Oct 30, 2018

[Books] Anthony Bourdain's Hungry Ghosts Review

As diverse as the life of Anthony Bourdain has given his career has involved  being a chef, a writer, and a host of many travel shows, it still surprised me that his efforts had extended into the world of fiction in different ways. We best know him for his essays and other expository writing but he has also tried his hand at writing mystery novels and in this case graphic novels.

Anthony Bourdain's Hungry Ghosts is actually his last creative effort in the comic book world and one that was released as a compiled work after his death. It's a rather macabre series that centers around horror stories that typically have something to do with food or eating and things of that nature.

It says a lot that Bourdain's graphic novel ventures all seem to focus on Japanese culture to one degree or another, even if taken to a fictionalized level at times. And one can't help but wonder if that's supposed to be some sort of a statement about what he's passionate about or how he measures such cultures versus others. Or maybe I'm just overthinking things.

Synopsis: Anthony Bourdain's Hungry Ghosts is a mini-series written by Anthony Bourdain together with Joel Rose. The book also includes recipes and background information on some of the Japanese folklore referenced in the stories.

A Russian oligarch issues a challenge to the host of international chefs to play the Edo-era samurai game of 100 candles. Each chef gets to tell a story meant to scare everyone and then should look into a mirror to prove they have not been possessed by some malignant spirit before blowing a candle out. As the lore goes, such a game tends to have dire consequences and it is rare to get to the end of the 100 candles before a spirit visits the group - with fatal results.

And thus in a series of stories now collected like an anthology, we explore different horrific tales related to food, as these are the stories of chefs after all. Some are seemingly contemporary tales while others dig much deeper into the past for context. Some stories may seem familiar while others are a new spin on classic concepts. Will they survive the night?

What I Liked: Japanese folklore and fairy tales are actually filled with many strange and often horrific creatures. This anthology found a way to celebrate a lot of those myths and monsters in a delightfully visual manner as aided by many different artists with interesting experience in drawing for different horror comics. Art styles vary in many ways with some trying to emulate some of the older Japanese depictions we've seen in other media with others just being vivid and creative and modern.

And the stories themselves are a lot of fun and they bring to mind things like Tales from the Cryptkeeper and other older celebrations of the horror genre that have lingered in social memory over the years. This was clearly an homage for those sorts of comic books and a rather good one given the mix of stories brought together for this series.

What Could Have Been Better: As was the quirk of those older horror comics, not all stories are totally scary outright and that may or may not disappoint you. More often than not they just introduce a bit of a twist that is clever or even comical but still appropriate for the genre. Not all stories are going to be equal in the eyes of every reader, as is often the case for anthologies.

The diversity of art styles also means some weird stories in terms of visual treatment that didn't quite strike me as being all that great or sometimes they come across as a little too cartoony, thus further breaking the mood of things. And I guess the other bit that nags at me is how some of the stories are classic folklore stories brought in beat for beat and not necessarily a totally new story or at least an adaptation of a classic story in a new form. And that was a little disappointing, but I suppose it banks on readers being unfamiliar to these classic tales and thus needing to be introduced to them in this new media.

TL;DR: Anthony Bourdain's Hungry Ghosts is an interesting last creative work for an intriguing and passionate man that clearly married his love for scary stories and his love for food. It's not the greatest comic in the world but it is a clever one and totally worth reading for the Halloween season. And thus the comic gets a good 4 monstrous creatures of Japan's history brought to life out of a possible 5.

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