5.15.2015

Starve #1: “Stipple The Sky” [Advance Review]

In some ways, Starve feels like the celebratory culmination of multiple elements in Brian Wood’s career as a comic book writer. Published by Image Comics, in collaboration with artist/co-owner Danijel Zezelj and colorist/co-owner Dave Stewart, the story of celebrity chef Gavin Cruikshank jumping back into the cutthroat competitive cooking game after a long absence, all while mentally preoccupied with personal family demons, is ostensibly unlike any of the previous plot dynamics found in the Brian Wood Library. But that superficial reading would actually belie the thematic truths found in a more thorough examination. Sure, you can casually say Starve is about food. But, it’s not really about the food. (Though I admit I really want to eat at Master Paleo BBQ). Like Roger Ebert used to say of the great movies, “they’re not about what they’re about, they’re about how they’re about what they’re about.” In this world, foodie culture has unraveled into a sort of post-reality show deathmatch bazaar, and maybe Cruikshank’s identity has been frayed right along with it.

The inclusion of foodie culture is something that basically runs back to the very beginning of Wood’s professional oeuvre. As early as his first work, Channel Zero in 1997, eagle-eyed readers will recall young pirate broadcaster Jennifer Havel railing against her near-future totalitarian regime (a thinly-veiled poke at NYC Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s aggressive enforcement and deterrence strategies of the time), but not without craving some NYC dim sum when she was in self-imposed exile. From Olive and Moustafa delivering hummus on the back of their scooters while dodging the Turkish Mafia as early as 2001 in the Couscous Express of The Couriers Universe, to Matty Roth entering the back door of a secluded Chinatown kitchen, in a manner reminiscent of the infamous Scorsese steadicam, to slurp noodles with Wilson in DMZ (2005-2011), the food itself has now been promoted from background player to one of the headliners in Starve.

And that’s not all that’s been re-positioned from context to core. For example, in the environmental action-adventure of The Massive with Garry Brown, Wood stopped in Mogadishu for an issue to touch on sustainability issues with shark fin, all amid the larger glaring sustainability crisis at the global climate change level, and here in Starve we’ll see things like the rarity of near-extinct blue fin tuna also play as prominent plot devices. I mean, pick a topic. Fatherhood. If you remember Wood’s riff on Karen and Hilda in the Northlanders arc The Plague Widow (with artist Leandro Fernandez), you’ll see Wood starting to come to terms with being a father, trying to reconcile optimism for his kids’ future with the environs of an increasingly harsh world. There’s central commentary on that here in Starve as well, with Gavin Cruikshank’s daughter Angie not only growing to occupy a significant role as a female character with increasing depth, but their damaged father-daughter relationship is also one of the primary drivers of the story and his emerging quest to reestablish his own identity.

Hey, pick another topic. Fame. In his recent Moon Knight arc with artist Greg Smallwood (and please vote for him in this year’s Russ Manning - Most Promising Newcomer Award!), the most readily identifiable stand out in this excellent group of stories is Moon Knight #8. In the issue, Wood and Smallwood address our fascination with fame in The Social Media Age and the ubiquitous nature of the iPhone, in a time where fame itself is the “get.” Fame is its own reward. In Starve, we see Cruikshank contending with the vestiges of his fame, where it’s not so much skill, or money, or influence that gets you somewhere, it’s the power that fame itself brings which begins to self-perpetuate and allows him to navigate this strange game. Chef Gavin Cruikshank is known. His rep precedes him, and it becomes a type of cultural currency he’s able to use, to play off the expectations of his competitors, the admiring junior chefs, the media, his family, his fans, and society at large.

Let’s talk about artists. Danijel Zezelj (Rex, Luna Park) has long been an artist I’ve admired for his willingness to slather ink on a page and create the most sumptuous urban wastelands around, while Dave Stewart is perhaps the most lauded colorist in the industry, period, so it’s hard to imagine a more suitable “dream team” for Wood to collaborate with on a project like this. My intention here isn’t to diminish the work of any of his past or future collaborators, from old favorites like Becky Cloonan (Demo, Conan The Barbarian) or Ryan Kelly (Local, Star Wars), to the current crop of talent like Garry Brown (The Massive, Black Road) and Andrea Mutti (Rebels), let’s face it, Wood has a knack for working with some incredibly talented folks, and in most cases accelerating their ascendancy. But, if I was hard pressed to identity the “perfect” aesthetic companion for Wood’s layered stories, I usually settle on two names, John Paul Leon and Danijel Zezelj. JPL has offered some amazing extended cover runs which have added thematic cohesion for things like DMZ and The Massive, while Zezelj has come in for surgical strikes with Wood before, depicting key moments with Captain Callum Israel in The Massive or old-school street artist Decade Later in DMZ, standout issues that capture a conflux of mood, some sort of personal crisis, and a sense of shadowy uncertainty under Zezelj’s magic lines.

