Magen Cubed is a novelist and comics critic. Her superhero/SFF series THE CRASHERS is coming soon from Booktrope.
Starve from Image Comics is a sharp character drama that examines America’s increasingly bizarre relationship with food. The creative team, consisting of writer Brian Wood, artist Danijel Zezelj, and colorist Dave Stewart, do so by lampooning the melodrama of competition cooking shows. Taken on face-value, their critique is straightforward. Combining the format of Iron Chef with the demands of Chopped, adding in the high-stakes sensibilities of an international sports tournament, Starve embraces the cultish idolatry surrounding celebrity chefs to wave its finger at contemporary food programming. But Wood, Zezelj, and Stewart’s criticism of American food culture is much more nuanced than that, examining how class affects our relationships with food, and how the media we consume warps it even further.
In Starve, the world as we know it has eroded, driven by climate change, class divisions, and food shortages. Wood’s dialogue and box narration provides relevant exposition on the state of the world, but the broader scope of its decline is delivered by the graphic narrative itself. Zezelj and Stewart’s dirty, crowded, broken-down vision of the world culminates in ramshackle cityscapes. Here the separation between architecture and decay, corporate messaging and vandalism, has become indistinguishable. Pillars of neon light cast an eerie orange glow over crowded streets populated by hunched, hooded, and masked figures, their faces obscured by chiaroscuro lighting. Darkness is everywhere and there are no faces in the crowds, just the amorphous shape of the unwashed masses.
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This busted, used-up New York City evokes the rigid class-based anxieties of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and the dystopic grime of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. Food is scarce for the average person and the spaces in which they eat are as oppressive as the city bearing down on them. The blue-tinged kitchens seen in the second issue have cracks and stains in the plaster, their murky corners covered by shadow and rot. Towering billboards for the Starve television show loom over the entire page in juxtaposition, contrasting the claustrophobic rooms where people prepare and consume food with the corporate artifice of pop food culture.
But Starve isn’t seen from the perspective of the average American. It follows celebrity chef Gavin Cruikshank, an unpleasant, drug-addled, hyper-stylized caricature of food culture heroes like Anthony Bourdain. Gavin is part of the elite, the upper echelon of society that uses food as status, entertainment, and escapism, eating and drinking his way across the Asian continent as America fell apart. His familiar redemption storyline has him winning his estranged daughter’s affections and beating out the competition on Starve, his own Frankenstein’s monster that morphed from a travel show into a turbo-charged battle royale. He’s an exiled king come home to find his crown stolen, and by tearing down the monolith he inadvertently created, he’s going to take it back.
While the world beneath the elaborate concrete spires and plush network headquarters makes do with the food that’s available, the elite pay for the luxury of pretending that nothing has changed. The ultra-wealthy pit celebrity chefs against each other in a cruel mockery of the impoverished, sourcing ingredients that range from the endangered blue fin tuna to the abundant dog, calling for greater and greater culinary ruthlessness. Judges weep on national television over dishes inaccessible to the voyeuristic audience watching at home, delighting in sensory experiences available only to the privileged few. Food isn’t just food in Starve; it’s status, art, and to some extent, a form of pornography for those who can only watch the lurid spectacle unfold.
Dystopia aside, Starve’s heartless oligarchic vision of America isn’t far off from the one many of us currently occupy. Food culture and consumption in America is a strange, neurotic, and often cruel thing. Despite the record-breaking drought currently razing California, Nestle continues to draw and bottle water in affected areas. Western superfood fads for imported products like quinoa and coconut oil rob indigenous populations of dietary staples and negatively impact local growers through price inflation. Monocropping practices contribute to declining soil health across the country as farms continue to produce more food than we can consume year after year. Studies show that Americans throw away up to 40% of food per year, filling landfills with millions of dollars of perfectly good meat and produce, often due to cosmetic defects and the impossible aesthetic standards set by corporate retailers. Food is perfect, abundant, and designed to make us feel great despite the harm its sourcing inflicts on others.
Beyond short-sighted farming, food waste, and inhumane sourcing, the American media paints our relationship with food in a bleak image of its own. The very nature of food’s strong associations with different classes and cultures makes it both a powerful symbol of tradition, family, and identity, but it’s become quite a bit more complicated than that. Television bombards us with bottomless, endless, all-you-can-eat indulgences one moment and body-shaping, hungry-stopping dieting programs the next. Food underscores nearly all major holidays as a means of celebration, but often provides nothing but anxiety the rest of the year as people wax and worry about what they consume and how. Bookstore shelves are filled with cookbooks promising “quick fix,” “worry-free,” “no stress,” recipes for the anxious chef, attempting to pierce the veil of mystery and distress that so many seem to associate with food.
Similarly, American food television has evolved from educational programming for the casual at-home cook to the high-octane, kill-or-be-killed principles of the modern culinary battle. Gone are the Julia Childs of the world, replaced with boot camp drill sergeants and the voyeurism of documentary-style production, meant to catch every emotional breakdown in glorious high definition. Chefs like those Gavin satirizes have risen to the ranks of international taste-makers, witty, discerning, and all-knowing judges teaching others how to relate to food. Everything from cupcakes to BBQ to haute cuisine have adopted the rigours of high-level competition, taking on the militaristic language of conquest and domination as participants are put through increasingly extreme challenges. Winners are exalted for their efforts, elevating food to higher levels of understanding; losers are torn down and screamed at by celebrities for our collective entertainment.
When dressed up as a war game and set to arduous time trials, so often food isn’t allowed to be enjoyed anymore. Instead it distracts, shames, and provides even higher barriers of entry to the economically disadvantaged, widening preexisting class divisions. Conversely, the ease of access to the kinds of experiences and ideals perpetuated by food culture allows everyone to enjoy culinary escapism. We’re not really like the privileged elite watching the drama of Starve unfold, but we can pretend like we are. Food and cultural tourism affords us that privilege, no matter how briefly.
As Starve extrapolates on America’s troubling relationship with food, Gavin Cruikshank serves as an interesting counterpoint to the manufactured spectacle of food culture. Food and cooking is the focus of his characterization, but his relationship with these commodified ideas shuns the toxicity perpetuated by corporate culture. While living abroad he is seen reveling in the local cuisine served by street vendors and noodle shops, commending these cooks by enjoying their food without pretense. Arriving in New York City, he takes his handler Sheldon to Dina Stern’s kitchen to cook simple steaks for a restaurant full of unsuspecting customers, satisfied with the simple act of cooking. Even more pointedly, the second issue ends with Gavin outright shaming Starve and the judges for their depravity, throwing their heartlessness back in their faces until they literally gag on their meals.
While there is certainly a great deal of hypocrisy underscoring Gavin’s antics, he effectively brings the reader down to the human to see how the lower classes relate to food. He exists both within and outside of the insular upper class sphere, forsaking status to enjoy eating in a more heathy and relatable way than the rest of his peers. For this, he means to undermine everything that Starve now stands for, and highlights the absurdity of real life pop food culture.
Gavin himself is by no means a heroic figure, but in terms of food, he represents a call for sanity in Starve’s world as well as our own. He argues that while food is complicated, its consumption – and our relationship with it – doesn’t have to be. It’s an argument worth having, if nothing else.
Magen Cubed is a Contributor to ComiConverse. Follow her on Twitter: @MagenCubed