Magen Cubed is a novelist and comics critic. Her superhero/SFF series THE CRASHERS is coming soon from Booktrope.
Image Comics’ Starve #1 from writer Brian Wood, artist Daniel Zezelj, and colorist David Stewart has a bone to pick with the modern state of cooking shows. In a world of increasingly hyperbolic culinary tournaments, the simple act of teaching others to cook has morphed into a high-stakes game with alienating ingredients and impossible barriers to entry. Wood and Zezelj poke fun at this trend by running this model down to its equally hyperbolic conclusion amid rising global class divisions and sea levels, setting the stage for their unique dystopic vision of Iron Chef-as-Battle Royale. When food becomes scarce for 99% of the population, the top 1% use their ridiculous wealth to pit the world’s top chefs against each other in the highly popular arena sport show Starve. The idea is certainly novel enough to merit exploration, especially as contemporary cable food shows do battle over everything from cupcakes to BBQ in their bid to capture our attention and sate our appetites. But despite this novelty, do Wood, Zezelj, and Stewart do their premise justice?
Starve #1 follows Gavin Cruikshank, a globe-trotting and hyper-cynical caricature of food culture heroes like Anthony Bourdain. After creating the foodie travel show Starve, Gavin disappears for three years, falling into a state of drug- and alcohol-fueled excess across “somewhere in Southeast Asia.” While he’s cut off from the rest of the world, it succumbs to market crashes and global warming, turning America into a pitiless oligarchy with the super-rich at the top of the food chain. Soon market pressures morph his little foodie show into a high-octane spectacle, and his ex-wife Greer has Gavin declared dead so she can reap the financial windfall as his heir. This forces the network, under whom Gavin is still contracted, to drag him back kicking and screaming to go on Starve, prove he’s still alive, and produce the allotted episodes per his contract. It’s through this power-play that Gavin finds himself pitted against his long-time rival Roman Algiers and decides to circumvent the court system to get close to his estranged daughter Angie, whom Greer is keeping from him.
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Wood and Zezelj have developed quite an intriguing vision of near-future dystopia, following familiar class war tropes to some surprising ends. The respective contributions of Zezelj and Stewart collaborate beautifully on dirty, murky interior spaces and complicated metropolitan geometry. Elaborate, looming structures evoke a competing sense of awe and dread for the corporate power systems that pervade the world, with tendril-inspired interior architecture evoking an otherworldly evil. This contrasts well with the grubby claustrophobia of Gavin’s eastern sojourn, with tightly composed panels and densely populated exterior sequences that create spaces that look as dark and dank as they would feel. The poor are featureless, their bodies packed into cramped spaces while Gavin and others of privilege are afforded open spaces to operate, like lavish board rooms and wide city streets. Poverty and social disparity are explained through deliberate design choices and panel design rather than info-dump, giving a reader a better sense of the social scope with little unnecessary exposition.
Color plays an important role throughout the issue in world-building, as well. Stewart’s miasmic color choices and dingy texturing effects make the air look dense and hard to breathe, as though all of Zezelj’s angular, heavily-outlined characters are struggling to stay upright under its weight. Disaffected greens and grays define the indistinct boundaries of Gavin’s old life, where drugs and alcohol ran the days together in three years of excess. As Gavin moves back toward the promise of “civilized society,” the world gives way to transitional blue tones of the plane and the airport before finally shifting to the golden hues of New York City. The world of Starve is every bit as unattractive as it has to be, highlighting the inherent ugliness beneath the shiny corporate veneer, and Zezelj and Stewart do an incredible job of selling it to the reader.
The scripting, however, leaves me a little lukewarm. As a protagonist, Gavin offers little that readers haven’t already seen in abundance. He’s selfish, entitled, and seemingly only motivated by his desire to be free from his professional and personal attachments. This is meant to critique the culture of celebrity and call the entertainment industry itself into question, and I appreciate Wood’s efforts to do so. However, while Gavin’s occupation does offer a new lens to watch this familiar redemption arc unfold, he’s just a bit too paint-by-numbers to give the reader a compelling reason to become invested. Gavin’s certainly an unlikeable and unlikely anti-hero, but with so many other similar protagonists out there, I’m not particularly drawn to him.
The only thing that drives Gavin toward something meaningful is the introduction of his daughter Angie halfway through the issue, when he’s conveniently apologetic for having abandoned her. So far Angie is shown only as beautiful and estranged, the unlucky 17 year old caught between two warring parents, who gives the surly Gavin a reason to redeem himself in the reader’s eye. Every other character is similarly two-dimensional, verging on entirely blank. Perhaps in time Wood can flesh out these dynamics and characterizations, but for now, they lack a suitable hook. The world they inhabit is far more interesting than they are. Fortunately for this creative team, Starve #1’s world-building is strong enough to warrant a bump from this reviewer. This is a title definitely worth looking into, if only to see if Wood and Co. deliver on their premise, and enjoy the sumptuous world they’ve created.
Magen Cubed is a Contributor to ComiConverse. Follow her on Twitter: @MagenCubed