November 2015

Matt Terl

fiction

Get Jiro: Blood and Sushi by Anthony Bourdain and Joel Rose, art by Alé Garza

Before he wrote his first graphic novel, Get Jiro; before he became the star and driving creative force behind a critically acclaimed, Emmy-winning TV series; before he became a bestselling author several times over; even before he became a sensation for his Chef Hunter S. Thompson cooking memoir-cum-tell-all Kitchen Confidential, Anthony Bourdain was a crime novelist.

Bone in the Throat and Gone Bamboo were darkly comic, fast-paced crime thrillers that aspire to be culinarily inflected Elmore Leonard or Carl Hiaasen. Written in the mid-nineties while Bourdain was still working in restaurant kitchens, it's easy to imagine them being brought to the screen by one of the many Quentin Tarantino wannabes of the era. If that doesn't sound like a ringing endorsement... well, they're not really terrific books.

You can see the font of Bourdain's talent in them, but it's not until he deglazes it with the elixir of personal experience that it emerges into a rich, flavorful sauce of nonfiction. (Sorry. Something about food writing makes these culinary metaphors tough to resist.) These early books are some tasty browned bits stuck to the bottom of a dry pan -- lots of potential, but pretty unappetizing on their own.

So it's a bit of a shame that his new graphic novel Get Jiro: Blood and Sushi seems to hearken directly back to those earliest works. The first Get Jiro was itself a bit of a mixed bag, a weird near-future dystopic culinary parable, but it had more to recommend it than just Bourdain's fantastic success in other media -- notably its insane Peckinpah-meets-Top-Chef satirical brio and some gorgeous art from Langdon Foss.

The new book, a prequel to the earlier work, dials back the dystopia and the brio, and swaps out Foss's meticulous, European-influenced work for the more mainstream cartoony stylings of Alé Garza. Every single one of those changes is for the worse. The story eschews the food-world parody of the earlier book for a more straightforward crime story: In a near-future Japan, Jiro is a sensitive young yakuza thug who moonlights as an apprentice sushi chef. His father is the yakuza boss, and Jiro and his half-brother work as enforcers. Jiro must keep his itamae ambitions a secret, as well as his half-Italian/half-Japanese girlfriend. Eventually, inevitably, his two worlds collide, and Jiro is forced to make a choice.

Of course, that choice is pretty much foregone if you've read the earlier book, which makes this story -- like so many prequels -- less about what's going to happen and more about how we get there. Prequels, really, rely on two things: 1) that the how we get there is interesting, and 2) that we actually care enough about the characters from the original to want to see their backstory.

Blood and Sushi falls down on both levels. Jiro, in the original book, was more or less the sushi chef version of a couple of Clint Eastwood archetypes: William Munny from Unforgiven, the taciturn former bad-dude who has left his sinister past behind him, and the Man With No Name from A Fistful of Dollars, playing two warring sides against each other and ultimately double-crossing both. And, like with both of those characters, there was really nothing to be gained from actually seeing the specifics of their sinister pasts. They are movie bad-asses who have done bad stuff. The end.

Except it's not the end, because Bourdain and returning co-writer Joel Rose here elect to show us that bad stuff. The results, predictably, are much more toothless than whatever you might've imagined.

Jiro's family situation feels familiar, like pre-chewed food. The plot chugs along predictable tracks, like underseasoned chicken breast showing up at a catered lunch. The characters lack the vinegary bite of real internal lives, instead seeming more like the blandest cookies ever cut out. And the culinary scenes seem as clumsily bolted on as the food metaphors in this paragraph.

Which is a pity, because, like the first Jiro book, that's where Blood and Sushi is the strongest -- it's where Bourdain's real life wealth of experience shines through the fog of plot-standard cliché. The book needs more of Jiro's sushi education, more of his girlfriend's musings on the viability of Italian food in Japan. The scene where Jiro's psychotic half-brother describes a shabu-shabu table in barely veiled threatening terms needs to be better integrated into the overall narrative, because it feels vastly more alive than any of the other gangster posturing in the book.

Garza's art doesn't help matters. The cartoonishness would be better suited to the overt parody of the first Get Jiro, but abjectly fails to assign any significance or heft to the ultraviolence here. And where Foss managed to apply the necessary fetishistic detail to the first book's food scenes, Garza's culinary drawing here feels much more generic; only the shabu-shabu scene really sold the specificity of the food.

Ultimately, this graphic novel is a strong argument for Bourdain to make the same transition in comics that he made in prose. I have no interest in any further Jiro stories, but a nonfiction culinary graphic novel with meticulous, fine-lined art from a top manga artist? I would eat that up with a spoon.

(Sorry.)

Get Jiro: Blood and Sushi by Anthony Bourdain and Joel Rose, art by Alé Garza
Vertigo Books
ISBN: 978-1401252267
160 pages

Follow Matt Terl on Twitter at @matt_terl.