Three for Thursday: Independent Comics Review: Starve #2 and More


Every week I turn my attention to a few comics released by publishers other than the Big Two. This week we look at three …

Starve #2
Writer: Wood, Brian
Artist: Zezelj, Danijel
Cover Artist: Stewart, Dave
Published by Image 

I usually do not pay much attention to other people’s opinions in regards to content. Books, movies, and, of course, comics, all invite us to form opinions and take up the role of critic. And it is a foregone conclusion that in this massively wired world that we live in, consensus surrounding any given bit of content forms lightning fast, and in many ways to the detriment of the content itself. New ideas do not often get the chance to grow on us. Like the Roman Caesar in the Coliseum, we issue our thumbs-up or thumbs-down sometimes before we even get a chance to examine the new thing! We rush our opinions, rush our judgement because that is just the way this ol’ world of ours moves. So when I say that I do not pay attention to how others respond to new stories, what I really mean is I do not go consciously looking for others’ thoughts: those thoughts are going to make their way to me whether I like it or not.

But after getting so excited about Brain Wood’s new Image title, Starve, a few weeks ago, I was curious about how fans embraced the comic. I jumped into the Interwebs. And I was more than a little surprised to find a lot of negative reaction. Not from voices I trust, I should note, but the fact that the rank-and-file comic fan appeared to genuinely dislike Mr. Wood’s new title took me aback. Some disliked Danijel Zezelj’s “dark” artwork (the first solo comic artist to have his work displayed at Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, Massachusetts). Some disagreed with Wood’s characterization of a gay man (“OMG, could Wood have been more awkward in introducing his queer character?” fans asked in varying degrees of disdain). What fan response told me was that, for one, most comic fans are idiots and have the stylistic sensibilities of 3rd graders, and two, these same fans are not shy about shouting their lack of sophistication to the world. There are opinions and then there are qualified ones; just because you “don’t like it” does not give your insight value. It shouldn’t anyway.

Like I said, there is a reason I do not typically go looking for anyone’s opinions.

I gripe only because my experience of reading Starve #2 was clouded by the negative criticism I had found in response to the first issue.  There I was reading what I am sure is the best comic I have read since Saga started, and it was all I could do to keep those critical voices at bay. There’s that dark (wonderfully realized) artwork those yahoos were talking about. Oops, Wood made a reference to the homosexual nature of his protagonist. And oh no, Mr. Wood appears to be commenting on the ugly consumerism and class inequality in the world today. Given, I am a good enough a critical reader that I can mostly tune out whispers from the peanut gallery, but I suppose my frustration with fan response to the first issue got to me. In my humble opinion, Mr. Wood and Mr. Zezelj worked very hard to give us one of the finest comic titles on the shelves today, and it disappoints me that more have not recognized their efforts.

Every page of Starve is dark and run through a red or sepia or some other filter. But this is a dark and crowded world that we find the protagonist of our story, Gavin Cruikshank. Zezlj’s art fills these pages, crowding them, threatening to burst from the pages. His layouts are as organically-minded as his panels; graphically the story of Gavin fighting to reclaim his life flows like a multi-course dinner, a bit of appetizer here, a sweet aperitif there, all flowing to the main course. In this case, Gavin’s struggle to find his footing both personally and professionally make up the heart of Starve #2. Once the hottest celebrity chef in the world, he not only has to prove that he still has the skills to thrive in the crucible of professional cooking, but that he deserves to be a part of his estranged daughter’s life. He takes on both challenges with determination and thoughtful deliberation.

"Chefs like to talk about “honoring” the food they cook with. I always found that terminology to be a bit too precious. A bit self-important. Cooking professionally is a mercenary activity, a bloodsport of a type.Gavin Cruikshank, Starve #2"

In order for Gavin to move closer to his goals, he will have to succeed in Starve, the cooking show he created years ago. The show has evolved from his brainchild into a celebration of excess and the 1%. Chefs on the show compete against one another to create the most outrageous dishes, and audiences around the world tune in to witness the stilted drama. As the competition takes off, Gavin responds by turning back the dial, setting it closer to simple rather than complex. When preparing what may be the last Bluefin tuna in the world, he avoids the flare and complexity his competition decides the fish deserves and instead creates a simple sashimi. The judges love it. The audience loves Gavin. And all the while Gavin shares his thoughts with us, the only witnesses to his troubled heart. He is disgusted by Starve, the judges and the audience itself. Were it not for the chance that he could get to know his daughter, he would not even be trying. But he is not only trying, he is winning.

