The holidays are a time for festivity, family, and perhaps most notably, food. Traditional, hearty meals shared with loved ones ignite the senses — but remember, we eat with the eyes first.
While there are plenty of comic books out there about super heroes, giant monsters, and murder mysteries, occasionally the selling point of a story will be its culinary inclinations. Even if you can’t smell it or taste it, illustrated food can be a powerful tool — just ask a Miyazaki movie — and the culture around cooking, finding the perfect ingredients, and even running a restaurant can provide a perfect backdrop for many unique series.
In that case, while you’re lazing about in your comfiest clothes, feeling the effects of digestion, why not treat yourself to a feast for the eyes? (No calories!) If you’re looking for the best graphic novels about food, here are some of the most inventive, delectable, and sometimes stomach-turning tales independent publishers have to offer.
Chew: Taster’s Choice (Image Comics)
Creative Team: John Layman (writer/letters), Rob Guillory (artist/colors)
Why Read This?: One part CSI, one part Hannibal, Chew is one of the most unique and beloved independent comics on the modern menu. This unconventional series is set in a world where poultry and bird-associated meats are illegal due to an outbreak of a bird flu virus that killed millions. Tony Chu is a vice cop and eventual agent for the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) who is tasked with locating the illegal smuggling of chicken meat. Howeverm most peculiarly, he is a cibopath (see-bo-path) capable of receiving psychic, empathic projections, visions, and information from the food he eats. Beets are the only things he can eat that don’t trigger his powers.
This strange premise gets even weirder as Chu tracks and traces illegal meats. He ends up biting off more than he can chew when human remains are found in the meals of disreputable fast food organizations. The culinary world in Chew is rife with black market schemes, murder mystery, genetic experimentation to create chicken substitutes, and even underground rooster fights. With visual humor thanks to Guillory’s distinct art style and the exciting, if bizarre, plots, it’s no wonder this book is one of the most notable Image Comics releases of the last decade. Ending in 2016 with a total of 60 issues, we’re glad this off-kilter series didn’t choke.
Get Jiro! (Vertigo)
Creative Team: Anthony Bourdain, Joel Rose (writers), Langdon Foss, José Villarrubia (artists), Dave Stewart (colors), Todd Klein (letters)
Why Read This?: Yes, this book was written by that Anthony Bourdain, the renowned chef and New York Times best-selling author. Published originally through the envelope-pushing Vertigo imprint at DC Comics, Get Jiro! takes place in a not-so-distant future, blending celebrity chef culture with mafia dealings. Set in star-studded Los Angeles, this series sees master chefs running crime rackets and keeping the city in a vice grip. People would (and do) kill for a seat at the table in their exclusive restaurants, but a renegade sushi chef named Jiro shows up to shake the status quo.
Ruthless and determined, Jiro challenges the criminal chefs and ignites a culinary war that threatens to flambé, sauté, and julienne through just about everyone in LA, leaving only the most vicious chefs standing. Surprisingly, this isn’t the only feature on this list with Bourdain as a co-writer, but it’s markedly different. Get Jiro! has plenty of attitude and humor, plus almost comical violence. In a world where chefs are king, food-related snobbery is taken to a whole new level and represents Bourdain’s own commentary on how our culture’s food obsession has turned sour.
Hungry Ghosts (Dark Horse Comics)
Creative Team: Anthony Bourdain, Joel Rose (writers), Sebastián Cabrol, Alberto Ponticelli, Vanesa R. Del Rey, Mateus Santolouco, Leonardo Manco, Irene Koh, Paul Pope, Francesco Francavilla (artists), José Villarrubia (colors)
Why Read This?: The “hungry ghost” is a real concept in many branches of Buddhism, and doesn’t just mean the spirit of a deceased person. Differing from regular ghosts, “hungry ghosts” are driven by intense and almost primal emotional needs as a result of bad deeds performed in life. With this in mind, Bourdain’s Hungry Ghosts is another celebrated graphic novel that takes inspiration from horrors found in Japanese mythology. It’s reminiscent of Edo-period ghost tales and, of course, re-contextualizes them around food, shared dinners, and other culinary occasions.
This collection of stories paired Bourdain and returning co-writer Joel Rose (Get Jiro!) with artists Alberto Ponticelli, Vanesa R. Del Rey, Leonardo Manco, Mateus Santolouco, Sebastián Cabrol, Paul Pope, Francesco Francavilla, and Irene Koh for a variety of haunting subjects. The book also features five original recipes from the late chef, including a saffron risotto, osso buco, Tokyo-style ramen, and more. Finally, the collected edition features a glossary on some of the ghostly terminology seen throughout the many legends and updated stories. If you’re in the mood for horror, Hungry Ghosts will give you your fill.
Seconds (Ballantine Books)
Creative Team: Bryan Lee O’Malley (writer/artist), Nathan Fairbairn (colors), Dustin Harbin (letters)
Why Read This?: Not all stories about running a restaurant involve mafia murders and illegal chicken markets. Bryan Lee O’Malley’s celebrated story Seconds has elements of fabulism, but is a much more relatable story than others on this list. Fans might recognize O’Malley from his beloved Scott Pilgrim series, and this graphic novel has a lot of the same heart, expressiveness, and energy to it (with a lot fewer evil exes). Katie Clay owns a restaurant called Seconds, aptly named as she is granted a mysterious and magical chance to create “do-overs” for herself thanks to a magical mushroom (no, not that kind) and a set of instructions.
Breaking the rules and consistently using the mushrooms to prevent injuries, fix bad relationships, and keep her business afloat, Kate unwittingly ends up creating more disruption as she tries to make her life perfect. Well-crafted and honest, Seconds stands out and stands apart even in the shadow of Scott Pilgrim. Who wouldn’t want a do-over for some of their biggest (or smallest) mistakes? Go ahead and give yourself another helping of this story, sure to be a heartfelt favorite on your list this year.
Space Battle Lunchtime (Oni Press)
Creative Team: Natalie Riess (writer/artist/colors/letters)
Why Read This?: Move over, Chopped! Pitched by the creator Natalie Riess as “a delicious combo of goofy science fiction, shojo manga, and Food Network,” Space Battle Lunchtime is a fun and energetic series about a young pastry chef from Earth who enters herself in an intergalactic cooking competition. Peony, the chef in question, quickly learns that the competition is shot on location — in space! — and her cosmic competitors don’t exactly see eye to eye (to eye to eye to eye) on the rules of fair play. If you thought getting to the ice cream machine first was the ultimate in culinary dramatics, you haven’t seen anything yet.
The series has three collected volumes available now, and the story progresses beyond the bounds of the cooking competition to even more intergalactic food-themed fun. We won’t spoil it for you, but space royalty, queer romance, and plenty of baking make Space Battle Lunchtime a recipe for success!
These are just a few great stories to whet your appetite for food-themed comics. Be sure to support your local comic book store if you’re looking to pick up any of these tasty titles!
Can you think of any other graphic novels about food that we might have missed out on? Connect with other foodie comics fans in our Local Comics Society Facebook Group, and don’t forget to Let Your Geek Sideshow!