Bourdain’s Last Comic: Not So Tasty

It’s More Junky Late-Night Snack Than Feast

For fans of the late globe-trotting chef Anthony Bourdain’s writing, a final graphic-novel collaboration with his “Get Jiro!” co-writer Joel Rose might be a sort of balm. Anthony Bourdain’s Hungry Ghosts relishes in the things that made Bourdain famous on TV. It’s over-the-top, combining a high-brow idea with relish in the lowbrow. It’s educational without being even a bit stuffy. And it’s got some of Bourdain’s everyman, chef-of-the-people swagger. You can’t get away with writing a horror anthology that features multiple stories where slimy creatures explode out of anuses when you’re too self-conscious. 

The framing device is a catered dinner in which some of the world’s top chefs have been gathered for one exquisite, expensive feast. They take turns telling tales of terror drawn mostly from Japanese folklore in a game of “100 Candles.” In the comic, that takes the form of eight short stories drawn by a stellar set of comics illustrators, wrapped by a ninth piece that ties it all together.

The authors acknowledge the clear influence of pulpy EC Comics (“Vault of Horror!”). But most of the stories lack the wit or anything resembling a clever twist to hit those 1950s-era peaks. Typically in these tales, someone acts as a shitty person and gets punished gruesomely by a yōkai or a murderous equine. End of story. These pieces do leave latitude for profanity-laced insults hurled by evil-looking chefs, as well as the aforementioned anal kitchen nightmares. A few stand out, including the Irene Koh-drawn “The Snow Woman,” and “Salty Horse,” an ode to horsemeat disgustingly illustrated by Leonardo Manco.

But if you’re expecting an amuse-bouche for Bourdain’s solid and underappreciated body of writing, temper your hopes. It’s fun. An afterword gives a poignant farewell to the co-author as well as a useful guide to specters and spirits (know your obake from your kappa!). A set of recipes from Bourdain is also a welcome inclusion, even if the one for “Pan-Seared Duck Breast With Red Cabbage” looks like a horror show for casual cooks. But Hungry Ghosts feels like a footnote in Bourdain’s legacy, not a defining chapter.

Berger Books

(October 2, 2018)

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Omar Gallaga

Omar L. Gallaga is a technology culture writer, formerly of the Austin American-Statesman, but he's not interested in fixing your printer. He's written for Rolling Stone, CNN, The Wall Street Journal, Television Without Pity, and NPR, where he was a blogger and on-air tech correspondent for "All Things Considered." He's a founding member of Austin's Latino Comedy Project, which recently concluded a two-year run of its original sketch-comedy show, "Gentrifucked."

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