I guess I can believe that I have gotten caught up in the subversive, “Occupy” vibe of Starve the comic. Gavin is a barely controlled piece of human passion and creativity in a world that is ready to devour him the moment he cracks. In some ways, his struggle to beat that world back and to make a bit of space for himself and his daughter is a story of overcoming oppression. So much of that oppression consists of unfounded opinions, jealous maneuvering and society’s rush to consume, that I cannot help but to recognize Gavin’s world to some degree and to feel similarly pissed off.

From Image:

"The scathing look at foodie culture and celebrity chef fandom continues. Think Anthony Bourdain in a Transmet world."

Strange Fruit #1
Writer: Jones, J. G., Waid, Mark
Artist: Jones, J. G.
Published by BOOM!

Speaking of pissed off, nothing has upset more people in recent weeks than the racially charged issue of the Confederate flag flying in public spaces. Obviously, for most rational people it is clear that the Confederate flag can be seen as a symbol of the subjugation of millions and a reminder of a dark time in our nation’s past. The flag has no place in our shared, public spaces. It has been the discussion that surrounds its use in private spaces that has caught my attention. Retailers have (rather noisily) stopped selling the flag, game makers are wiping it from existence, and even the ol’ General Lee is getting a makeover. The flag and its image have become hyper-controversial. Yet for the extreme visibility the topic has garnered, the last place I would have thought the controversy would show up would be in a comic I was reading. Call me naïve, but aside from costume issues and characters’ sexual orientation, I do not often think of the comic medium as “controversial.” Sure enough, however, there was the flag at the heart of so much current news-making showing up prominently in Strange Fruit #1.

Strange Fruit comes from the wholly talented team of J.G. Jones, Mark Waid and BOOM! Studios. I have not researched where Jones or Waid came up for their premise for their story, but it seems obvious enough: what would the story of Superman have been like had his spaceship that took him to earth as an infant crashed not in Kansas in the 1930’s, but instead in sharecropper country in 1920’s Mississippi? It is an interesting premise. I’m not sure if I had known about this “hook” beforehand whether I would have read the comic. Probably not. We have already seen alternate versions of The Man of Steel as a Soviet, a villain and even of African descent, and it all seems so derivative. From a narrative perspective, these versions seem based more on giving readers a shock than anything else. But having said that, I am glad that I did not know much about this comic before reading it. It was a challenging and gratifying read.

To be fair, the comparison to Superman is not totally evident until the last few pages of the comic. For most of it, Waid and Jones give us a close look at the social dynamics of 1927 Mississippi. It’s an ugly place full of white racists and abused blacks. Some of the language used in the comic made my eyebrows arch with their racist overtones. The KKK makes an appearance, and more than one injustice is perpetuated in the name of “Southern tradition.” Most stories today go out of their way for the sake of political correctness or historical revisionism, so it was a shock to see Strange Fruit engage as many of the themes as it did, and so quickly.

The Mississippi river floods to historic levels, and the residents of Chaterlee find themselves in a predicament. They need to shore up the levees that protect their town, but the whites want to use draconian Jim Crow laws — not much different from those of slavery — to enforce the work and control the black population.  The black population is understandably upset at this perpetuation of old evils and responds in mixed fashion. Under extreme intimidation and threats by the KKK, most submit to working on the levees. One young man, Sonny, decides to run.

It is through Sonny’s eyes that Jones and Waid want us to see the world they have crafted. Free of little more than speaking his mind, Sonny is demonized by a contingent of white townsfolk, including the KKK. They chase him as he runs, and we see that not all of Chaterlee’s white people are racists. A white plantation owner tries to hide Sonny from the mob. A brave widow takes up arms to protect Sonny. Even with that support, however, Sonny finds himself alone in the wilderness.

Until, of course, Superman shows up. Or rather, it looks like Sonny has run out of luck, when from the skies, something crashes to Earth. The bright flash and thundering boom is noticed by everyone in Chaterlee. But it is Sonny, struggling to survive his next few moments, who first encounters the being at the heart of the sound and fury. In appearance, the being looks like a huge, extremely well-sculpted black man. But as the KKK closes in on Sonny and this strange being, his otherworldly nature begins to show. He takes a shotgun blast directly into his chest and is not hurt. He manhandles the weaker KKK members and even uproots a tree to beat them back. His physicality is nothing short of superhuman. The comic ends with the KKK running away and Sonny disbelieving what he just witnessed.

