By Jonathan Edwards
I was not aware that celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain also wrote comics. I mean, he’s not done it a ton, but he’s got a couple of other books under his belt with Get Jiro! and its prequel, Get Jiro: Blood and Sushi. Granted, he was not alone in writing those. Joel Rose co-wrote them both with Bourdain, and sure enough, they are writing once again as a pair for Hungry Ghosts. Now, if you’re like me, that title will be just straightforward and potentially high concept enough to make you at least want to know what it’s about. And as it turns out, the premise is a weirdly complicated one.
To put it as simply as possible, Hungry Ghosts is a horror anthology miniseries in a similar vein as House of Mystery and House of Secrets. There’s even an ostensible host character present on the first page. Here’s where things get more complex. Bourdain and Rose are very specifically utilizing the Japanese game Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai as their framing narrative. I’m not going to go into detail about the specifics of the game (mainly because they do go over them in the issue), but the gist of it is that members of a group take turns telling increasingly scary stories. The appeal of basing a horror anthology off of that idea should be self-evident. Yet, it’s strange this book was executed as a mere four-issue miniseries when the intention of the game is to tell 100 stories.
After her brief introduction on the first page, our “host” is only present in two more panels, where she barely does anything. Instead, we switch to the dinner party of the very wealthy Mr. Fedachenko, who purchased the services of several, presumably world-class, chefs at a charity auction or something. At the end of the night, he invites the chefs to join him and the rest of the guests in playing Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai. But, these particular horror stories are all supposed to be food related for some reason. This whole introduction takes up about the first third of the issue, and it’s excessive. The set up of the framing narrative is rife with needlessly elaborate details that only serve to bog it down. What’s more, we’re introduced to something like ten characters before we get into the first story, but only two of them get names, and Fedachenko is the only one with any somewhat discernable personality traits.
As for the stories themselves, we get two this issue, and neither of them is particularly interesting or entertaining. The first, “The Starving Skeleton” is six pages long (not counting its dedicated title page), but it feels even shorter. In traditionally three-act story structure, the second act is always the longest of the three and usually twice as long as the first or third acts. This is because the second act is where all of the real development happens. However, here, all three are only given two pages each. So, while the setup is fine, there’s not enough tension or intrigue built up in the middle for the climax to be impactful. Additionally, it’s not helped by the inclusion of a simplistic premise that ends up reading force when there’s such thinly defined characterization.
The second story, “The Pirates,” fares better on most, if not all accounts. It’s still not great, though. The introduction with the only woman chef (I don’t think any of them have been given names yet) insisting repeating how much the guys will like it for having sex and pirates is… odd. But, the biggest problem with the story proper is how predictable the twist is. At the very least, it functions and is much more atmospheric than “The Starving Skeleton” was. Although, I do have to wonder why so many of the pirates “fell victim” to the story’s monster when there was no apparent effort made to hide what happened to hide what was happening to them.
Alberto Ponticelli is on art duties for the majority of the issue, and it’s not bad. There’s a subtle sketchiness to his linework that adds some unique personality. Unfortunately, he fails to take his art to the next level when the horror of the story calls for it. To be honest, by the end of “The Starving Skeleton,” it feels like he’s going the opposite direction, making things less detailed. “The Pirates” doesn’t have this problem, but it’s also the point in the issue where Vanesa Del Rey takes over. Her art here emphasizes heavier inks, giving it a grungy aesthetic that’s perfect for a horror anthology. Jose Villarrubia’s colors are also a lot more on point with “The Pirates.” The dark tones look great, and I love the detail of the woman’s (there’s only one in this story, and she isn’t given a name) red hair consistently contrasting with the lower light environments. I have nothing against Ponticelli or his overall style as an artist, but based solely on the work on display here, I kind of wish Del Rey was the book’s sole artist.
Hungry Ghosts #1 is a flawed first issue. Does that kill the series? No. At least, not yet. And, perhaps Bourdain and Rose will find better footing with subsequent issues. As it stands, it’s difficult to recommend Hungry Ghosts, but the premise is still ripe with potential, so I’ll at least give it another issue.
Hungry Ghosts #1
Dark Horse Comics/Berger Books