If you’re like me, you take comfort in books. Fiction is the best escapism, but sometimes — say, in the midst of a global pandemic — processing a block of text feels too overwhelming, and I’d rather get lost in a book filled with a dazzling array of colors. That’s why I like to add graphic novels into my rotation.
Now, if you’ve never read a graphic novel before, the transition into comics can feel daunting. The medium is so heavily saturated with superheroes that it’s easy to get lost, or to think that’s all there is. But graphic novels go beyond Spiderman and the X-Men, essentially touching every genre. So if you like reading about food, which I assume you do because you’re here, I’ve compiled a list of food- and restaurant-focused graphic novels to get you started.
J&K by John Pham
If you’re a fan of Superbad and Booksmart, this is the book for you. J&K follows the misadventures of two inseparable slackers, Jay and Kay, as they try to navigate life in the modern world. It’s divided into small vignettes and while they’re not all food-focused, “Working Girl” is reason enough to get this beautiful book. The story follows Kay, an employee at an Orange Julius knockoff called “Orange Julio’s,” as she experiences a rollercoaster of a workday dealing with nasty, demanding customers. It’s incredibly relatable and further proof that food service workers deserve their dignity. [Buy: Bookshop]
The Mushroom Fan Club by Elise Gravel
Elise Gravel’s delightful book is an illustrated guide to mushrooms, both edible and not. What makes Gravel an expert on mushrooms? Well, one of her family’s most beloved pastimes is mushroom hunting. In this book, she combines her love of being outside with her talent for anthropomorphizing everything with cartoon eyes and goofy grins. Reading Gravel’s book is like taking a tour of the forest floor. In addition to her beautiful artwork, Gravel provides readers with fun fungal facts. So, if you want to learn everything there is to know about mushrooms, from the meaty chanterelle to the peculiar indigo milkcap, I highly recommend this whimsical book. [Buy: Bookshop]
Hot Dog Taste Test by Lisa Hanawalt
In Hot Dog Taste Test, cartoonist Lisa Hanawalt — best known for her work as designer/producer on Bojack Horseman — serves up a hilarious collection of vibrant watercolors, sketches, and comics that poke fun at food culture. Not to be missed: “On the Trail With Wylie,” which was originally featured in Lucky Peach (RIP) and won Hanawalt a James Beard Award for best humor writing in 2014. The comic follows Hanawalt as she shadows chef Wylie Dufresne and his staff for an entire day at his former NYC restaurant wd~50. While she mocks certain trends in the food world, Hot Dog Taste Test is also a love letter to the delicious things Hanawalt loves. [Buy: Bookshop]
Relish: My Life in the Kitchen by Lucy Knisley
Lucy Knisley’s delightfully drawn memoir is a technicolor ode to cooking and eating.It presents her experiences growing up through a spectacle of mouthwatering foods, from sautéed mushrooms to dried hot pepper candies. Plus, almost all of the chapters end with recipes (carbonara, anyone?) so you can cook your way through the book. [Buy: Bookshop]
Seconds by Bryan Lee O’Malley
Seconds tells the story of a talented young chef named Katie who runs a successful restaurant and plans to open a second. Afterf her life takes a sudden turn for the worse, a mysterious girl appears in the middle of the night with simple instructions for a DIY do-over — write your mistake, ingest one mushroom, go to sleep, wake up anew — and Katie is given a second chance. However, With a dresser full of magical mushrooms and an urge to make her life perfect, Katie soon discovers that her actions have consequences. Seconds is a magical graphic novel that delivers the same style and humor of Bryan O’Malley’s lauded Scott Pilgrim series. It’s the perfect escape from reality. [Buy: Bookshop]
Hungry Ghosts by Anthony Bourdain and Joel Rose
It goes without saying: Anthony Bourdain left behind a great literary legacy. Somewhere in between Kitchen Confidential and Appetites, he took a turn at the comic book genre when he joined co-writer Joel Rose to bring the incredibly violent Get Jiro! (and its follow-up, Get Jiro: Blood and Sushi) to life, adding fuel to a new era of food comics.
Hungry Ghosts reunited the two writers in 2018. The book is a collection of comics that tell the story of a Russian oligarch who, in the middle of his dinner party, invites the chefs working in his kitchen to play a version of 100 candles, a Japanese Edo-period game in which brave samurai would try to one-up each other with terrifying tales of ghosts, demons, and unspeakable beings. The book isn’t exactly for the faint of heart, but it will resonate with fans of Get Jiro! and movies like Raw and Lady Snowblood. It’s riddled with unsettling tales inspired by Japanese mythology and comic book violence, but it’s also a celebration of culinary creativity and great storytelling. If you like ghost stories, Hungry Ghosts delivers kitchen nightmares that are guaranteed to haunt you. [Buy: Bookshop]
Umma’s Table by Yeon-Sik Hong
Umma’s Table tells the story of Madang, an artist working to overcome the exhaustion of trying to be everything all at once: a good son, devoted father, and loving husband. He struggles to to balance his wife and baby, and his ailing mother and alcoholic father back in Seoul. To cope, Madang retreats to childhood memories of their family meals together and his mother’s cooking, particularly her kimchi. Hong’s poignant story is a meditation on the joys of a family’s food traditions and how they bind them together. [Buy: Bookshop]