Sunday, September 13, 2009

Review: Lunch Lady Vols. 1 and 2

Jarrett J. Krosoczka's Lunch Lady books are the sort of thing we didn't have when I was a kid—graphic novels created specifically for kids. The two I recently read, Lunch Lady and The Cyborg Substitutes and Lunch Lady and The League of Librarians, were 7"-by-5"-ish hardcover digests with sturdy spines, about 100 pages a piece. Amazon suggests them for 9- to 12-year-olds, which sounds about right. Younger readers could probably still dig on them; grumpy old men can too.

I'm curious if the existence of something like Lunch Lady (as well as books like Fashion Kitty, Babymouse and the like) bodes well for the future of the medium. If kids are exposed to the form and format at a younger ag, does that mean more and more people will grow up without dealing with the hurdles and barriers previous generations did? (Well, they probably will anyway, due to a variety of other factors, but I'm just concentrating on the bound-comics-for-kids subject at the moment).

On the other hand, are the existence of books such as these merely a reflection of the fact that the vast majority of comics are no longer geared toward kids? In the absence of short, cheap, stapled, paper comics for kids—at least in the numbers and accessibility that my generation and previous generations experienced—have kids' comics simply become bookstore- and library-ready kids' graphic novels?

I don't know. But I recently read a couple of Krosoczka's Lunch Lady books.

Many elements of Lunch Lady are so familiar so as to be ubiquitous in superhero comics and movies and various parodies and riffs on them, but the application here is unique, so the familiarity didn't breed contempt so much as it bred simple familiarity. (And familiarity is more a problem for us grown-ups that kids don't share. After all, few of them have seen decades worth of James Bond movies or Adam West Batman references in pop culture).

Riffing on the word "Lunch Lady," one of those occupations that naturally sounds something like a superhero construction (like "Milk Man" or "Police Woman" or "Paper Boy"), Krosoczka imagines a character who is a school lunch lady by day, and a school lunch lady by night. During the day, she serves fish sticks and tater tots; by night, she serves justice.

She and her sidekick/gadget-maker Betty, who also works in the cafeteria, have a secret base in the school boiler room, accessible by a sliding wall obscured by a refrigerator in the kitchen. Employing an arsenal of food and kitchen utensil-themed weapons, they battle equally goofy and school-related villains.

Like West's Batman, Lunch Lady generally has the perfect gadget for every situation, and their very existence and announcement are generally pretty amusing. There are hair net nets for capturing villains, hover pizzas for transportation, fish stick nunchucks and so on.

In The Cyborg Substitutes, the lunch staff face a mad science teacher's plot to become the students' favorite teacher by capturing the rest of the faculty and replacing them with robot substitutes, who are all real hard-asses. In The League of Librarians, a league of librarians launch a plot to stop a shipment of a new video game system in an effort to combat children's ever-eroding interest in reading.

Point-of-view characters are provided by "The Breakfast Bunch," a trio of sympathetic little kids who are troubled by a bully and curious about the secret double-life of their lunch lady, which they become involved with about two-thirds of the way through the first book.

Krosoczka's cartooning chops are super-solid, and a large part of why I found the books not only readable, but engaging, despite being so far outside the target audience (and receiving the vast majority of the gags with either a groan or rolled eyes). The pages are filled with small panels, and a great variety of medium shots, long shots and close-ups. The pacing is therefore strong, and the characters designs are all fun and loose (It may be worth mentioning that he designs against type with his lead; Lunch Lady is a big eccentric looking with her thick glasses and triangle of curly hair, but she's not your typical caricature of a lunch lady).

The artwork is rendered in black and white and yellow, the color of LL's apron and rubber gloves, which gives the books the look of something drawn in pen, pencil and highlighter, certainly appropriate for a book set in and around a school.

I can't quite puzzle out where books like Lunch Lady came from exactly, or what they might mean about where we're going, but I'm glad we have books like this, and I'm sure they must mean something more positive than they could mean anything negative.

1 comment:

censustaker said...

Thats the kind of work I want to do; kids/middle readers picturebook comics. (one of my stories just got equal 3rd in a reasobaly well respected aussie new children's writers comp, so it may actually happen.) Thanks again for doing half my market/publisher research for me Caleb!

Earl.