Vertigo Comics was the pinnacle of creator owned, forward thinking, and literary storytelling comics in the 1990s. It was one of the best imprints being published, and (full disclosure) my personal favorite imprint for almost two decades. Those two decades coincided with founding editor Karen Berger's tenure. Her exit from the imprint, and DC Comics in general, was a powerful blow to my once, and sometimes still, favorite imprint. Berger is back in the game though with a new imprint titled Berger Books for Dark Horse Comics. Taking on virtually the same role she had at Vertigo Comics, I have high hopes for Berger Books. How can one not? Is it possible for lightening to strike twice for Berger with Berger Books, or better yet for readers? The verdict is still out, and will remain so for some time, but I am very much hoping so. Berger Books' first offering, Hungry Ghosts, definitely fits the stylistic tone that Berger established at Vertigo Comics, so it appears her new venture is off to the right start. Just how good is this first offering though? Will it serve as a solid foundation for the future of an edgy imprint that has to compete with Image Comics, which is arguably the best independent and creator owned, as well as most forward thinking and literary storytelling imprint currently publishing?
Hungry Ghosts #1 is an interesting and unique first offering from Berger Books, but alone won't serve as the powerhouse of a debut that is worthy of Berger's reputation. Written by Anthony Bourdain (yes, THAT Anthony Bourdain), and Joel Rose (Get Jiro!) with art from Alberto Ponticelli (Unknown Soldier) and Vanessa Del Rey (Scarlett Witch), this first issue introduces the frame story of a modern day take on the Kaidan, a samurai tradition of the Edo period where samurai would get together and light one hundred candles, tell a ghost story for each candle, then blow it out and look in a mirror to see if they've become possessed by the evil spirit of their story. Yeah, this is totally in the Berger wheelhouse of story premises. The twist is that the stories being told here are being related by the world class chefs who just prepared a meal for a Russian oligarch who won their services for the night at a charity auction. Each story will involve food or consumption in some shape or form, with a horror bent, of course.
So after a well written, drawn, and executed set up of the frame story, the first two tales are told. Unfortunately, here's where the issue actually goes downhill. Both tales included in this debut issue are not very interesting or ground breaking, even if they do serve to relate a valid moral and conjure up some scary imagery. "The Starving Skeleton," being the weaker of the two stories, is almost silly, even if it has a solid moral to it. "The Pirates," the second story related herein is a little more horrific and suited to the premise, and is definitely more risque and smartly feminist in its tone, but also falls short of the type of high brow horror one expects from a Berger edited debut.
One caveat must be addressed and offered here though. The stories contained herein, outside of the Bourdain and Rose written frame story, are taken from traditional folktales and stories involving food and its consumption from around the world. So Bourdain and Rose can't be faulted for the stories themselves. What I was looking for though was more detailed stories that delve into the particular cultures and ethic foods of the cultures the stories are taken from, much like Bourdain's Parts Unknown CNN show mixes cultural stories of discovery with the types of foods said cultures enjoy. Basically, I wanted more depth and detail, something that perhaps I shouldn't be expecting from a comic book series that basically has to tell three stories in the confines of its monthly format. I think Berger and company are up to the challenge though, and maybe we will see more depth in the subsequent issues.
Artistically, the series is visually engaging and arresting. I've been a fan of Ponticelli since his days on Joshua Dysart's Unknown Solider for Vertigo Comics and I'm always glad to see his work. Unknown Soldier was a horror book of another nature, and Ponticelli's style fits "The Starving Skeleton" tale's morally driven violence imagery perfectly. Vanessa Del Rey's turn in "The Pirates" is just as fitting for the subject matter. A tale that relies on horror tinged erotica, presented without graphic nudity or titillation, that leaves more to the imagination (in both the horror and erotica aspects) isn't an easy one to pull off while keeping its edge. Del Rey does an excellent job of presenting a visual experience that eschews the usual exaggerated anatomy and graphic nudity, something that is often the hallmark of many independent comics. She smartly, and welcomingly, manages to convey the sexual horror and violence necessary without resorting to pandering to adolescent inclinations.
A solid, if not entirely overwhelming, debut, Hungry Ghosts #1 is a worthy offering from the nascent Berger Books imprint from Dark Horse Comics, but I'm hoping for deeper material as the imprint grows, and this series continues.