Review time! with <i>Starve</i> #1-5

I mentioned a few weeks ago that Brian Wood had sent me digital copies of both Rebels and his other new comic, Starve, but I didn't have time to get to the second one. Well, I still don't have a lot of time (I'm still having issues with my Internet connection, because I might as well live in 1996 with the speed I have), but I'm going to get to it anyway!

When I reviewed Rebels, I wrote that it scratches one of the two main itches Wood seems to have with regard to his current writing, and that is historical fiction. Starve scratches the other one to a certain degree, and that is environmental disaster.

Starve takes place in what seems to be the current time or perhaps a few years in the future, much like Wood's recent comic, The Massive, and like The Massive, the environment is a lot more compromised than it is in our world - JFK Airport, for instance, is underwater. The world of Starve isn't quite as bad as the world of The Massive or the world of DMZ was, but it's still a theme Wood likes to explore. Anyway, Starve is drawn by Danijel Žeželj, colored by Dave Stewart, and lettered by Steve Wands. It costs $3.50 and is published by Image.

While Wood definitely places the comic in a world on the verge of collapse, he doesn't overdo it, as things seem normal enough except for some random pieces of news, like that fact about the airport.

He's more interested in looking at the distractions that the people at the end of the world would comfort themselves with - in this case, an extreme cooking show (called, of course, Starve). People living through the end of the world don't necessarily know that they are, and even the people in Starve who are fairly self-aware about their fate - the first issue lays it on a bit thick - probably don't conceive that it could all end very soon. Wood, who has studied history, knows that societies aren't as aware of their impending destruction as we are, looking back through centuries of hindsight, so he gives us a cooking show that takes the calamities of the world and commoditizes it for the elite's entertainment. Are the options for food more limited? The show makes the chefs prepare dog for consumption. Are more animals endangered? The contestants have to find their own bluefin tuna to cook. Wood can be heavy-handed at times, but he can also be effortlessly metaphorical, and the idea of a cooking show is brilliant, honestly, because it allows him to satirize our own obsession with celebrity and gluttony while also showing how it could be part of a doomsday scenario.

Panem et circenses indeed. Starve is a mixture of both.

It's more than this, though, as it has to be. Gavin Cruikshank, Wood's protagonist, is a celebrity chef who burned out and fled the world, living in southern Asia almost completely off the grid until he runs out of money and has to return to the show he created but which is now owned by his ex-wife, who holds a grudge against him for many reasons, not the least of which is that he's gay and took too long (in her mind) to come out and free her from their marriage, and his former business partner, Roman (a somewhat on-the-nose name, but still), who emcees the show and is a tool for Greer, his ex-wife, until she pushes him too far. Wood turns this into a domestic drama, as Gavin is looking for redemption from his daughter, Angie, while Greer wants to keep her away from him. Wood has written excellent character-driven stories before, and he's written solid plot-driven stories as well. Recently, he seems to be getting better at blending them, and this comic is a good example.

The plot is well done, and Wood's research into (or experience with, for all I know) cooking is a wonderful part of the book, as Gavin's ideas about how to win the competition are excellent and sound, ironically, delicious. This is the satire part of the book, because Wood is counting on the reader getting caught up in the lure of exotic food preparation, if not exotic foods (I mean, one issue is concerned with butchering and using an entire pig) so that we miss the fact that Gavin is performing for a decadent and oblivious audience, and the parallels to our current world are well delineated. Meanwhile, Gavin, Angie, Greer, Roman, and even Sheldon, who works for the network and is a big fan of Gavin's, are interesting characters who have made some bad choices in life but remain sympathetic, even villainous people like Greer and Roman (until he has an epiphany, and even then he's still a bit of a douchebag). Wood doesn't turn them into cardboard villains - there's real pain in the way Greer reacts to Gavin, because Gavin was a shit to her - and, as I've hinted, Gavin isn't that great a guy. He's trying, though, and that's what makes the book interesting, as he connects with his daughter and everyone else, from a flight attendant to Sheldon, through food - it's the way he communicates. When Roman does see the light, it's because he regains his love of cooking, and that allows him to break away from Greer.

So Wood not only points the finger at the spoiled elite who consume food simply for the social cachet it bestows, but he also uses food to ground the characters and to make some of his critical points, because Gavin gets that food preparation itself isn't evil - people need to eat, after all - but the way his (and our) society fetishizes it is. The food is part of the plot, naturally, but it's also part of the characterization, which is particularly clever of Wood and a pretty brilliant device.

Žeželj's thick, rough lines give the book a suitably apocalyptic feel - everything feels weighed down by history and death and custom. His line work is wonderful for the cooking segments, as Wood wants them to be as brutal and raw as possible, and Žeželj has always been able to get that feel across in his work. His chunky black lines add heft to each bone and muscle, so that we react strongly to the horrific skinned dog, the eviscerated tuna, and the butchered hog. When Gavin and his two teammates engage in a "kitchen battle" in issues #4 and 5 (they have to prepare food in restaurant kitchens after first evicting - violently - the cooks already in residence), Žeželj uses those shadows and wide lines to make the fights feel more intimate and painful, especially when Gavin takes down the master chef of a barbecue place. When Gavin roams the city, Žeželj gets rid of the holding lines and uses shadows more liberally, showing a place that retains some of its power but still feels like a broken monument to excess, and it's in those cityscapes that we get the best dichotomy between the elite and the rest of the people. Stewart uses a lot of earth tones in the coloring (at least in the first two issues, which are the ones that have already been colored in the copies Wood sent me), which helps create the feeling of television, with its hot lights and nostalgia.

When Gavin and Sheldon go into the city, it become bluer as they descend, bringing with it coolness and despair even as Gavin rediscovers a love of simple cooking. Stewart is a very good colorist, but he doesn't do anything too radical here - Žeželj's powerful line work demands simple and powerful colors, and that's what Stewart does. It doesn't mean the coloring isn't good, but it's also a tad predictable. But that's not necessarily a bad thing.

These first five issues comprise an arc, as Wood pushes the conflict between Gavin and Greer to an extreme level and leaves us there, with Gavin still needing to win the competition even though he seems to have made great strides in both winning back his daughter's love and reclaiming control of the show. Wood is too good a writer to rely on a binary good/evil conflict, so he has Roman figure some things out and leaves things open for Greer to come back from the edge, as well. There are plenty of places he can go with the comic, both in the way the television show challenges Gavin and the way Gavin repairs his life, and that's always nice to see, because it makes each issue an unpredictable treat.

If your retailer doesn't order a lot of Image books (why wouldn't he or she, man?), you can still ask them to pre-order Starve, if you're interested. The first issue is scheduled for 10 June. Keep your eye out for it - it's a pretty terrific comic.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆

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