Transcending his status as the world’s preeminent foodie icon, it was recently announced that Anthony Bourdain would join the likes of Wolf Blitzer and Anderson Cooper on CNN to host a new weekend program dedicated to culture and cuisine.
While the world-renowned chef, bestselling author and Emmy-winning television personality is thrilled with the opportunity to take his franchise to another level, the one medium Bourdain was most desperate to explore was sequential art, in the form of a graphic novel.
A long-time reader and collector of comic books, the creator and host of Travel Channel’s “No Reservations” and “The Layover” is well-versed in the history of the art form. And his passion and pedigree is on full display in his latest project, “Get Jiro!”, a 160-page graphic novel on sale this week from Vertigo Comics.
Co-written by journalist and novelist Joel Rose, who edited “A History of Violence” and “Road to Perdition” for DC Comics’ Paradox Press imprint in the ’90s, and featuring art by Langdon Foss and colorist Jose Villarrubia, “Get Jiro!” is set in the not-too-distant future of food-obsessed Los Angeles where master chefs rule the City of Angels like crime lords and foodies literally kill for a seat at the best restaurant. Unless, of course, you visit Jiro’s sushi bar. Behave poorly, by dipping your sushi in soy sauce before your first bite, and it may be you that gets killed.
In advance of the OGN’s release, Bourdain dished up a serving of “Get Jiro!” for CBR News, professing his love for the work of EC Comics trailblazers like Al Feldstein and Harvey Kurtzman, Golden Age legends like Milt Caniff, Will Eisner and new creator-owned titles like “Chew.” He also discussed his childhood dream of becoming a comic book artist, shared his insight into how we can better experience eating, explained the lineage of samurai swords to sushi knives and revealed where to find really, really expensive tuna.
CBR News: Are you a comic book reader?
Anthony Bourdain: I was a huge comics nerd and a collector from very early on. I was an early reader of “Mad Magazine,” which was, of course, where a lot of the old EC Comics writers and artists ended up after the Comics Code Authority came into play. I was a collector of old ECs. I was a big fan of Will Eisner’s “The Spirit,” even though those were relatively Golden Age and existed before I was collecting. But I was a serious collector from a very early age and I very badly wanted to draw comic books as a career and was heavily influenced by the onset of the west coast underground. Unfortunately, my skills were not up to the job and I put that aside around age 13.
But I’ve always loved comics, undergrounds and graphic novels. And I’ve hung onto the best of the stuff.
Are you still collecting comics today?
I don’t keep up but every once and a while I pick up something that I just have to have. I just bought a collection of Milton Caniff’s “Terry and the Pirates” because it’s just so beautiful. I love good art. If I come across a good issue by Will Eisner, Milton Cadiff, Jim Steranko or art from Spain Rodriguez or Jack Kirby, I’m going to grab it. These are beautiful objects.
Do you read any new titles, like “Chew” by John Layman and Rob Guillory?
I think “Chew” is a terrific book.
What’s the secret origin of “Get Jiro!”?
My co-author Joel Rose and I have been friends for many years and one time, over drinks, we were just talking about how cool it would be to do a graphic novel. The character of Jiro was something I had always kind of been kicking around. And I just really liked the idea of a world in which a serious sushi chef would be allowed the ultimate justice for disrespecting his craft. “Jiro” kind of sprang from that. I knew I wanted a sushi chef to be the hero and I knew that we needed to create a world where that kind of behavior would be acceptable. I also wanted a bloody, violent comic book. I am big fan of classic samurai films and spaghetti westerns, all of those influences were there — toys that I wanted to play with.
Why a sushi chef as a hero?
It’s probably the very apex. There is no other area of food where people are willing to spend more money on ingredients, where you will find a master dedicating 50 years of their life to making the same 20 or 30 cuts of classic, very austere forms of sushi. There is perfectionism, a fetishism of respect for tradition and ingredients that a lot of chefs admire.
That kind of dedication to excellence, especially when most people — the mass majority of people — really probably couldn’t tell at first exposure the difference between good sushi and totally great sushi is remarkable. It’s a perfectionism and a dedication to craft that is fascinating — especially to cooks and chefs. French chefs, Italian chefs, chefs from all over the world, we all look to Japan with fascination and awe.
And Jiro is also an ex-Yakuza, so we wanted him physically fit enough to be able to kill large numbers of people in a short period of time. [Laughs]
Early in the story, Jiro buys elvers, which, if I am getting this right, are young eels, for $4,000 a pound. Is that a legitimate price or was it inflated for the book?
Even now, a kilo of baby elvers would probably be about 1,500 to 1,600 Euros, so $1,000 a pound. And certainly, there are some sushi chefs that are spending about $300 a kilo or more for untrimmed tuna — wholesale.
