It’s Iron Chef To The Extreme in “Starve Vol. 1” (Review)
Written by: Brian Wood
Art by: Danijel Zezelj & Dave Stewart
Starve follows Gavin Cruikshank, a celebrity chef and television host who’s forgotten on the far side of the world when global warming and a crash of the global economy plunge the world into dystopia where .1% of the U.S. population controls all of the wealth. But Gavin could care little about any of this. He’s content to waste out his days, wandering Asia and indulging in cheap food, cheap booze and cheap drugs. That is until the network he used to work for tracks him down and demands he fulfills the remainder of his contract, a final eight episode season of Starve. He agrees, not realizing that as the world’s changed so has his show: under control of his ex-wife Greer and rival chef, Roman Algiers, it’s gone from being a travelogue to a dangerous mashup of Cutthroat Kitchen and the Hunger Games. Now the show exists to the cater to the decadence of an ultra-rich class who have no problem demanding everything from endangered creatures or forcing chefs to cook for days while roaming future New York for ingredients.
Gavin doesn’t really give a damn about any of that. All he wants to do is win the show, get his money and reunite with his estranged daughter, in that order, but his ex-wife doesn’t plan on making that easy for him. Nobody does.
The most refreshing thing about this comic is that there is no band of ragged freedom fighters attempting to recruit Gavin into their crusade against the oppressing class. None of the characters are interested in the overall state or fate of the world. The nigh-apocalyptic inequality of the world serves as a backdrop for about money, greed, family and food.
And damn if this isn’t a story about food. And cooking. They’re both kind of abstracted for the first sixty pages until the middle of one of Gavin’s more grueling challenges and we actually start getting recipes, something I didn’t expect at all. I don’t expect I’ll find myself making a pork blood cake with bacon, just because fresh pork blood is kind of hard to get, but the Sugar Hearts? Yeah, I will stir-fry the hell out of pork hearts. The recipe is already pretty similar to make grilled chicken hearts anyway.
In case you couldn’t tell, I do enjoy cooking quite a bit so there’s a lot about this comic that really spoke to me, but I wasn’t just in it for the recipes. While this story is very much poking fun at the increasingly absurd nature of cooking shows, it’s also saying a lot about our own relation to the food industry. We know deep down that the steak in front of us didn’t begin its life on a supermarket shelf before being transformed by some cook into our meal. It was a cow, a cow that probably wasn’t kept in humane conditions, along with hundreds of other cows whose existence are having a ridiculous impact on our environment, from what we feed them, to the cost of water to for them to drink and to remove their waste. These are facts that are hard to deny or ignore, so we abstract them. We turn our heads away from the growth and production of food and instead focus on the process that gets food on the plates in front of us.
And it’s not enough that its damn near alchemy that a hunk of cow can end up with a texture like melted butter in your mouth, we’ve got to further gamify that so a chef’s got to do it with one hand behind their back and a scorpion in their first born’s crib. There’s an ethical critique hidden in these pages. I won’t necessarily call it one of sustainability or food justice, because there isn’t a single character in this narrative naïve enough to think that those things still matter in the world that they inhabit; but they matter for ours so they’re worth pointing out.
Beyond that, it’s very hard for me to view this comic and not see something produced in a well-organized kitchen. The mise en place of this comic is damn phenomenal. There isn’t a wasted panel; there are no stray bits of dialog or wasted opportunities. Everything works and everything hits when it’s supposed to, from the close-ups, to the recipes and the jokes. The humor in this comic is one of its crowning achievements. It’s dark and grim and razor sharp and never seems as though it’s trying too hard. Just enough energy is spent on all of the characters to bring them too life. There’s no overwriting – everyone gets at least a single one-liner that lets you know everything you need to about their character.
Gavin Cruikshank is one of the most real fictional characters I’ve ever encountered, a battered and broken man that doesn’t want anything but a cold drink, what he’s owed and to make up for all the ways he’s !@#$ed up his life. And his relationship with his ex-wife is fascinating. Greer is one of the most horrible and horribly sympathetic villains I’ve ever encountered. She doesn’t want to rule the world, she doesn’t even want to make her ex-husband suffer unduly, she just wants to hold on to her money, to hurt him in all the ways she thinks he’s hurt her and to keep their daughter safe. I think you could easily tell this comic from her perspective and it would work just as well.
In short, Wood just effortlessly knocks it out of the park with his writing.
And reading this collection, I have to say that I want to kick myself for having never encountered Daniel Zezelj’s art before this. His style is heavy, crowded and grim. His attention to detail is top notch, with everything from neighborhood streets, skylines, pickles and pig parts rendered with mind-blowing skill. It’s so hard to look away from this comic because it just looks and feels so alive . Starve vol. 1 collects the first five issues of this series, just in time for you to catch up with #6 in February. Buy it for all your foodie friends. Buy it for yourself. Buy a copy for your mom if she’s into dark humor and little bit of gore.