Each week, Big Issues focuses on a newly released comic book of significance. This week, it’s Space Battle Lunchtime Volume 2: A Recipe For Disaster. Written and illustrated by Natalie Riess (Snarlbear), this collection wraps up a delectable story that offers an exciting twist on cooking shows with a queer romance at its center. (This review reveals major plot points.)

When I read the title of Natalie Riess’ Space Battle Lunchtime, I always hear it through the voice of a wrestling announcer, who yells each word at increasing volume with a slightly longer pause between each one. The “i” in “lunchtime” lasts for five seconds as a crowd cheers in the background, and the simple act of reading that strong title puts me in a headspace that gets me ready for the exciting thrills within. Space Battle Lunchtime Volume 2: A Recipe For Disaster opens with a two-page spread showing the book’s central couple flying through space on a motorcycle while the title appears above them in giant letters, and Hilary Thompson’s bold design combined with the evocative image immediately establishes a sense of grandiosity before the story even begins.

Space Battle Lunchtime is a book about the wondrous fantasy of a cosmic cartoon landscape, but it’s rooted in the emotional experience of a human baker, Peony, who leaves Earth to compete in the titular intergalactic cooking show. The personal relationships Peony develops in front of the camera and backstage make the story engaging, but the major joy of this series is discovering the huge scope of Riess’ imagination and talent as a cartoonist. Space Battle Lunchtime is the first title published from the submissions Oni Press received after having an open call in 2015, and it reinforces that Oni has a very strong eye for sharp up-and-coming creators with their own style and point of view.

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Space Battle Lunchtime Volume 2 collects the second half of Riess’ story, introducing a deadly new cooking show and solidifying Peony and Neptunia’s romantic relationship. At the heart of Space Battle Lunchtime is Peony’s dynamic with Neptunia, the cyborg alien chef that is her biggest competition in the kitchen, and what started as mutual respect for each other’s culinary skills has grown into something more affectionate. This volume starts shortly after Peony is abducted and taken to Cannibal Coliseum, where chefs are thrown into a gladiator arena and forced to fight, kill, and cook each other. It’s a bad situation made even worse because Peony’s abduction happened right before her first date with Neptunia, who thinks she was stood up by the Earth girl.

The change in setting allows Riess to work out some new creative muscles, and there’s a much heavier emphasis on violent action with the cooking scenes in the Cannibal Coliseum. Riess did great work bringing a dynamic energy to the cooking in the SBL kitchen with the first half of the story, but now she’s working with circumstances that are more conducive to kinetic movement. Riess gives herself plenty of room to play, and having complete control over every aspect of the comic (story, script, linework, colors, letters) means total freedom to tell her story specifically how she wants to tell it. One of my favorite moments in the book is a scene change that has the bottoms of two panels melting into the image below, which adds an extra element of motion to the transition while reinforcing the claustrophobic atmosphere of the new setting. The dripping edges of the panels create a subtle rounded border around the last shot, which works with the composition of the image to make it look like this environment is closing in on Peony. The hallway is huge, but it also feels tightly contained because it’s Peony’s prison.

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Riess doesn’t fill the book with clever compositional tricks like that, but when she does, the intended effect always works. When Neptunia rescues Peony from the Cannibal Coliseum, they take off in a motorcycle that they somehow need to navigate around a wall of people standing in their way. Neptunia goes above rather than around, jumping over the crowd in a four-panel sequence that makes a number of smart choices to create speed and intensity. On the left side of the sequence is a close-up of Peony and Neptunia in a triangular panel with a downward slope to the right, which visually indicates acceleration with the sharp descent. Three panels to the right show a side-view of the motorcycle speeding toward the people, and the triangle’s slope makes each panel smaller as the distance decreases. The background coloring becomes a deeper pink with each panel, and it’s always a welcome surprise to see pink used to add energy to an action sequence.