So these outrageous prices are closer to fact than fiction?
“Get Jiro!” is certainly satirical as it lampoons the rabid foodyism — the very things that I participate in and am guilty of. I think it’s a fairly good-natured look at a world where we are half-way there already.
Were you pleased with the final result?
Oh yeah. Langdon Foss did really beautiful art work and Jose Villarrubia did great color work, as well. Langdon Foss did an incredible job on this project. He took a lot of time and he really got the details right — the knives, the kitchens, the food itself, down to what wine we would expect a character to serve with a specific dish. That was really important from the get-go being that I have cooked professionally for so long. And I have some familiarity with sushi, though I am hardly an expert, I have some familiarity, so it was really, really important to get the details right. Right from the beginning, we wanted someone that could draw with a great deal of precision and care and research behind the work and we were — to say the least — not disappointed. It was really an amazing effort by Langdon Foss. So I can guarantee readers will get beautiful, beautiful precise accurate artwork. And blood. Lots of blood.
You spoke about the attention to detail Langdon possessed for drawing the knives accurately. Like any other master, are the knives utilized by sushi chefs a specific design and quality?
Absolutely. I know a chef in New York who works with a sushi knife that probably costs about $15,000 or $16,000. Knives in Japan are often made by the same families that used to make samurai swords. It’s a similar process and the same attention to detail and tradition is required.
So these are not the ones you can get at Costco?
Decidedly not. No. When you own a knife like that, taking care of it is a daily ritual. You don’t put a knife like that in the drawer and pull it out when you need it. You have to take care of it every day.
You set the tone very early on for “Get Jiro!” when one of the patrons visiting Jiro’s sushi bar is beheaded for drowning his sushi in soy sauce before taking his first bite. For the uninitiated, what is proper sushi etiquette?
Anything that exposes you to new flavors and ingredients is a good thing but if you go to a good sushi bar with a serious, respected sushi chef, blindly dunking that sushi into soy sauce before you even tried a piece is insulting. It’s like going into a fine dining restaurant and before you even taste your meal, dumping half of a shaker of salt on it or drowning it in ketchup before you have even established whether you like it or not. It’s disrespectful. And it not just about his feelings, you are completely missing the boat there. You are not enjoying it as good as it could be.
For one of those with an untrained palate, if I were to visit a high-end sushi bar in Tokyo, versus picking up some sushi from the local grocery store, would I taste the difference?
Yes. If you go in with an open mind and an open heart and you are interested, if you are engaged — you’re not mucking on your cell phone while you are eating — if you are paying attention, yes, of course, you would taste the difference.
Is that a problem in North America? We race around town from soccer practice to piano recital, jamming food down our throats often while we’re driving, so we don’t get to experience food properly?
A lot of us don’t have that luxury. But it’s worth making time for it, if you can. At almost any level of Italian society, even if they don’t have a lot of money or even if they are really busy, people insist on taking pleasure in their food so I don’t think it’s unreasonable to at least hope that we at least try to take a little more time and pay a little bit more attention to what we are eating. And I think that’s happening. I think we are slowly but surely getting to that point.
Why do you think this change — this growing obsession with food — is coming to North America?
I think one reason is movies suck so badly. It’s creating a huge market for other forms of entertainment. I also think the fact that eating out has become a counter-cultural activity — that’s a big change. Young people without much money were not gourmets 20 years ago. Now there are hipsters everywhere who are really serious about food. Whether it’s a really good, really authentic bowl of Thai noodles or a high-end dining experience, it really doesn’t matter. The fact is that people at various income levels and types of backgrounds are really into food now. And in a lot of ways, we’re catching up with the rest of the world. We didn’t have much of a food culture 20 years ago and we’ve been making up for lost time — fast.
Is there one food in the world that people should literally drop everything and travel to get?
Given the opportunity and if they could afford it, it is well worth flying to Tokyo just to eat. Just to eat high-end sushi. There are a number of places where there are real masters doing sushi and rice at a level unimagined by most sushi fans.
Are there any plans for a sequel or would you love to see “Jiro” developed as an animated television series?
Honestly, it was a life’s dream to do a graphic novel and given the opportunity to do another one, I would love to. It was a lot of fun and it is really satisfying to write a script, work with a great artist and then see that story take shape visually. That was a very exciting experience and yes, I would do it again.
We worked very hard on it. I hope we honored the form. I’ve got a lot of love and respect for graphic novels. There are and have been a lot of amazingly talented people out there doing amazing work for a long time, so given the chance to play in the same arena, I just hope we brought honor to clan.
“Get Jiro!” by Anthony Bourdain, Joel Rose, Langdon Foss, and Jose Villarrubia is on sale tomorrow, June 27 from Vertigo Comics.