Food, glorious food. Is there a subject that is more universal than food? Everyone eats food. Everyone loves food. So why aren’t there that many comics about food?
What makes a good food comic? Is it the way the food is drawn, making your mouth water with every morsel depicted, making you thirsty with every sparkling cocktail? Or is it the way the cooking is portrayed – from frying to braising, stewing to barbecuing – that attracts the reader? Or is it the way the writer describes the taste and the flavour?
Whatever it may be, whether it is about the food per se, or about the cooking, or even about people fighting over food, there is a certain charm in a food comic done right.
Unsurprisingly, Japanese manga has seen quite a few successful food-related titles over the years, with long-running series like Oishinbo, Mister Ajikko, Yakitate! Japan and Shokugeki No Soma the more popular main courses so far. In comparison, Western food-related comics haven’t quite got their due, besides one-off graphic novels like Get Jiro! and several creator-owned titles like Chew and Starve.
Last month, long-running food-related comics Toriko and Chew – one from Japan, one from America – ended their runs. So for this week’s column, we decided to focus on eight of our favourite food-related comics.
In Chew’s world, a devastating outbreak of bird flu has resulted in chicken and all other poultry getting banned. Eating chicken is illegal, and it is up to Food and Drug Administration (FDA) agents like Tony Chu to nab anyone breaking that law or engaging in fowl play.
But Chu is not your ordinary government guy – he is also a “cibopath”, someone who gets psychic impressions of the entire history of anything he eats. For instance, if he eats an apple, he can see everything it has gone through, from its tree’s origins as a seed to every worm that has bored a hole through it. While his power is pretty useful when it comes to solving crimes (though that means he has to eat some pretty gross stuff), it also means that he can’t eat anything except beets (which for some reason nullify his powers).
The most fun part of reading Chew, which is published by Image Comics and written by John Layman with art by Rob Guillory, is reading about all the weird food-related powers the creators come up with. There’s a guy who can make weapons out of tortillas, a bartender who can create drinks that compel you to tell secrets, a photographer who can take pictures of food that “inspire erotic feelings in the viewer” (a food pornographer, geddit?), and even someone who can string guitars with pasta, which has to be the most useless superpower in the world (unless you’re the Italian equivalent of Slash).
If you’re looking for a food-related comic with nice, delicious-looking pictures of food to whet your appetite … don’t read Chew. But if you’re looking for a deliciously delirious, hungrily hilarious comic about people with food-related superpowers, then this is it. Plus it has a violent half-cyborg killer rooster named Poyo. Now that’s a tasty treat.
Food Wars! (Shokugeki No Soma)
Soma Yukihira is a young chef who is content to work at his father’s neighbourhood restaurant, and constantly challenges his father to cook-offs. One day, his father decides to close his shop and send Yukihira away to an elite culinary school, where he discovers the concept of shokugeki, or cooking duels, in which students pit their skills in intensely-fought one-on-one cook-offs.
Written by Yuto Tsukuda with art by Shun Saeki, Shokugeki No Soma has been running since 2012, and has gained huge popularity through its entertaining stories and characters, and for its focus on the various styles of cooking.
Saeki’s scrumptious-looking illustrations of the food – which range from French fine dining to Chinese cuisine to Japanese traditional cooking – makes Shokugeki No Soma a manga you should not read if you’re feeling hungry. But above all else, it is the cooking duels that really make it so fun to read, with some of the duels much more exciting and spicier than even some of the past MasterChef finales.
Japan has such a rich and vibrant food culture, it’s no surprise that one of the longest-running manga of all time would be about food.
Written by Tetsu Kariya with art by Akira Hanasaki, Oishinbo is about a somewhat lazy food journalist called Shiro Yamaoka, who is put in charge of his newspaper’s Ultimate Menu project, which aims to compile a menu that will be able to best represent Japan’s culinary culture.
The art may look simple and the characters may be a bit bland, but Oishinbo more than makes up for these flaws with a detailed and informative look at Japanese cuisine. Sushi, sashimi, ramen, tempura, okonomiyaki, sake, izakaya food … you name the food, and chances are Oishinbo has already featured it. If you ever want to learn more about Japanese food, Oishinbo is probably one of the best and easiest ways to increase your knowledge.
The manga was created back in 1983, and continued running all the way until 2014, when it was put on hiatus after public backlash over its depiction of the radiation effects from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster.
