Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Vital, Vicious and Visceral: Starve #1 (a review)

W: Brian Wood A: Danijel Žeželj C: Dave Stewart

How do you like your dog?

For those familiar with (or hungry for) Brian Wood’s agitprop storytelling there is much to feast upon in Starve: a near-apocalyptic NYC, the populist rhetoric of ‘Us vs. Them,’ the cultural bankruptcy of celebrity, gross consumerism and, a near-fetishistic environmentalism—call it, Wood du jour. Yes, in much of its ‘stuff’ Starve dovetails Wood’s oeuvre from as far back as Channel Zero, Supermarket and DMZ to more recent work like Mara and The Massive.

Nearly two decades into Wood’s career as a comic book creator, when his peers have either split or are content to act as slaves to their own machinery, Starve proves Wood remains, yes, hungry. Each of those Wood-isms (see above) receives a check in its respective box and yet there is also a further brashness, an attitude, an urgency—Starve snarls, a vital, vicious and visceral beast.

The main ingredient here is Gavin Cruikshank, a (former) celebrity chef—number one with a bullet on 2015’s list for best new characters—who is estranged from his wife, Greer, and his daughter, Angie. For the last three years Cruikshank has been on a drunk of debauchery and local cuisine. A compelling and complex character, Cruikshank is world weary and cheeky with a pinch of pretentiousness that's more charming than obnoxious.  

Wood’s one misstep is to mention Cruikshank is gay or as he calls himself, “a queer dad.” His ex-wife says she was “twenty-two when we were married and when you came out of the closet? I was forty.” Wood never goes further with how or if Cruikshank’s sexuality [1] either informed his choice to go on his self-imposed exile or to return. Cruikshank contains multitudes, for sure, but why introduce his sexuality and then do nothing to develop it? Here's hoping Wood goes further with this aspect of Cruikshank's character.

The rest of the ingredients are these: world markets are crashing and global warming (isn’t it ‘climate change’ now?) has caused Jamaica Bay to rise twelve inches and swamp Queens and JFK. Fortunately, broadcast television has fared much better in the encroaching biblical reckoning. The number one show is ‘Starve.’ Created by Cruikshank as an Anthony Bourdain-like ‘No Reservations.’ In his absence, however, his creation has put on weight to become a cutthroat reality TV cooking competition. During Cruikshank’s truancy, Greer has had him declared dead and has taken full control of all the show’s assets and fiduciary concerns i.e. Angie. In order to (maybe) recoup some of his filthy lucre, Cruikshank must compete in (and win) an eight episode season of Starve.

This is Wood drawing from a deeper well. Starve is more than its bespoke urban rot and populist politics. Wood collaborates with artist Danijel Žeželj and colorist Dave Stewart, all three are listed as co-owners on the title. To nitpick Stewart’s approach to color on Starve sounds hypocritical like arguing hitting with Ted Williams or tugging on Superman’s cape, caveat dumbass. It’s all well and good to draw from the Crayola box of Armageddon shades and tones, but perhaps there’s more to this world than sepia and ocher, gunmetal and sage. Is it too much to ask any artist, let alone an undisputed authority like Stewart, to imagine (rethink) a pre-apocalypse and therefore break from the accepted language of the genre? Perhaps. Stewart knows blood and so when it’s time for this cooking competition to get on to the real ‘meat work,’ Stewart will surely bring his trademark bloody and sinuous reds.

Few illustrators or cartoonists equal Žeželj for style, emotion or amount of ink per page. His art occupies some liminal space between woodcuts and stenciled graffiti as if Albrecht Dürer and Banksy had a baby. In those viscous lines Žeželj wrings out exhaustion, ennui and joy in equal measure in the faces and frames of his characters with an unmatched poignancy. As he does in stories set in derelict urban settings -- Luna Park comes to mind -- Žeželj’s printmaker’s precision for background details in Starve creates images so suffuse with girders, illegal wiring and bodies, bodies, bodies it feels the opposite of industrial, organic and not manufactured. So fastidious is Žeželj’s line even tiny minutiae like tattoos and logos pop in all that ink. And when it comes to tousled hair, Žeželj’s tangles are matched only by other Wood collaborators like Becky Cloonan and Ryan Kelly.

Žeželj is not a nine panel kind of artist. Almost all of the pages in Starve are composed so panels act as satellites around a central image. Žeželj often layers panels to create a kind of consistent present rather than the sense events take place moment to moment or frame to frame like in a movie. Not only is this technique ‘pure comics’ it acts like the needle of a compass pointing the way through the chaos to tell the story where everything happens all at once. With apologies to Wood and to letterer Steve Wands, Starve doesn’t need narration or dialogue, everything the reader needs to know comes across in Žeželj’s art and that is something too many readers are starved for.

As to the dog in this first issue … it’s going to be a bridge too far for many readers. It’s dark, unsettling and daring … which is the point. Exploitation works to shock, to demand the audience pay attention, the meaning is self-evident and not to be dismissed as purposelessness. The point is to be insulting without insult and to challenge conventions. There is an (over) abundance of testosterone in Starve—which would fit with male-centric reality TV cooking competitions. It’s perhaps an overreach, but Starve (almost) feels like what David Mamet would do in a similar situation and the dog is symbolic of delivering on this chest-thumping male bravado.

The machismo on display fits with Cruikshank’s character -- the wildest of the wild bunch, the cagiest of vets in for one more job, one more score, the old dog brought back to show the young pups what for -- and it fits for Wood as well. Starve is a statement about men, fatherhood and most importantly, redemption. Cruikshank is looking for redemption and not to put too fine a point on it, so is Brian Wood.

On the final page of Starve #1, Cruikshank narrates, Wood writes, “But I won’t play the game they want me to play. This is my fucking show. I’m going to do my eight episodes and burn this whole place to the ground. Watch.” These words nest within full page image of Cruikshank from the chest up. Žeželj draws a skein of raw meat as it curls out from below Cruikshank’s top teeth and bottom lip like a serpent’s forked tongue. Blood drips from the meat onto his chef’s whites, he looks vampiric … he looks awesome. Wood’s words are a promise, tenacious and immediate, Gavin Cruikshank like Brian Wood means to reclaim his vigor and prove his worth. Watch.

[1] In a later issue, Angie mentions her father’s workaholic nature which may explain why he lacks a partner or the time for to pursue a sexual or romantic relationship.

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