Hungry Ghosts marks the debut of the Berger Books line at Dark Horse Comics. It's a new line curated by Karen Berger, the legendary founder of Vertigo Comics. That pedigree is on full display in Hungry Ghosts #1 with nationally recognized chef and writer Anthony Bourdain co-writing the series with Joel Rose, and two top-tier artists providing work. It's a killer lineup for a concept that could have come straight out of Sandman. A collection of chefs gathered by a Russian oligarch are challenged to tell ghost stories for the entertainment of his wealthy guests. The framing device takes up about a third of the comic, while the first two stories populate the rest. There's so much promise in that premise along with its creators and editor, which may help explain why it feels like such a disappointment.
Attempting to stack three stories into a standard-sized comic explains a lot of how Hungry Ghosts goes wrong. The framing story is written as efficiently as possible, but still fills almost half of the issue as it sets up its own characters and concept. In turn, there is so little room left for the remaining stories that they read more like anecdotes that complete, haunting tales. Attempting to pack so much into so few pages results in a balance that undermines each of the different narratives. The framing device fails to invest readers in the characters and setting that offer these stories, sticking to the essential exposition instead. The ghost stories are mere outlines.
"The Starving Skeleton" is the least of these three works. It technically contains a ghost and gore, but there is nothing in the way of characters or twists to make it a satisfying addition. One thing happens which causes another, with little to make a reader care about either. There are classic elements that contain potential, but what is on the page fails. Outside of the final page of this installment, in which Ponticelli really utilizes scale and contrast to make a few frightening panels, it's best skipped.
Vanesa Del Rey's work makes "The Pirates" a more satisfying narrative, even though it also lacks the character work or stakes to make it resonate beyond haunting images. Her portrayal of a woman cast at the mercy of grotesque men is haunting, in and of itself. It fills the story with a sense of rage that is its core reason for being. What follows provides both satisfaction and a mix of gruesome images and allusions. It's a tale one could imagine being somewhat satisfying around a campfire, and provides a more cohesively effective tale from start to finish.
As a concept, Hungry Ghosts retains power, some of which may be fulfilled in future, less crowded installments. Yet as an individual issue of a comic, it is difficult to recommend. Ponticelli and Del Rey are faultless, but the stories they are telling lack life. There's very little frightening about these ghost stories beyond a few horrifying images. These are the sorts of tales you quickly skip past at summer camp, primarily because the storyteller doesn't know how to shape them. There's plenty of talent within these pages, but very little of it is being displayed well.
Written by Anthony Bourdain and Joel Rose
Art by Alberto Ponticelli ("Kaidan" and "The Starving Skeleton") and Vanesa Del Rey ("The Pirates")
Colors by José Villarrubia