Why We're Excited About Food in Comics

Food Comics - Cover
(Photo: Image Comics)

Image Comics is launching a new series this week, and its genre might surprise you. While the publisher has established a reputation for offering a variety of science-fiction and crime comics, along with some other offerings, they’re continuing to diversify the creator-owned series they publish. Flavor #1, co-created by writer Joseph Keatinge and artist Wook-Jin Clark, is as much about food as anything else.

Flavor takes place in a walled city in a fantasy world comparable to the great inventions of anime director Hayao Miyazaki. In that city food is the most valuable resource making chefs some of the most powerful individuals around. It follows a rising chef and her companions (including a talking dog) as they struggle to make their way while running down a mystery capable of changing everything in the city.

Food is the big new element within the series and it plays a prominent role. Keatinge and Clark have even brought an expert, food scientist Ali Bouzari, on board to consult for the story and provide valuable backmatter for readers. While there are still strong elements of fantasy and adventure, the world of cooking plays a central role. We don’t think the inclusion of the cooking genre is a one-off occurrence either. Instead, it may (and hopefully will) herald a new area for growth in North American comics.

Food Comics - Delicious In Dungeon
(Photo: Yen Press)

Inspiring Recipes From Japan

While the concept of food comics may seem atypical to the standard Image Comics reader, the genre is far from a new discovery in the world of comics. While the direct market has specialized in superheroes for decades, with a small offering of other popular genres, that isn’t the case outside of the Americas. Manga has boasted the most diversified market of stories in comics for many years, and that includes a strong collection of food comics.

Even when you look only at the series translated from Japanese to English, there are an impressive amount of manga focused on cooking to be devoured. The most popular of these translations is undoubtedly Food Wars, which traces a young man’s journey to become a popular chef in a highly competitive environment. Mentioning Food Wars as the only or best example of food manga would be like saying that One Piece is the only or best example of shonen adventure manga. The list is truly extensive. Addicted to Curry, Kitchen Princess, Bambino!, Hell’s Kitchen… The list goes on and on. The real lesson to be gleaned from the variety and collection of cooking manga is that the genre has legs and is capable of sustaining a broad readership.

The most recent hit to be translated is Delicious in Dungeon. This series features a Dungeons & Dragons-style setup in which teams of adventurers struggle to delve further into a dungeon with limited resources. In order to move as quickly as possible and attempt to save a lost teammate, one crew decides to cook what they kill instead of carrying rations. Each new installment of their exciting adventure concludes with a new recipe and clever lessons about the preparation and nutrition of food. While that may sound like education disguised as entertainment, it’s really a whole lot of mouthwatering fun, as evidenced by a quickly growing fanbase.

Food Comics - Umami
(Photo: Panel Syndicate)

Early Successes in the Creative Kitchen

With all of this success in food-related comics overseas, it’s no surprise that recent comics from the United States can still trace their roots to Japan. Get Jiro, from the Vertigo imprint of DC Comics, was written by two Americans but steeped in their love of Japanese cuisine and culture. It offers a tale set in a future Los Angeles and follows a mysterious sushi chef through his crime-related origins. Anthony Bourdain, the co-creator of Get Jiro and acclaimed chef, has maintained his interest in Japan across his multiple comics projects, including Hungry Ghosts. He has been open about his influences from the country and how they have guided his taste in work as both a chef and writer.

Umami, another recent creation at Panel Syndicate, comes from the international creative team of Joe Kelly and Ken Niimura, the same duo that created I Kill Giants. Niimura is a Japanese artist and Kelly an American writer. Their story features the odd couple of Uma and Ami who pair the distinct trades of cook and chef along with conflicting personalities in a quest that might save an entire kingdom. The comic has received praise worthy of its creators’ pedigrees and can be found digitally for whatever price readers choose. These early examples have both been moderately successful and helped to pave the way for future food comics in North America.

Food Comics - Image Comics Future
(Photo: Image Comics)

New Genres for a Healthier Market (or Meal)

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Looking at both the incredible array of food manga and the early successes of food comics like Umami and Get Jiro in the United States, it’s apparent that this genre has room to grow. Flavor #1 isn’t a culmination, but a starting point for more series to feature this subject heavily in theme, plot, and action. Food is a central element to our lives and all of these comics help to provide two wonderful new elements to the medium at large. First, they offer an element that is relatable whether it’s in the businesses that surround us or our own careers (or struggles at home in the kitchen). More importantly, they scaffold knowledge on a subject which we will all use. Whether it’s basic nutritional information or strategies for cooking itself, more knowledge about food enhances our lives (even if it comes flavored with dungeons or talking dogs).

The growth and health of food comics is good for comics as a whole, too. As publishers and retailers alike continue growing comics readership in North America, they can’t continue to rely on the standards of the past. Not everyone wants to read superhero comics or complex science fiction sagas. A relatable element like food opens the medium up to new readers and those readers to new genres, in turn. Food comics are simply a healthy choice for comics as a whole, whether their contents are green or deep fried. That’s why we’re excited about Flavor and any new food-related comics that may follow in its wake.