Aside from the challenging nature of the comic, I was happy to have picked it up for its overall quality. Covered in heavy card stock and with Mr. Jones inestimable artwork, this is one of the finest looking and feeling comics I have handled in a long time. Jones and Waid have also created a dense world for their story. Characters have great depth and the place and time in which the story takes place is particularly unique. It’s not quite a history lesson and it is not quite a super hero book, but I find that however we want to call it, it was a fun and satisfying read.

From BOOM!:

"What’s to Love: Two of the industry’s most respected and prolific creators come together for the first time in a deeply personal passion project. J.G. Jones (52, Wanted, Y: The Last Man) and Mark Waid (Irredeemable, Superman: Birthright, Kingdom Come) take on a powerful, beautifully painted story set during the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. Strange Fruit is a challenging, provocative examination of the heroic myth confronting the themes of racism, cultural legacy, and human nature through a literary lens, John Steinbeck’s classic novel, Of Mice and Men. What It Is: It’s 1927 in the town of Chatterlee, Mississippi, drowned by heavy rains. The Mississippi River is rising, threatening to break open not only the levees, but also the racial and social divisions of this former plantation town. A fiery messenger from the skies heralds the appearance of a being, one that will rip open the tensions in Chatterlee. Savior, or threat? It depends on where you stand. All the while, the waters are still rapidly rising."

Harrow County #3
Writer: Bunn, Cullen
Artist: Crook, Tyler
Cover Artist: Crook, Tyler
Published by Dark Horse

With word this week that Dark Horse has partnered with a television production company to bring their properties to the small screen, I read Harrow County #3 with a particular kind of focus. The title was at the top of the list of comics Dark Horse was looking to translate to TV, and it was fun reading the book while at the back of my head thinking how it may work as a television show. I think it will translate well.

The hero/witch/villain of Harrow County, Emmy, is about as sympathetic and vulnerable a character one could find to build a story around. A sweet and smart country girl, you’ve seen me compare her in the past to Alice or Dorothy from their respective myths. The secret that the townsfolk of Harrow County attempt to hide is also readily identifiable to fans of popular storytelling. We have seen the like in Nightmare on Elm Street and Carrie. The horror aspects of Harrow County should also appeal to a large group. It is a kind of off-the-wall, primal horror that includes talking carcasses, trees giving birth to witches, and flaming, hungry ghosts. Yes indeed, this story should translate well to TV.

In Harrow County #3, Emmy has taken flight from her father, and everyone else for that matter. She understands that they want to kill her, but she does not know why. She hears them talk about evil returning and how Emmy must be destroyed, and off she goes into the deep woods, confused and hurt. She had never shown an inclination toward evil, and was in fact considered gentle and kind. There must be a mistake, she thinks, even as she runs. In the woods, she unexpectedly teams up with a local girl, Bernice, that she had grown up with. Together they are given a fright as they stumble onto  a deserted cemetery. Flaming ghosts greet them silently and move toward them. Before they get too close, Emmy tells them to back off. They do. She tells them to make way and they do. Bernice is a bit rattled by the way in which the ghosts listen to Emmy, but they continue on into  the night.

When Emmy and Bernice are found by Emmy’s dad, I began to believe that the townsfolk really did want to kill Emmy. Up to this point, the conversations Emmy had overheard could have been written off, maybe, as a big misunderstanding. But when Emmy’s “Pa” begins to choke her to death, any belief that the townsfolk wanted to do right by her went out the window. The relationship between Emmy and her father had been portrayed as strong and loving, so it was quite a shock to see him try to kill her. The skinless boy that has been such a big part of the story to date saves Emmy though, pushing her father back, ready to kill him. Emmy, hesitating, orders the boy to stop. Much like the reader though, she realizes her life to that point is over. She will no longer be welcome in the town; more, she tells her father and Bernice to leave her alone as she tries to find a place for herself in the world.

"Don’t come after me again. Leave me alone if you know what is good for you. It’s like I said … I’m not a monster. But I can be.Emmy, Harrow County #3"

While I am excited about the prospect of Harrow County showing up on TV, I think I am more excited about where the story is going in the comics. Dark Horse has given us a familiar story structure with just enough bells and whistles to make it its own thing. The thing is dark and a bit sad, but so far it has been touching and human as well.

From Dark Horse:

"Terrified by what she’s learned of witches and monsters, Emmy takes shelter in an ancient graveyard, as she’s hunted down by her own family!"

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