Review: Hungry Ghosts #1

Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai (The 100 Candles) is a Japanese storytelling game. During the Edo period samurai warriors would occasionally gather for a feast and afterwards they would tell stories of the various ghosts, demons and spirits that inhabit the supernatural landscape of Japan. After each tale the samurai would enter an adjoining room lit by a hundred candles. He would blow one out and stare into a mirror to verify that he had not been possessed before returning to the company of his fellows for another round. As the room grew darker so did the stories. Few of these games, if any, reached completion. Even samurai weren’t that brave.

A modern version of kaidan forms the backbone of Hungry Ghosts, the latest comic by world class chef and world travelling journalist Anthony Bourdain. It’s also the first offering from Berger Books, the new Dark Horse imprint headed by Karen Berger. You may remember her as the visionary editor who oversaw the creation of Vertigo and helped to make some of the best comics ever created (including Neil Gaiman’s Sandman) even better.

Here samurai are replaced by chefs and their stories, derived from Japanese originals, all involve food in some way. The framing device, in which they are gathered under the auspices of a mysterious Russian billionaire, lends weight and a sense of continuity to what would otherwise be simple nightmare-like visions of greed, lust and gluttony: disturbing as they are experienced but apt to vanish like bad dreams when confronted by sunshine.

I won’t discuss the stories themselves as it’s impossible to do so without spoiling them. Needless to say both of the two tales contained in this first issue recall both the Japanese tradition to which they belong and such legendary pre-code horror anthologies as Tales From the Crypt. In any project with more than one writer it’s hard for a reviewer to assess who did what. It is Bourdain’s tastes and concerns that inform the stories culinary focus and the strong threads of social justice that run throughout but, if I understand the back matter correctly, much of the credit for the heavy lifting of transforming his ideas into a viable script for comics is due to co-writer Joel Rose, who also collaborated with Bourdain on his previous graphic novel Get Jiro. Between their combined efforts the legends of Japan are transfigured to reflect the individual cultures of the storytellers themselves (the crew of chefs include French, Hispanic and American cooks as well as Japanese) and the universality of human terror. Of course this opens the book up to charges of cultural appropriation and that’s a fair criticism for anyone who cares to make it. It never felt to me like a crass attempt to exploit Asian traditions by pasting a white mask over a Japanese face solely for the purpose of mass commercial appeal. Your mileage may vary.

As in any good anthology multiple artists are represented. The cover, which you can see at the top of this page, is a stunning and unnerving piece by the masterful Paul Pope. Pope’s work is hit or miss for me but this is certainly one of his better efforts. Alberto Ponticelli and Vanessa Del Rey illustrate the stories themselves, with Ponticelli doing double duty by drawing the framing story as well. Both are a good fit for the material.

Ponticelli has really improved since I first encountered his stuff on Frankenstein: Agent of S.H.A.D.E. His lines seem to be finer and more confident here and there is so much detail packed into the opening splash page of a demon’s boudoir that I will be returning to it many times to explore all the nooks and crannies for hidden treasures. He’s more suited to flat out horror than he is to horror tinged superheroics and I hope he continues to find a work in this vein.

Vanessa Del Rey is a name with which I’m not familiar but she too does an excellent job. Her style reminds me a lot of Becky Cloonan’s, capable of shifting from the voluptuous to the disturbing with surprising ease. It’s similar enough to Ponticelli’s to not be jarring in the transition between the two but different enough that you would never mistake the one for the other.

Sound is a crucial feature in any horror story and one that is hard to approximate in a silent medium like comics. Letterer Sal Cipriano does a great job of jumping this particular hurdle. His captions and balloons are serviceable throughout the first twelve pages, conveying their point without distracting from the art or calling attention to themselves. It’s not until the sound effects begin on page thirteen that he really gets to strut his stuff, varying the size and shape of the same five letters again and again while adding the occasional flourish to illustrate the increasing desperation of the protagonist as something terrible gets closer and closer. The colors by Jose Villaruba (another returning member of Bourdain’s Get Jiro team) tie everything together, painting all the scenes in the same shades and providing a sense of unity that they might otherwise lack.

Hungry Ghosts is  a really fine comic but its not for everyone. As I mentioned above, many readers may take exception to American creators dipping so heavily into the well of Japanese culture. There is also a strong element of sexual violence in the second story that may be distasteful or distressful to some readers. Beyond these concerns the stories themselves are part of an ancient oral tradition that has been translated into the much younger form of comics. While its handled well there are many things that we’ve come to expect in a traditional thirty page comic that are missing from this one. There’s little in the way of character development and the plots are simple constructs that exist to set up a gruesome twist that’s not really a surprise on the final page.

If you’re looking for the kind of rich, character driven horror delivered by books like Hellblazer or Swamp Thing, look elsewhere. If you want a comic that approximates sitting around the campfire on a dark summer night with a bag of marshmallows and a few good friends, trying to scare each other stupid, then I recommend giving Hungry Ghosts a taste.

Story: Anthony Bourdain & Joel Rose Art: Alberto Ponticelli & Vanessa Del Rey
Cover Art: Paul Pope
Story: 7.0 Art: 8.0 Overall: 7.5 Recommendation: Buy

Dark Horse Comics provided Graphic Policy with a FREE copy for review