It’s no different here in Starve, and I’m happy to see him as the regular artist for the series, another example of Zezelj’s art always seemingly about trying to find the “now” during a period of transition, with characters reconciling their past and present. Gavin’s past is catching up with him, and when characters do this dance, it represents that final leap into maturity or true adulthood, the reconciliation of past decisions and present desires is all about identity. It’s about a character wanting to define themselves based on their current choices. That’s why Zezelj is such a good collaborator for Wood, it’s difficult to ascribe fixed emotion to his art, there’s a sense of flux to his style that mirrors the emotional arcs that Wood is depicting. Someone once said that “your job as a writer isn’t to show that virtue exists in the world, your job as a writer is to show your characters either moving toward it or moving away from it.” I don’t want to belabor this point about identity, because I’ve written literally thousands of words previously on the subject, about identity being the key to understanding Wood’s work (and I have a theory as to why that is, something I’ve never shared publicly), a connective tissue that thematically unites his library, so suffice it to say, it’s ever-present in Starve. Gavin Cruikshank wants to move back toward virtue, making some tough choices in the face of skeptics citing his past actions, but his choices here are usually for the right reasons, and he’s the type of charming rogue protagonist who we want to believe has noble intentions.

Zezelj’s work is very much at home in the city, it doesn’t matter if it’s some sprawling metropolis in Southeast Asia or a shot of the Flatiron entrenched firmly in NYC. He depicts a sort of urban claustrophobia that is at once intimidating, but also bristling with life and opportunity, and the excitement of the unknown lurking around every corner – sort of a quintessential NYC quality. There’s an inky weight to it that hangs heavy in your consciousness, showing characters on a precipice, uncertain of their own outcomes. It’s contemplative art in that sense, full of both hope and trepidation, with stippled skies that reflect the nuance of real life, all the disparate elements of one’s own journey coming together to define a person, those stipple marks slowly congealing to form a clear picture, a dynamic that lacks the certainty of outcome found in most fictional stories in pop culture. It is “real” art according to those terms, never afraid to inhabit gray space in a medium that’s all too often depicted in binary black and white. Dave Stewart’s colors also imbue the events with that sense of density and vibrancy, letting you know that anything can happen, effectively bouncing between muted grays and blue hues that seem to suggest the calm comfort of the familiar, to slightly more saturated pops of yellow and burnt orange that place readers on the teetering edge of a razor, right alongside the characters in the story.

When most audiences encounter the Starve protagonist Gavin Cruikshank for the first time, I think it’ll be easy for them to immediately say “oh, he’s like Gordon Ramsay,” but that’s too easy a reading. Ramsay is perhaps an easy target who’s become a household name in terms of popularity, but Wood himself has said in interviews that Cruikshank is more in the vein of Anthony Bourdain, “in a Transmetropolitan world,” (referring to Warren Ellis’ seminal work featuring gonzo journalist Spider Jerusalem), and that’s an important distinction to make. I’ve read Bourdain’s books and I watch his travel shows, and he’s always struck me as a more world-weary type. He’s a once-arrogant man whose experiences have tempered that personality toward a sort of hard-earned wisdom. I don’t pay enough attention to him to know if Ramsay is still ascendant or if he’s reached a cultural plateau, but Bourdain is past all that. Dude has experienced some shit in his life. He’s at a place that’s more contemplative, he’s a man who still has some incredible skill and insight to offer, but has lived enough to be able to look back on his career and try to reconcile that past and present I mentioned. Bourdain came up as an old-school chef, he went to school, apprenticed under some Old World culinary masters, and worked a line, in a time that just preceded celebrity fame and internet culture and the googah branding of the hand-foraged, locally -sourced, artisanally-curated, organically-grown, gluten-free, non-GMO, farm-to-table, free-range, pop-up hipster foodie paradigm found in re-purposed Brooklyn warehouses and up-sourced LA food trucks. I kid, but there’s a point here. In reality, Bourdain is only 10 years older than Ramsay, but it’s a big enough difference that it places them in different generations in terms of the way they engage with their careers and whatever social media laced fame has come their way. Simply put, both Tony Bourdain and Gavin Cruikshank are old-school chefs being asked to operate in new-school worlds, and there’s great dramatic tension created by the generational conflict. (It might also be fun to remind readers that Bourdain also tried his hand at comics, in 2013’s Get Jiro! with artist Langdon Foss, where future chefs run post-apocalyptic LA like crime bosses, a project in concurrent development that altered plans to release Starve through DC’s Vertigo imprint.)