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While on the topic of pink in action, there’s no way to overlook Lil’ Magicorn, a villainous new addition to the cast in this volume. Part fox and part unicorn with bright pink fur and a Lolita fashion sensibility, Lil’ Magicorn is pure cuteness, but her surface qualities hide her killer instinct. The cover for Chapter Two is the best encapsulation of Lil’ Magicorn’s over-the-top adorable, demented characterization, showing her winking at the reader with stars and hearts in her eye while holding a milkshake glass full of dismembered alien parts. She may look sweet and cuddly on the surface, but she murders and cooks up her opponents in the Cannibal Coliseum with glee. She’s a more aggressive villain than the devious Chef Melonhead, who is responsible for Peony’s abduction, and Riess delights in showing off the brutal side of Lil’ Magicorn while consistently emphasizing how unbearably cute she is.

Riess has never felt the need to justify Peony and Neptunia’s romance or comment on them being a same-sex couple, and it’s made Space Battle Lunchtime a genuinely progressive YA book. Their attraction to each other is just like any other aspect of the story, and it’s refreshing to read stories with queer leads that aren’t being treated any differently than straight characters would in their same situation. Neptunia’s rescue of Peony is an exceptionally romantic moment that ends with an explosive kiss, and Riess’ framing of this moment gives it even stronger impact. The burning wreckage of Neptunia’s borrowed van adds very literal heat to the kiss while flowers bloom in front of the action panel, a figurative touch that reflects the swell of passion both characters are feeling. The action of Lil’ Magicorn flying backward after getting kicked in the face by Neptunia brings even more force to the kiss, and while the kiss isn’t responsible for Magicorn’s movement, the two events are linked together in the image.

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The collections of Space Battle Lunchtime are smaller than the monthly issues, and Oni Press is very smart with its approach to the production design of collections. Shelving bound editions is different than shelving floppies, which are almost entirely uniform in their length and width, and libraries and bookstores are attracted to smaller graphic novels and collections because they are more durable and portable. This is especially important for kids and YA comics, and Oni Press is aware that these books will sell better if they feature design elements that are popular with the target audience. Space Battle Lunchtime doesn’t lose anything from being printed at this smaller size, and the thicker matte paper stock works very well for Riess’ painted artwork.

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Bonus features at the end of a collection can often feel like an afterthought—a few concept sketches, maybe a pitch—but Riess includes a plethora of fun extras in this book: Short comic strips featuring the cast; sketches of covers and the different alien dishes and characters; full-page illustrations; “what if” interpretations of the cast with themes like cats, formal wear, and cyberpunk; a walkthrough of her coloring process; and an easy recipe for chocolate cupcakes. There’s clearly been a lot of thought put into making this collection a satisfying package, and the combination of that attention to detail and Riess’ clear excitement for the story and its world has me very eager to see what she’ll be creating next. I also wouldn’t be surprised if it was a while before we saw a new comic project from Riess, because the strength of her designs and layouts for this series suggest that she could be one of the next cartoonists to jump into the world of animation.

It’s the end of LGBTQ Pride Month, but Oni Press has enough books telling LGBTQ stories to create a hefty reading list for queer readers who want to see more of themselves on the page. Sophie Campbell’s Wet Moon (currently being rereleased with a sleek new trade dress) spotlights the personal drama of a cast of goth and punk-inspired young adults with various sexual orientations; Robert Rodi and Jackie Lewis’ Merry Men puts a gay spin on the Robin Hood mythos; Small Favors is queer erotica with a light, whimsical touch; Princess Princess Ever After is a fairytale storybook about two princesses that find “happily ever after” with each other; and Kim Reaper a supernatural comedy about one college student’s infatuation with her female classmate, who happens to be the Grim Reaper. Other Oni titles like Another Castle, The Bunker, Hopeless Savages, and the Scott Pilgrim series also feature queer characters in prominent roles, and in general, Oni has had a strong track record with LGBTQ comics in its 20-year history. It’s a publisher that realizes the value of representing a wider variety of perspectives and personal experiences on the page, and Space Battle Lunchtime is just the latest title to benefit from this inclusion.

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