There's something about the smell of a comic book store. Fresh ink, bags and boards, dorkiness: It's incredible, indelible, intoxicating. High-gloss pages are my madeleines. I had entered Midtown Comics, a vast two-story emporium, on the eve of Archie Andrews' resurrection. Like generations before me, I had grown up with that red-haired dweeb after whom two beautiful women lusted, who had a cool hamburger-obsessed friend who wore a crown, and another friend named Moose. Despite its smudgy newsprint and flatly colored boxy panels, Archie was a crudely drawn boy I was drawn to. It wasn't just that Archie showed that a dweeb might after all be popular and beloved. It was how much time those kids from Riverdale High spent at the diner, the agora of American adolescence.
It isn’t true that food has disappeared from comic book land like a famine spread across panels.
For it wasn't just Jughead, he of the crown, who was nuts for hamburgers. Archie's mouth was a vortex from which no pizza slice nor cheeseburger nor fry could escape. The milkshakes of Pop Tate's Chock'lit Shoppe brought all the boys to the yard. Archie died last year, shot to death by a busboy at the Chock'lit Shoppe who was trying to assassinate a gay U.S. Senator. But tragically — but perfectly and also inevitably — when Archie relaunched this year, the daytime hangs of the Chock'lit Shoppe were replaced by characters staring glumly into smartphones. The new Archie has no time for such frivolities. Food, when it appears, is either used as blackmail (Jughead is plied with cupcakes) or a memento of a love gone sour (Betty drinking a milkshake alone). We'll have to wait for the new hamburger-centric Jughead series, as discussed in my new favorite YouTube videocast, to come out for substantial food dialogue to spring up again in Riverdale.
But it isn't true that food has disappeared from comic book land like a famine spread across panels. In fact, this is the golden age of food in comics. Perhaps the best example is the new series Starve, out by Image Comics. On the cover of third issue (which came out last week), a chef stands in stark chiaroscuro. One arm outstretches to let fall a flurry of herbs onto a pig's head that stares glumly from a stockpot. A swoosh of blood runs across the background and the title bears two knives. One can almost hear the swoosh of Top Chef's logo bleat out. Perhaps all was not lost.
Starve is a comic by Brian Wood, a Brooklyn-based artist whose previous work has encompassed both the superhero universe (X-Men, Conan, Vampirella) and socially conscious indie dystopias like DMZ, The Massive, and Demo. Starve is his take on the food shows. The series's anti-hero is Gavin Cruikshank, a bad-boy chef we first meet in "Southeast Asia somewhere," downing soju after soju while watching a muy thai bout. Cruikshank is like a Hunter Thompson, Sam Spade, and Tony Bourdain rolled into one. "I've lived 55 years, most of them spent consuming all manner of illegal herbs, carcinogens, alcohol, chemicals, and synthetics... and each shot of this shit makes me feel like a virgin," he says on page two. There are plenty more noir-ish jaded pronouncements throughout. In the first issue, Cruikshank is called back from self-imposed exile in Thailand to New York City by the television network which owns his show, Starve, a cooking competition which bears great similarity in structure and tone to Iron Chef.
Set in the near future, the series is one of those brilliant close-range dystopias, terrifying in its very feasibility. In the New York of Starve, the GINI coefficient has continued its rise. The elite feast on increasingly rare delicacies like bluefish tuna while the masses eat dog. The setup is a brilliant critique of not only income inequality, but of the militarization of food and food shows in particular. It's like Jonathan Swift's feed-your-children-to-the-rich satire A Modest Proposal — but illustrated.
It’s like Jonathan Swift’s feed-your-children-to-the-rich satire "A Modest Proposal" — but illustrated.
There's never been anything exactly like Starve in the comic book world but, happily, this sort of socially conscious dystopic media critique is becoming more common. "If you look at the entire comic book industry," Woods says, "there are a couple of genres that dominate: superheroes, crime, and fantasies. But then there's this tiny slice that is everything else, and that slice is growing." Wood says the premise of Starve came to him in 2009-2010, the heyday of food reality shows. "I was really into food shows. My number-one program then and [now] is Top Chef, because the contestants are actually good, whereas those on Gordon Ramsay's shows are idiots." (Starve's narrative often addresses the dichotomy of the "real" chef versus the attention-starved reality-TV chef.) But, Wood says, he encountered a lot of quizzical looks when he pitched the idea. "When you look at the industry, there are hardly any food comics." Only Chew, a wildly imaginative comic written by John Layman with art by Rob Guilfroy, about an FDA agent who happens to be a cibopath (someone who gets psychic impressions from food), had earned a cult following since it first came out in 2009.
