Iconic chef, world traveler and all-around awesome human being Anthony Bourdain made his comic book debut with Get Jiro!, the new graphic novel he co-wrote with Joel Rose, featuring artwork by Langdon Foss. It’s a solid, if slightly unbalanced debut to one of his favorite mediums, packed with all the foodie politics and thinly-veiled hosility you’d expect from Bourdain.
Get Jiro! is set in Los Angeles in the near future, under the delightful premise that virtually all forms of entertainment– from movies to commercial music to TV– have collapsed in on themselves, leaving dining as the last bastion of lifestyle and culture. As such, the biggest celebrities in the world are top chefs, whose restaurants are so in-demand that people will literally kill for a reservation. Of course, that’s all in the “Inner Circle,” the hive of top-tier establishments in the heart of L.A.
Jiro is an astonishingly talented sushi chef whose restaurant is far from the center of this civilization, in the downtrodden outskirts of the city. However his legendary sushi-making talents (and killer knife skills) have made him a person of interest for the two lords of food-dom in the Inner Circle, and Jiro soon finds himself caught in the middle of the long rivalry between hack commercial chef Bob and anti-establishment, bandwagoning Rose.
As both rivals attempt to recruit the sushi chef to their team, Jiro is introduced to their inner workings, as well as some heavy criticism of these two factions of real-life culinary philosophy. Bob and Rose are both fantastic characters that feel very well-rounded, while also providing outlets for Bourdain’s criticism of the restaurant industry.
The callous Bob is the franchise king, owning tons of commercial restaurants that churn out in-demand dishes like a factory. He cares little about the quality of his “paycheck” restaurants, seeing them as means to an end for him to focus on utilizing his very real talents in the kitchen on his own terms. This leaves the cruel genius to be the more overt in his corporate skin, as opposed to Rose who hides her own enterprising cruelty behind trendy buzz-words like “Local” and “Vegan.” Rose is a direct rip on Whole Foods and their ilk, capitalizing on appealing to the lazily socially-conscious, who feel they are doing a good deed simply because their package says “cruelty free.” In truth, Rose is every bit as vicious as Bob, and their rivalry, and (not-really) opposing philosophies make for some interesting content as the two circle each other before finally meeting face to face in the book’s finale.
Jiro’s take on both these food icons is not very positive, and in a riff on many classic samurai or Western tales, he sets his allegiance with both of them, in an attempt to lead the pair to destroy each other. Along the way, he has moments of both hyper-violent combat and encounters with other, small restauranteurs which gives Bourdain the chance to show off some of his best recipes, all illustrated wonderfully by Foss. Foss’ character work is equally great, with his slightly chunky, cartoonish style really selling the realization of this weird world. There’s a slightly Japanese flair to the designs, not in a manga style but more of a tattoo sensibility, and the designs of both the main characters and the supporting cast– especially Bob’s chef coat-clad army and Rose’s horde of hipsters and hippies, is fantastic.
So far I’ve focused on the positive aspects of the book, but I do feel it didn’t quite come together. More than anything it comes down to characterization. While Bob and Rose are both excellent, fully-realized characters, most of the support cast is very thin, with no personalities– or even dialogue– to distinguish them. This seems especially odd for Bourdain, who always seems fascinated by the “little people” in his travels, so getting such little sense of the workers underneath Rose and Bob, especially Bob’s sous chef who defects to join Jiro, is disappointing.
More disappointing is Jiro himself, charged with the contradictory task of being both Bourdain’s voice of reason in this war of kitchen politics, and the strong, silent ronin warrior. What we’re left with is a character whose stoic attitude isn’t enough to define him, and which calls his actions into question when Bourdain uses him as a hyper-violent weapon against the rubes he’s lampooning. Jiro has that wonderfully pretentious disdain for idiots that Bourdain himself exudes, but it doesn’t feel earned without the level of charisma and talent Bourdain himself wields to back up his attitude. As such, when Jiro cuts off a douchebag’s head simply for ordering a California Roll, it makes the hero seem more like a dick than a champion of culture, leaving the blank-slate hero difficult to root for.
Despite the paper-thin flatness of the hero and the support cast, Get Jiro! is a fast and fun read. Bourdain’s expectedly caustic satire of fine dining culture is absolutely on point, and the fun world he, Rose and Foss created is quite novel. I’d love to revisit Jiro’s world in the brutal game of high-stakes restauranteuring, but next time out I hope there’s a little more meat on our main character.