Karen Berger is a comics legend at this point. I mean if you founded Vertigo, and recruited writers like Peter Milligan, Neil Gaiman, and Alan Moore to the forefront of the comics world, you deserve to be. When Berger left Vertigo in 2013, it was a sad day. Now she’s spearheading a new imprint at Dark Horse called Berger Books. Hungry Ghosts intrigued me with its premise, as I love short stories in comics or otherwise. Hungry Ghosts is written by the team who wrote the original graphic novel Get Jiro! for Vertigo in 2012. Food enthusiast and travel cable celebrity Anthony Bourdain, joined by comics writer Joel Rose, turned out a story that lampooned celebrity chef culture and was insanely fun while doing it.
Hungry Ghosts is based on a game of sorts that was played by samurai in Japan during the Edo period, called 100 candles. It was played by filling a room with one hundred candles and a mirror. One of the participants would tell the scariest ghost story they knew and then go into the room, blow out one of the candles, and look in the mirror to make sure they hadn’t been possessed by a spirit during the story. As time went on and the room got darker and darker, and the stories scarier and scarier, participants would start dropping out, fearing the wrath of the spirits that the game was designed to summon. The game is similar in this story, but it takes place on a wealthy businessman’s yacht, and he has basically coerced the highly trained chefs he has hired for the party into playing it. All the short tales of terror have the common thread of food, though that can be taken as figuratively as the storyteller wants.
Both stories in this issue are illustrated by different artists and evoke different feelings of dread. The first centers around a homeless man who asks a restaurant employee for some spare food, but the employee refuses. Later as the employee walks home, he is haunted by a hungry skeleton spirit who, in the end, eats him whole. It’s incredibly short and didn’t illicit much of response in me. The art in this story isn’t anything to write home about, and some of it is a little hard to follow.
The second story was longer and scarier. The female chef telling the story prefaces it with the fact that it’s filled with a ‘lotta bonning’ which immediately made me think I was not gonna like it. Surprisingly though it was my favorite of the two. It centers around a woman who is thrown off an ocean pier as punishment for being lustful. She is saved by some pirates, who make it clear the only reason they’re saving her is because they haven’t know the touch of a woman in months and are planning on having their way with her. For some strange reason she immediately accepts this and joins the captain in his quarters. There she bites off his manly bits, eats them, and then proceeds to do this to the entire rest of the ship’s crew. As she does so she becomes more and more grotesque, and at the end jumps into the sea having become a horrific half-shellfish creature. The tumultuous ocean waters were well rendered and the inking had a level of chaos to it that evoked the feelings of the pirates.
While I understand the concept behind having a different artist illustrate each story, I think it would have been more coherent if the same artist had illustrated all of the stories. There could still be changes in the art style, and there would be a common connection between the stories since the writing plays fast and loose with the food connection.
As I said before, I love short stories, especially horror ones. In most cases, full-length horror stories are never as disturbing as the short ones. Hungry Ghosts is a noble take on this idea with an interesting framework, but I wasn’t as unsettled by it as I would have liked to have been. The take-away from both of the stories boils down to ‘be generous’ and ‘don’t rape people’ which aren’t exactly revolutionary lessons.