know but nothing overwhelming or that dips into oversharing of non-important information. The pacing is good for the length of the graphic novel and the fact that it’s a stand-alone story. I haven’t seen any announcements for a sequel and although I would love to see another story from this creative duo (Walker & Xu) and would love to explore the world of Mooncakes further, I am content with the story they gave us. The ending leaves it open for more but puts a neat enough bow on the current story to not make me need more as a reader.
Honestly, my only question for the creators is… Where can I buy Tam’s shirt?! I don’t know what it means or what it’s referencing, but I love it.
Image description: Tat smiling and blushing slightly, wearing a purple shirt that has a dialogue bubble that says “Please, my crops” with a pink circle creature pointing to two stalks of corn.
Okay. I lied. Two questions. My second question is where can I buy all the merch of this delightful spirit? They are truly priceless and I love them and I need them on everything because they are truly my 2020 mood.
POST PUBLISHING EDIT: Wendy Xu tweeted the link to Tam’s shirt! For all those who are interested, here’s a link to where you can purchase your very own Tam Shirt!
Image description: a green spirit with two mushrooms on their head glaring, sticking their tongue out, and what looks like giving the middle finger to an unconscious individual in a red robe.
In all seriousness, I cannot recommend Mooncakes enough. It is queer. It is magical. It is diverse. It is a story about love in all its forms. And it has a kick-ass witch who is hard of hearing but isn’t at all slowed down by that. This story will make you feel all the warm fuzzies from both the writing and the beautiful illustrations.
5 out of 5 Rainbows
Recommended Reader: Anyone looking for queer witchy autumn vibes! Or anyone interested in seamless integration of magic and modern society. Or anyone just looking for a cute queer book. Seriously. It’s fantastic and everyone will find something enjoyable about it!
Additional Note about Purchasing Mooncakes: If you look up Mooncakes it will say that it is out of print or unavailable and not sure when it’ll be back in stock. Through some research I have found that Mooncakes prints in batches and isn’t always readily available online. I picked up my copy from my local comic book shop and that’s where the creators recommend readers go to purchase the graphic novel. If that’s not an option for you, the Kindle or eBook is for sale on Oni Press or through Amazon.