Don’t look now, but Brian Wood is on a roll.
The once-hot wunderkind comics writer, who was felled last year by allegations of sexual harassment at comics conventions, apparently did some sort of public mea culpa/’fessing up, and is now deemed to be perfectly employable again.
For my part — to the extent that it even matters — I guess I’m still a little bit uncomfortable about the whole thing, but let’s be honest : Wood is certainly not the first industry pro to attempt to play the “casting couch” card with eager young female talent, nor (sadly) will he be the last. And there have been a lot worse offenders than him over the years. But he was the first to get called out publicly on social media for laying on the “I can really help you get a break in the industry, let’s got up to my room and talk about it” line, and he deserved it. I give him credit for not ducking the issue once it came to light, and better still for not “victim-shaming” the target of his unwanted and unwelcome advances — and the fact that feminist colorist Jordie Bellaire is still willing to work with him on Rebels despite having a more-than-full-plate of assignments should probably tell us all that Wood does, in fact, “get it,” and is appropriately regretful for his sleazy, boorish behavior — but I have to confess, the whole thing has seriously dampened my enthusiasm for a guy who was doing not just good, but often excellent work, and wasn’t at all afraid to pepper his narratives with spot-on leftist and progressive themes.
In short, I genuinely thought Wood was one of the good guys. Now, I’m not so sure.
What I am sure of, though, is that he’s come out of his self-imposed exile and is producing some of the strongest work of his career. The aforementioned Rebels that he’s doing over at Dark Horse with artist Andrea Mutti is a supremely engaging Revolutionary War period piece that looks to be his next Northlanders-style historical epic, while assuming the role of his next DMZ-esque series about class politics in a dystopian future we have the just-released Starve from Image Comics, which sees him teaming up with artist extraordinaire Danijel Zezelj and superstar colorist Dave Stewart (who, in a classy move, has been credited along with the writer and artist as a third co-creator on the book and owns a one-third copyright on the material). Wood has come out with rhetorical guns blazing on both titles, and seems bound and determined to win back his fans’ loyalty by producing top-quality product. So far, I gotta say, the results are very impressive indeed.
Just how impressive? How about this — the debut issue of Starve actually has me interested in a story about a goddamn celebrity chef, an “occupation” for which I harbor not just zero respect, but a healthy amount of outright contempt (along with the entire sick, bloated, excessive, nauseating edifice of “foodie culture” in general — half the world is starving to death and we have the nerve to critique food based on its “presentation” and “flavor profile”? Give me a fucking break). What’s next, I ask you? A genuinely human and moving story about a member of the Bush family?
In any case, our main protagonist here is one Gavin Cruikshank (the coolest name for a new character in comics in quite some time), a sort of Anthony Bourdain-if-he-still-shot-smack who hosted, a lifetime ago, a semi-popular cable TV cook-off show called — you guessed it — “Starve,” but chucked the Hollywood glitz and glamour a few years back to go on an extended booze-and-drugs-fueled bender in Hong Kong. Sounds like a plan, right? There’s just one problem — he’ still contractually obligated to do eight more episodes of his show, and the network has called in its marker by cancelling his credit cards and sending a private plane over to bring him back Stateside ASAP.
Ah, well — no good thing lasts forever, I suppose. Oh, and did I mention that while Cruikshank was off on his heroically-extended “lost weekend” that the world economy collapsed, the rich bastards at the top took open control of all aspects of society, his show was transformed into a competitive “cook something good for the 1% or die” monstrosity that’s now hosted by his former chief rival and is the biggest thing on TV, and that his vindictive ex-wife, with whom he has a teenage daughter that he hasn’t seen in years, bulldozed her way to the top of the network that airs it and will therefore be his new boss? Yup, a lot of shit can go down when you’re not paying attention.
Not that Cruikshank is necessarily the easiest hero to root for himself, mind you : the ex has good reason for hating him given that he was well into his 40s — and 17 years into their marriage — before he finally came out of the closet (ignore the scene where he appears to be flirting with a female flight attendant, I guess), but I still suspect his heart is generally in the right place when, after returning to his show and being commanded to cook “the common meat” (dog, in case you were wondering) in a way that his rich paymasters will find appetizing, he determines, with steely resolve, to use the next eight episodes to get his show back, get his money back, get his daughter back, and bring the network crashing down. No doubt about it, friends — flaws and all, I like this cat. Even if he is a chef.
Plus, how cool is is that we’re getting as our central protagonist a gay guy in his mid-5os with substance abuse problems? Seen anyone like that in any Marvel or DC books lately? I didn’t think so.
Nor will you anytime soon, of course, which is why independent comics aren’t just “important,” but vital. And while lots of creators are being offered all the freedom they want with publishers like Image, how many of them are really giving us something that falls all that far outside of standard super-hero adventure fare? Starve isn’t just out to nudge you out of your comfort zone, but to obliterate it altogether — how cool is that?
No doubt this is a sophisticated story, and it’s a damn good thing that it’s presented in such a visually sophisticated manner. Zezelj employs highly inventive panel layouts, cinematic angles, and expertly-deployed shadowing to give his work almost an “updated Krigstein” feel (I say almost because, let’s face it, no one will ever be as flat-out awesome as Bernard Krigstein), and it’s no exaggeration in the least to say that this is the most artistically accomplished book on the racks right now with the possible exception of Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows’ Providence (even though Zezelj and Burrows’ art styles couldn’t be more different). This is just great art, it’s also smart art, and there are a number of panels here that are more than suitable for gallery framing.
Which brings us, finally, to Dave Stewart, whose amazing colors bring it all home. “Smart art” needs smart coloring, too, after all, and Stewart doesn’t miss a beat, knowing precisely which dominant hues to bring to the foreground at any given time while letting a limited-but-varying selection of secondary tones play out against each other in the background. I’d fork over a 33% ownership stake to get this guy onboard, too, that’s how good his work is.
Are you sold on getting this yet? Because you really should be. About a year ago at this time, Vertigo was saying that their nine-issue series series The Names, by Peter Milligan and Leandro Fernandez, was going to be “the comic where the 1% finally get what’s coming to them” — and while it didn’t exactly deliver on that promise, Wood, Zezelj, and Stewart seem more than ready to do just that, plus interest. I’ve had the distinct pleasure of reading this first issue three times already, and there’s no doubt that I’m — sorry — very hungry for more.