There’s been a lot of noise about the return of Karen Berger to comics with Dark Horse’s Berger Books imprint. After all, Berger is the editor who really kickstarted the British invasion that brought Messrs Moore, Gaiman, Morrison et al to the USA, first at DC Comics, and then DC Vertigo. For all intents and purposes, Berger WAS Vertigo, creating the imprint in 1993 and remaining there until her departure in 2013. Berger’s tenure saw the publication of Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing, Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, as well as Hellblazer, Preacher, 100 Bullets, Y: The Last Man and many more.
So her return to comics in 2018 with Berger Books really is something of a big thing. Sadly, this first book from Berger Books really doesn’t do the job it’s meant to. This is a minor league debut when we all wanted to see a major launch.
Now, Hungry Ghosts Issue # 1 isn’t necessarily bad, just underwhelming for what I was looking for. The short story horror format it’s going for just doesn’t really have enough room to take off once the introductions and reasoning are all out of the way. However, there are the tempting morsels of something interesting here, the appetizer to a potentially delicious main course.
Basic setup to this is simple: Hungry Ghosts is a food-themed take on a Japanese ghost tale game, popular in the 17th Century. This game of 100 candles (Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai) was played by the Samurai class as a way to show courage. Sitting in circles, with 100 candles lit in another room, each man told their scariest tale. Upon finishing, the storyteller would go to the next room and extinguish one candle, check in the mirror to be sure he’d not been possessed during the telling, and rejoin his fellows in the increasingly darkened room. As the tales grew scarier and the room darker, as the 100th candle approached, these bravest of warriors would often abandon the game, fearful of what was to come, terrified that the next tale would unleash something supernatural into the room.
Which is where we join the comic, not in the times of the Samurai, but in modern-day New York, where a rich and powerful Russian oligarch has gathered together a group of the best international chefs to cook for him and his guests.
Upon finishing the meal, the Russian brings out his chefs, bids them to sit, and challenges them to a game of 100 candles. There’s little choice in the matter. It’s clear who the power resides with.
Once the introduction is over, there’s merely time for two tales, neither particularly terrifying nor ground-breaking. They seem to take all that promise of the excellent and intriguing Paul Pope cover and Alberto Ponticelli’s first-page introduction and proceed to rather underwhelm.
First, that beautiful first page:
Cast your eyes around the small room: the potential for terror is there for sure, in that collection of demonic masks, faces, and skulls. The mysterious curator of these tales welcoming you to what’s in store, reminiscent of the classic EC horror tales, or those wonderful DC horror comics of the 70s.
The first tale, “The Starving Skeleton“, sees a Ramen chef make an oh so obvious mistake of refusing to feed a homeless and hungry beggar. It’s a horror trope delivered to the comic page, with no tension, no surprise, no horror. Once he turns the beggar away without food, you just know the grisly end he’s going to have in a few pages time. It’s never in any doubt how this will turn out, and it’s only real saving grace is the wonderfully atmospheric artwork from Alberto Ponticelli.
The second tale, “The Pirates”, is an improvement, although still not anything terrifying or particularly original. It begins with a woman rescued from drowning by pirates, it ends with a monster returning to the sea and a ship full of emasculated men. They get a lot more than the night of debauchery and rape they were expecting. Bewitched by the beauty of their victim, they go one by one go to receive their favors, losing parts of themselves in the process. But even so, it’s still lightweight body horror that doesn’t really horrify.
Having said that the two tales of terror in Hungry Ghosts Issue 1 don’t work particularly well, I’m still going to be hanging around for Issue 2. Because on reflection and a second reading, what does work in Hungry Ghosts is the framing story. Now, I could be reading a lot more into this than is actually there, but I’m seeing a real potential story here, full of subtle and very dark moments.
For a simple example; as the Russian oligarch introduces the chefs to his table, things shift, and alter, the night seems darker, the guests change… didn’t the woman to his left start as merely another glamourous fellow eater? But a couple of pages later…
And then there’s the sensual introduction to the second tale, with the one female chef providing a cautionary tale of lusty pirates and their unfortunate prey. Am I reading too much into it when I see an allusion to modern life, of powerful men finally being exposed for their wrongdoing by women finally able to speak out…
“I thought I’d change the pace and make this story about women.
Don’t worry. There’s a lot of sex.
It’s a lusty, brawling high seas adventure. About Pirates.
You boys’s like Pirates, right?
You’ll like this, I’m sure. Lotta boning.”
Oh, the metaphor drips from all that. Positively hangs in the air. The body language says “sensual”, the words say “don’t even think of it”.
She proceeds to tell a tale with a hell of a lot of boning for sure, although the rescued sea-maiden’s teeth dealing with all those Pirate members isn’t the sort of boning to reassure her male listeners. It’s powerfully done, with Vanessa Del Rey’s art sensual and flowing throughout.
And then the final lines of the first issue, as the female chef finishes her tale, blows out the candle and returns to the room, where the host is waiting…
“I was under the impression our stories were to involve food.”
Oh, it ends with a loaded image. Solitary female chef, in a room of powerful men, having just told a lusty tale of male power ripped away from them. And she’s holding a very large knife.
Makes you wonder just where this one is heading in the subsequent three issues.
And it’s this subtext that is what makes Hungry Ghosts something that I’m not going to dismiss out of hand. There’s an underwhelming nature to the actual horror tales being told for sure. They could easily have been minor comics from any point in comic history from the 50s on. But the encroaching darkness of the gathering of chefs at the oligarch’s table is something I was captured by. I want to see where they go with this.
So yes, it’s a poor first issue in many ways, underwhelming and never scary enough. But I’ll be looking at Issue 2, hopeful to see more of the darkness between the horror tales. If they do what I’d like to see, use the tales told as a trigger to delve into the psyches and darkness of those sitting at the table, then I’ll be more than happy.
Hungry Ghosts Issue 1; written by Anthony Bourdain and Joel Rose. Kaidan, The Starving Skeleton art by Alberto Ponticelli, The Pirates art by Vanessa Del Rey. Colors by Jose Villarrubia, letters by Sal Cipriano, cover by Paul Pope.
Hungry Ghosts #1 is out now from Berger Books/ Dark Horse Comics.