You should all know by now that I didn’t think Brian Wood’s last creator-owned series, “The Massive,” lived up to its potential. “Misguided” is the word I’d use to describe its mix of character-driven eco-political conflicts with a sci-fi/fantasy concept bolted onto the side of it. The concept for “Starve” is a lot more straightforward in the sense that it’s about an immensely popular chef who walked away from the cooking show he created and the life he knew only to be dragged back into it and forced to compete on the monstrosity that his program has now been warped into. I’m not sure if the world is ready for someone to combine “Transmetropolitan” with “Iron Wok Jan,” but that’s what Wood has done here. It’s an approach that appeals to me, and the energy of the first volume really makes me want to like it. That’s, “want to,” not “actually” because there are a few issues here that really drag the book down.
At one point in his life, Gavin Cruikshank was the most famous chef in the world and his show “Starve” was a little foodie travelogue that only served to reinforce his celebrity. Then he chucked it all and decided to start living it up in Southeast Asia after the trappings of fame got to be too much for him. Gavin was happy for those few years until a global economic downturn wiped out his finances and his network came calling for him to finish out his contract with “Starve.” In the years since he walked away from it all, Gavin’s show has since become a global phenomenon after it was re-fashioned from a travelogue to a culinary bloodsport designed to appease the rich. Our protagonist is happy to play ball with everyone to get the money he needs to make another clean break, only this time he’s planning on burning it all down when he leaves.
Gavin is an arrogant, self-centered ass most of the time here, yet these attributes turn out to be virtues when he’s pitted against his shrew of an ex-wife, sellout of a former friend who is now hosting “Starve,” and the one-percenters who the show is designed to cater to. The man also isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty when it comes to taking on these people. Whether it’s slicing off a piece of dog for himself, gutting and carving up a live pig on TV, or beating the crap out of rival chefs for the control of their kitchens, the man shows himself to be utterly fearless and possessed of a wicked creativity. Is he likeable? Not really. An electrifying presence to read about? Certainly.
Actually likeable is his daughter Angie. Rather than be resentful towards her father for running out on her, she shows herself to have a pretty decent understanding of his damaged personality and a willingness to accept him back into her life as a result. She’s even willing to join her dad in the aforementioned pig-gutting on “Starve.” Easily the most well-adjusted person in the cast, Angie doesn’t even freak out when Gavin pushes her away in the chef battle that takes place over the last two issues collected here. Instead, she decides to have some fun trolling her dad by sending him a selfie of her and the studio suit charged with supervising him proclaiming that they’re his biggest fans. So yeah, likeable, and with a characterization that doesn’t take the obvious path in dealing with a dad like Gavin.
The five issues collected here detail Gavin’s return to civilization and his acclimation to the new culinary warfare of “Starve.” While it’s a good deal of fun seeing him use his skills to take on the challenges set before him, there are also a lot of problems with the execution here. One is a willingness to duck out on the culinary battle aspects of this series early on. The first issue ends with the indelible image of Gavin sucking down some dogmeat only for issue two to jump right past the stated challenge of actually cooking it and telling us that he won over the audience with that battle. Then you have the bluefin battle in issue two where our protagonist triumphs over his competition through the awesome power of sanctimony! It’s as satisfying as it sounds. Things get a little better in the subsequent pig and BBQ battles, but a thrilling food battle series this is not. For all of the foodie knowledge on display here Wood can’t really seem to turn it into something workably dramatic.
There’s also a scene between Gavin and Angie in the third issue that has me deeply worried that the writer has plans to soften his protagonist’s hard edges. It’s when the chef’s daughter asks him to cook her some eggs and he just can’t do it. Why? As Angie informs him it’s because he has forgotten how to cook for love. No, really. It’s a deeply out-of-place bit of sentimentality that rings hollow here. I have no doubt that this whole experience will cause Gavin to grow in unexpected ways by the time it’s over. My problem is that this scene indicates that this growth will be in the safest, most predictable, and Hollywood-friendly kind of way.
Then you have the art from Danijel Zezelj. He’s worked with Wood before on “DMZ” and “The Massive,” and the two appear to have a good working relationship with the storytelling flowing well throughout the volume. Zezelj’s sketchy, reedy linework is also great for setting up and oppressive, dystopic tone for the series -- giving it an almost satirical edge as a result of the focus on food battles rather than overthrowing the powers that be.
Where the art fails the series is in a pretty critical area: the food. If you’re doing a series about delicious food that changes people’s minds -- and even gets them to realize what horrible people they are -- it’s important that what’s on the plate looks good enough to eat. Zezelj makes the various dishes served up here look edible and nothing more. For a series where the conflicts hinge on one person making more delicious food than the other, conveying that through the art is crucial to the narrative. “Iron Wok Jan” pulled this off, and while it wasn’t a “cooking battle” series, the sweets in “Antique Bakery” looked mouth-watering enough to convince me of the characters’ skills. Maybe he’ll get better at this as things go along, but the good work Zezelj does with storytelling and tone is almost overshadowed here by this particular deficit.
“Starve” has energy and a compelling lead character, and some issues that really make it hard for me to recommend this series to anyone else. Some of these problems might work themselves out over subsequent volumes, though I think I should resign myself to the fact that the food will never look more delicious than how it’s drawn here. Though this series is a hybrid of two of my all-time favorites, it’s not really as good as either. However, it may eventually evolve into something I can enjoy with less reservations. We shall see.