Sometimes it’s difficult to discern what the best new series will be out of each Image Expo. There’s no doubt that these small events are more packed with talent and great ideas than what any other publisher can pack into 12 hours. But when you’re on a budget or limited for time, you have to pick and choose what you have to read. You have to dodge the great pitches that land with a thud (I’m looking at you, Kaptara), and discover the truly incredible new series that will have you tearing your hair out between issues.
After having read the first four issues, I’m here to tell you that Starve (written by Brian Wood, illustrated by Danijel Zezelj, and colored by Dave Stewart (and co-owned by all three creators)) is the best new series to come out of January’s Image Expo so far. It reads fast and smart, presents stunning inks and colors, and feels like nothing else on the stands.
It’s damn good comic books.
Starve tells the story of Gavin Cruikshank, a celebrity chef who has gone into hiding for the past five years since a global financial meltdown. In the meanwhile, his small cooking show has become the biggest television hit in the world. Now he is being dragged back into the world of celebrity cooking to compete for his reputation, his money, and his daughter in a world where only the 0.1% have anything at all.
That political mind will be familiar to fans of Brian Wood’s work on series like DMZ and The Massive. There is no doubt that Starve has capitalism and its ill effects at the forefront of its mind. Its set in a wasteland caused by greed, and features an elite, moneyed class of people who flaunt what they have in the faces of those who are literally starving… on a show called STARVE. It’s caustic and witty, but the politics are never off-putting (unless you subscribe to Randian philosophy, in which case, please leave). Wood knows what he wants to say and says it well, but if politics form the mind of Starve, then its characters make up its heart.
Gavin is the kind of protagonist that will engage readers with a love-hate relationship. Comparisons to Hugh Laurie’s Gregory House and Dominic West’s Jimmy McNulty immediately spring to mind. There’s rage and addiction and cruelty in Gavin’s heart, but it’s moderated by intense loves and a joie de vivre. He’s conflicted, contradictory, and what that really means is human. For as off-putting as Gavin can be, when he’s in the presence of his passions it’s easy to fall in love with him. That probably has something to do with what those passions are: his daughter and his cooking.
Angie, Gavin’s daughter, may not be the lead character of the series, but she certainly forms the emotional core. Her intelligence, charm, and wit make for a young woman that any parent could be proud of, both Gavin and his ex-wife Greer certainly are. Looking at Angie in the first four issues, it’s easy to detect an autobiographical element of a father challenged to be better by his children. In the first four issues, she’s all positivity and love, but is provided an air of mystery and depth in Zezelj’s compositions. She is always listening and much more conscious of her surroundings than either Gavin or Greer give her credit for. What could be an ideal daughter is being slowly formed into an autonomous character that ought to be able to surprise us.
Food, on the other hand, plays a slightly less subtle, but even more beautiful role in the opening issues. This is not an instructional manual, like some of the wonderful cooking manga in Japan, but it presents the culinary arts with grace and detail. Panels detailing dishes from the competition give just enough description of the process and combinations to imagine the flavor, and Zezelj and Stewart’s presentation is enough to make a man drool. The use of cooking, the presentation of food, and competitive nature of chefs also provides Starve with something unlike anything else in American comics. It is a series that makes cooking every bit as exciting as shootouts and superhero brawls. Any hyperbole aside, cooking is a thrilling experience on par with the best car chases in Starve #4.
Money plays a central role in his return as well, and that’s not a compliment. Starve is a series about greed and its terrible effects on both society and individuals. Gavin’s passion for his own gain will inevitably prove to be a destructive factor, but it’s still difficult to root against a man who loves his art and kin so dearly.
Gavin’s passions, specifically his love for his daughter, is offset by his hatreds. His old rival Roman and anger at being pulled back into a competitive rat race are obvious, but nothing parallels the shared loathing between Gavin and Greer. If Starve has a fault, this is where it lies. The first four issues are entirely unsympathetic to Greer, a woman who married a gay man (unbeknownst to her) and suffered in a marriage to a workaholic and addict for almost two decades. In legal proceedings she is malicious, and it appears that she has every right to be. Starve does not have a sympathetic ear for Greer though, and presents her as a villain to Gavin’s return. Despite having every reason in the world to distrust him and seek restitution, almost every act Greer takes is cast in a malicious light.
The ugliness of that presentation does not topple the beauty of Starve though. I’ve already mentioned the incredible character work found in Angie and Gavin, and the delicious, mouth watering dishes, but those are only a fraction of the delectable pages created by Zezelj and Stewart.
Each completed page of Starve reads like a stanza, every panel a single line, forming into chapters to create an epic of blank verse. Zezelj composes most of his pages around a central panel that lacks any distinct borders. Instead they drip outside of themselves into the bleed and around the other panels. The selection of these central panels is not incidental; they are the focal points for each page presenting a significant establishing shot or key moment. Students studying comics ought to take these segments one at a time and study the choices being made in composition, Zezelj would prove an excellent teacher, even indirectly.
Zezelj manages to discover the perfect blend of darkness and levity for this story. It’s a careful balance carried out in his dark inking and sharp, lively characters and settings. Shadows drip over the work like pollution raining from the sky of South China. The time jump into a near future where financial and climate shocks have rocked the world is told effortlessly in the art. There’s a sickening beauty to stacked slums embroiled in poverty and overpopulation. Life still emerges, but it carries a new weight to it. Even Gavin’s face is weighed down by these dark inks, with both years and experience bearing a greater force than gravity.
Yet Starve is not a heavy read. It contains energy and is legitimately fun. It is here that Zezelj’s sense of balance becomes clear. He knows how to sharpen lines on cityscapes and moving forms to instill them with life beneath the clouds. Angie’s beauty is ever more apparent when set side-by-side with her father’s features, and even Gavin comes to life when in action. The difference between the chef fighting legal battles and cooking is something to behold and makes his first several challenges on STARVE sing with energy. There is a propulsive kineticism to Zezelj’s compositions when it counts and they make Starve a thrill to read.
Stewart composes his pages in a manner matching Zezelj’s with each forming a perfect, unique stanza. There is a distinct palette for each setting that draws every piece together. Slums in Southeast Asia are cast in pallid greens dripping with the toxins and recycled air of impoverished neighborhoods, while Gavin’s return to STARVE is blown up in shining, soulless yellow lights. This focused coloring scheme draws all of the distinct elements of Zezelj’s page and helps to weave them into an inextricably linked whole.
Stewart’s colors not only draw the pages together, but inform readers of relationships and meanings within them. The red of raw flesh stands out against the bright, but lifeless lights of the STARVE stage. However, the most distinctive difference is a very subtle change in Starve #1. When Gavin sees his daughter for the very first time in five years, she is placed against the cold greys of urban Manhattan. Yet her face and the background behind her stands out as a warm, but pale rose. It’s not so different as to shock readers, but it provides information that cannot be ignored. In a heartless city, this is where Gavin’s heart lies. It is a beautiful, understated message carried effortlessly in Stewart’s work.
Image Comics, and American comics publishers overall, have been putting out a lot of great work in 2015. It feels like a creator owned renaissance of a form that I (and probably anyone reading this site) adores. Starve is one of the absolute best things to emerge so far, possibly the best. It is a combination of smarts, style, and passion that merge flawlessly together into a treatise on modern politics and humanity. I can hardly think of a new series that is as intellectually impactful and passionately effective as Starve.