It’s been several years since the original Chairman Kaga swept across my TV screen in his blingy brocade cape like a Japanese Liberace, unintelligibly bellowing “Allez cuisine!” to kick off challenges highlighting exotic foodstuffs in his Kitchen Stadium on the original Fuji TV production of Iron Chef. Since then, culinary TV programming has largely taken more of a tabloid game-show turn to suit today’s voyeuristic, drama-hungry audiences, with screaming red-faced hosts, bizarre ingredients and increasingly ominous titles (Hell’s Kitchen. Chopped. Cutthroat Kitchen. Notice a theme here?). And I love it all. So naturally when I come face to face with a title like Starve during my weekly Wednesday shelf-combing, I’m intrigued. The creation of writer-illustrator Brian Wood (DMZ), artist Danijel Zezelj and Eisner-winning colorist Dave Stewart (The Goon), the series—now available in a trade compiling its first five issues, thanks to Image Comics’ sweet $9.99 introductory series—serves up social satire in a biting and visually striking commentary on cultural elitism.
Ex-celebrity chef Gavin Cruikshank has been in self-imposed exile for the past three years following his coming out and subsequent ugly divorce. Once the creator of the moderately popular foodie travel show Starve, Gavin now drowns his sorrows and his former self in food and various substances on the other side of the world, out of reach of The Network, an ambiguously-named entity (implications point to it being a channel, but given the nature of the events to follow, could be an agency or a sort of secret syndicate) responsible for the show which, in Gavin’s absence, has become a smash hit. When a new season of the show is ordered, Gavin is plucked from his drug-addled haze and deported back to New York to settle old scores, reconcile with his daughter, and fulfill his contract for eight new episodes. Unfortunately, the show he created has devolved into a barbaric, elitist culinary competition, forcing the most revered chefs to cook under extreme, at times even violent circumstances, using the rarest, most expensive—and sometimes endangered or just plain unthinkable—proteins and delicacies. Chef Cruikshank finds himself embroiled in a fight not only for redemption, but for his life, as the true catalyst for his return to the small screen reveals itself.
Again, Wood had my attention at hello with the subject matter, and his Iron Chef America-meets-The Warriors story arc delivers with its thoughtful characterizations, smart dialogue and psychological twists. The arrogant, caustically witty yet penitent Cruikshank proves that you don’t have to be the picture of sweetness to be a sympathetic, three-dimensional main character. Admittedly, I would have liked a deeper look into the new, dystopian US than we are given courtesy of a few lines of dialogue here and there; other than that and what is implied in Zezelj and Stewart’s bleak urban landscape, we don’t get to see much of it firsthand. I suppose it could be argued that the existence of the show itself is a look into this dystopia, but honestly, an America where an endangered, government-regulated fish is killed and eaten for the sake of a reality show in a time of environmental crisis is not that farfetched from our current reality. But maybe that’s the point… (Cue up The Twilight Zone theme)
Anyway, back to that bleak urban landscape. The marriage of Zezelj’s broad strokes and Stewart’s distinctive, painterly color work are wonderfully evocative, bringing to life the gritty backdrop of the city and the dark desperation of Gavin’s dilemma. Panels are artfully stacked, floating across splash pages, enhancing the overall visual appeal. The trade features a cover gallery in its back pages, featuring some of Zezelj and Stewart’s most arresting images in the series; it was one of said covers that caught my eye at the comic shop, that piqued my interest in the series in the first place.
One of my favorite things about crazy cooking challenge shows is the element of unpredictability, and this first volume of Starve certainly delivers on this level as well. I’ve read my share of dystopian thrillers, but nothing as unique as this, using food as its vice/device. Read Starve Vol. 1 and I promise you: Hell’s Kitchen will seem like the Wonka factory, and you will scoff knowingly the next time you see Alton Brown on TV preparing contestants for a so-called “ferocious kitchen battle.”