Crestfallen, Wood mined what would become Starve for another series, Dark Horse Comics' 2012 The Massive, which chronicled a radical environmental activist named Captain Callum Israel surviving in a "post-war, post-crash, post-disaster, post-everything world." Many of the same issues — food scarcity, economic inequality, climate change — manifest there without the spectacle of food TV. Tellingly, it wasn't that the issues didn't exist or that comic book readers weren't ready to tackle the dark and weighty issues that scotched Starve. It was that they weren't yet ready to tackle them on the plate.
Things began to change 2012, when Anthony Bourdain collaborated with Vertigo Comics on Get Jiro. Like Starve, Get Jiro is set in the near-future dystopia, an environment conducive to comic-book worlds. Its hero is a mobbed up sushi chef named Jiro, whose name in Latin American countries is pronounced "hero." Clever. One might rightly assume Vertigo agreed to Get Jiro because Bourdain is such a big name (a prequel, called Get Jiro: Blood and Sushi, will be released in October of this year). But its success rekindled the idea of Starve, too. And by then, there were a few comic books and graphic novels edging closer to the kitchen.
In July 2014, Bryan Lee O'Malley, the Canadian cartoonist best known for Scott Pilgrim, released a graphic novel called Seconds. If Starve is darkly stylized, and Get Jiro is pure manga, Seconds is next-level shoe-gazing New Yorker cover gonzo mind salad. It tells the story of Katie, a young chef opening her second restaurant beset by a small blonde-haired house sprite. It isn't so much a graphic novel about food as it is a graphic novel with food. But still there's plenty of food in it, including a menu. (Sous vide top sirloin + foraged green leaves + birch ash vinaigrette.) There are common kitchen accidents, an affair with a sous chef, the insecurities attendant in opening one's own namesake restaurant, not to mention headaches with the DOB, contractors and investors. In short, despite the sprite, it's shockingly realistic.
The table was, so to speak, set. In 2015, Wood got the go-ahead, and that June, the first issue of Starve came out. To hear Wood tell it, one of the reasons food comics can exist at all is because traditional superheroes, one of the three giant genres in comic books, have begun to migrate on screen. "People are getting their itch scratched watching superheroes on film," explains Wood, "so they're looking for other things from comic books." At the same time readers' gazes were wandering from the traditional genres, creators too were getting restless. Though it is every comic book artist's dream to draw Spiderman, the weirdly inverse relationship between superhero comics and movies means that there's more talent interested in drawing smaller books.
In many ways, the professional kitchen is ideally suited for the gonzo graphic representation of comic books.
Food, in the meantime, had become such a big part of pop culture it was inevitable that it should be incorporated into graphic novels and comic books. And it is interesting to note, though perhaps foreseeable, that the heroes and anti-heroes of this new genre aren't home cooks. Rather, they thrive in the mock-battle world of high-pressure restaurants and in the crucible of high-pressure shows. In many ways, the professional kitchen, with its duality between front and back of the house, and the film set, with its neat fault line between front and behind the scenes, are both ideally suited for the gonzo graphic representation of comic books. From Jiro to Gavin to Katie, each of the protagonists are caught somehow between producing aesthetically refined delicate plates and living a chaotic, sometimes violent, very often dark existence. Chefs and kitchens are both inherently dramatic characters. They can pack a punch, and graphic novels are nothing if not the MMA of storytelling.
Ultimately what ushered in the boom of food comics might not be the food itself as much as the rising tide of indie comics in general. A quick sweep of the floor at Midtown reveals titles with a depth, darkness, and weirdness that make Archie's Riverdale dramas seem like kid stuff. Much of this proliferation has to do simply with the maturing of the art form: It took until the 1990s for graphic artists to move beyond either the comic or the heroic. As is so often the case with innovation, from music to film to cooking, emerging technology also exposed a vast new world in which the form could flourish. Advances in coloring technology, for instance, turned the flat colors of Riverdale and earlier hero comics into a dark lush universe where complex themes could be presented without seeming silly. Can one really tackle existential questions in cheery primary colors and without perspective?
And naturally, as subjects get darker and more dramatic, other media perks up its ears. Now," says Wood, "everybody is looking for their own Walking Dead," the comic-turned-television-sensation. Here's to hoping it'll be found in the kitchen.