The world of Starve is a brutal one, literally (keep your eye out for the pig butchering scene), and more figuratively (notice the way it positions the class distinction around something like dog meat), but it also hints at how food is one of the great equalizers, providing opportunities for estranged family members or even total strangers to bond. There’s something primal about breaking bread. Food is the best weapon for peace. One need only share a meal with an actual Italian in Tuscany, or an Indian in Bangalore, or an Aussie in West Ryde, or visit a hole in the wall rural BBQ joint in North Carolina (personal experiences here, you see), or cook a simple breakfast for your daughter (in the case of Cruikshank), to understand that food has always been an easy entry point into culture, and the interpersonal connections that its based on. When you appreciate those experiences first hand, differences fade, similarities begin to emerge, and you develop common ground with people that can start to block preconceived prejudices. Starve is very much about the food when it’s about the food though. There are flat out recipe captions happening in the pages of Starve, amid the oblique references to soju, garlic, and the occasional impromptu Bloody Mary. I think it’s also important to say to that Starve is just fun! It’s not all doom and gloom and parental anguish, there’s energy behind it. There’s passion for food and fervent love of New York City and a palpable sense of thrill. You can easily imagine seeing something like this on future TV, being swept up in a world of high stakes competition taken to its most extreme, a bourgeoisie distraction for the real ills of society. The Romans more concerned with the games in the Coliseum than the Empire crumbling and all. Don’t believe me? Does that sound pedantic? Well, I'm sorry, but 161 million people watched the last Super Bowl, and only 129 million people voted in the last Presidential Election. Those are the real numbers.

One need only look at work like DMZ and The Massive to know that Wood has dealt in things like global economic collapse, global climate change, or military adventurism run amok. And while that tendency toward the post-apocalyptic crashing down is present in Starve for contextual reasons, Wood is smart to ground the story in personal struggle. It’s fabulous world-building. It’s Iron Chef Thunderdome Survivor, the culinary arts hyper-exaggerated to entertainment, to sport, to trial by combat even, but the more scripts you write, the more you truly understand that world-building is not a story. It’s merely context for your characters to inhabit. World-building is just creating a space for the actual story to take place.  

It’s funny to think back to Channel Zero, a book which you could actually criticize for not having much of a plot, there’s not really a story there per se, just a collection of raw and powerful ideas linked together by a cool protagonist and slick analog imagery. But, that was nearly 20 years ago. In the intervening time, Wood’s had the benefit of crafting dozens of series, and working with some terrific editors in his career, I’m talking about people like Will Dennis at Vertigo and Sierra Hahn at Dark Horse, and it’s almost as if you can see that wisdom, all those years of the hard-fought grind coming to bear on a title like Starve. It’s not just Wood’s trademark touches like the identity quest, or love for New York City, or father-daughter dynamics. It’s not just his go-to themes of social prescience, political relevance, or thoughts on global stewardship all converging into one grand tale. There’s the opulence and originality of a really terrific world-build, but also the soul, the heart, the conflict of some really engaging people facing clear challenges and obstacles that need to be overcome. At a time when Wood is cranking out some masterpieces of entertainment that are very much “him,” things like rich and personal historical fiction with Vermont’s Green Mountain Boys in Rebels, or Viking culture at a social crossroads in Black Road, in light of all it offers, Starve might just be the most “Brian Wood” book that the writer has ever crafted.

In the end, there’s a lot to be said for the journey of Gavin Cruikshank. Not only is he trying to overcome obstacles in the short term, like winning the next food challenge he’s presented with (and as someone who’s read ahead a couple issues, I can tell you they get increasingly clever, difficult, and violent), but he’s also trying to win back the affection of his daughter in a way that isn’t driven by his own ego, but by the need to build at least one genuine relationship in his life. There’s also this primal idea of being pulled back into the game (the “one final job” trope), of the prodigal son returned home, having to tap his old network of contacts, to right all he perceives wrong in the world, the final bid to vanquish his old rival Roman Algiers, to reclaim his show from a bitter ex, his money from a greedy network, and his daughter from the passage of time and the damage of distance, and in the process, hopefully telling the cheap vapid industry interlopers and all the bullshit that has invaded his career, to finally fuck off once and for all. (One can easily wonder if there’s any subconscious meta-commentary seeping into the work, Wood considering his own place as an old-school comic book creator in an industry embracing the new-school, where popularity and personal branding can sometimes take priority over the quality of the work itself). But, this is the story of Gavin Cruikshank. Here’s a man who wants to leave the trappings of fame behind, and just enjoy the simple pleasure of grilling a steak to perfection in total anonymity for pure love of the work. Grade A+.

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