Toriko is a Gourmet Hunter whose job is to seek out and acquire the most precious food and ingredients in the world, whether it’s for other people, or to go into his own “full-course meal”. These ingredients are usually really monstrous beasts or creatures/plants with qualities that make them hard to capture or harvest. He is joined on his quests by the timid chef Komatsu, who helps him cook the ingredients he has collected.
Created by Mitsutoshi Shimabukuro, Toriko, which ended its eight-year run last month, is not so much a food comic, but more like a typical shonen (young male) martial arts manga, but with food elements instead. Sure, all the food is made-up, some of the “ingredients” are just really weird monsters, and the story may have eventually evolved into a mega-battle for the fate of the world between musclebound heroes, fearsome beasts and ravenous space demons, but hey, no one said a food-related comic had to be about REAL food, right?
Gavin Cruikshank was once the world’s most famous chef, and the creator of a hugely popular cooking show called Starve which has evolved into a reality competition that pits chefs against each other. Returning from self-imposed exile, Cruikshank decides that the show has become an abomination, and decides to join it in order to destroy it from within.
Created by writer Brian Wood and artists Danijel Zezelj and Dave Stewart (colourist), this Image Comics series takes a spatula and a cleaving knife to the world of celebrity chefs and reality cooking shows. Wood doesn’t shy away from criticising the increasingly vapid celebrity chef culture, with scenes of kitchens becoming battlegrounds, and challenges that have them cooking near-extinct species.
At the same time, rather than plating the food in pretty colours, Zezelj’s art and Stewart’s colours give the food a bloody, visceral nature that is appalling yet appealing at the same time. Dark, subversive and deeply thoughtful, Starve is a hard-hitting series that can make you hungry while shaming you for feeling so at the same time.
The Drops Of God (Kami No Shizuku)
Kanzaki Shizuku is a salesman at a beer company whose estranged father is a world-renowned wine critic. Upon his father’s death, Shizuku is forced to enter the world of wine in order to inherit his dad’s great collection, via a challenge to identify 13 wines, which his father named the “Twelve Apostles” and the “Drops of God”.
There’s only one problem: although his father always tried to teach him about wine, Shizuku has actually never tasted it in his life!
You’d think a subject as stuffy and posh as wine wouldn’t make for a compelling manga. You’d be wrong.
Created by Tadashi Agi (actually a brother-and-sister team of creators), The Drops Of God may not feature exciting cook-offs or violent battles, but it’s a fascinating look into the world of wine, with informative titbits and explanations about everything to do with wine, from the wine-making process, tasting notes, serving methods, to even the food that best goes with wine.
Fun fact: the manga ran from 2004 to 2014, during which Japan’s wine distributors reportedly noted a marked rise in sales, and even began ordering their stocks based on what was featured in the manga.
In a world obsessed with food, where the economy revolves around the food industry and the city is run Mafia-style by two rival master chefs, Jiro is a traditional Japanese sushi chef who is proud of his art. So proud, in fact, that he literally cuts the head off any customer who dares drown his sushi in wasabi or ask for a California roll.
Released in 2012, Anthony Bourdain’s debut graphic novel is everything you’d expect from the sardonic food writer/chef/TV personality. The script is sharp and witty, peppered with countless food puns and references (even the weapons wielded by the gangs are cooking utensils), seasoned with some gratuitous violence, and served with a dash of irony and a sprinkling of drama.
Unfortunately, the 2015 prequel Get Jiro!: Blood And Sushi isn’t as great, but it at least gives us an insight into the backstory of our favourite violent sushi chef.
Written by Araki Joh and illustrated by Kenji Nagatomo, Bartender is about Ryu Sasakura, a genius bartender who returns to Japan after studying in France, and works his way up from being an assistant bartender to opening his own bar.
While the story loosely follows Sasakura’s journey, the manga is actually has more of a “drink of the day” concept in which each chapter focuses on a certain character’s issues, with Sasakura usually ending up making a drink that helps that character with his problem.
It may not sound like a very compelling concept for a manga, but there’s a reason why Bartender has stayed in serialisation for more than seven years now – like The Drops Of God, it makes a niche subject like bartending sound awesome by putting the focus on the drinks and spirits Sasakura uses. I’ve learnt more about the various spirits and cocktails from this manga than I have from all the other manuals or reference books I’ve ever read.
Japanese-style bartending has an almost legendary status in the global bartending industry, from the shaking methods and the cocktail recipes to the adherence to tradition and unique bar premises; and Bartender pays tribute to that celebrated reputation.
Collected volumes of the titles mentioned here are available at Kinokuniya, Suria KLCC. Call 03-2164 8133 or e-mail: email@example.com or visit www.kinokuniya.com/my.