Delve into fan-created content for almost any media and one of the first things you’ll notice is the popularity of the coffee shop AU, short for alternate universe. So many pieces of fan fiction and fan art revolve around setting characters from TV shows, movies, books, comics, and podcasts in a romanticized version of food service that it’s nearly inescapable. Moonstruck, Volume 1: Magic To Brew
(Image Comics) will feel very familiar to fans of the coffee shop AU, though it’s an original creation. The all-ages title stars a group of magical creatures, three of whom are baristas, in an urban fantasy setting packed with adorable background characters and really great puns.
The most striking thing about Moonstruck is Shae Beagle’s artwork. Beagle is a newcomer to traditionally published comics, though it would be hard to tell that from their work in the five issues collected in this first volume. Each of the characters is distinct from each other, easily identifiable without being stiff. Many of the designs are soft and round, reminiscent of something like Steven Universe, but there’s an added depth that comes from both Beagles’ line art and Caitlin Quirk’s textured colors.
At the center of the story is Julie, one of the aforementioned baristas, and her girlfriend, Selena; both are werewolves, and there are some similarities in their appearance that make that known, but they are visually distinct and interesting. Julie’s co-worker and best friend, Chet, is a centaur, and the rest of the cast is similarly mythical: There’s a vampire, a Medusa, a minotaur, several ghosts, and a couple of witches, each completely different and charming in both characterization and appearance. The effortlessly wide breadth of character design and background really calls attention to how many all-ages books default to a couple of stock character designs and color palates, particularly when it comes to fantasy stories. It would be difficult for any kid, or adult for that matter, to read Moonstruck and not see someone that looks like them and their friends, for all that they might be a fairy or a faun.
Writer Grace Ellis has created an incredible world for her characters to occupy, and there’s a lot of detail that could easily be missed but definitely adds to the sense of place. That strength of world-building is unfortunately what makes Moonstruck feel like it goes off the rails sometimes. Particularly for an all-ages book, there is too much going on. Julie and Selena are just starting to date, and a mystery quickly unfolds when a magician turns Chet into a human against his will, resulting in a lot of the best jokes as he mourns the loss of his butt. But on top of that, there’s a parade and a B-plot where a vampire neighbor of Julie’s antagonizes his bandmate for no apparent reason. Plus, the very late introduction of the only human character raises a lot of questions that distract from the central story.
Julie’s insecurities and struggle with her identity are important and should have had more room to grow, but they get crowded out by details that don’t need the space devoted to them, even while it’s fun and makes for a pretty setting. The best example of this is the six full pages spent showing a story from one of Julie’s favorite books, an attempt to create a metaphor for her own emotional journey and refer to her goal of becoming a ghost writer that, frankly, fails to land. They make up nearly a 10th of the whole book and add nothing to the plot, certainly not helped by the fact that Kate Leth’s art for these pages is a jarring departure from Beagle’s soft, lush work. It’s hard to know what the readers are supposed to be invested in with this much going.
Despite the distractions, Moonstruck is a lovely and sweet book that’s elevated by some spectacular art. With so much of the core work already done in establishing setting and characters, hopefully the future issues will have a chance to focus more intentionally. Like Giant Days or Lumberjanes, it’s the kind of welcoming, character-driven story that helps suck new readers into comics, and more of that is definitely a good thing.