Anthony Bourdain’s a comic geek. Who knew?
Before he became a renowned chef, TV celebrity, bestselling author, globetrotting raconteur, and taster of odd things, Anthony Bourdain was an avid comic collector with dreams of one day working in comics.
That dream was fully realized at last week’s San Diego Comic Con, when Bourdain’s first graphic novel, Get Jiro!, catapulted to the top spot on The New York Times bestseller list as the Get Jiro! posse—co-author and longtime friend Joel Rose, artist Langdon Foss, colorist Jose Villarrubia, and Vertigo chief Karen Berger—engaged fans and press over a five-day whirlwind of interviews, panels, and parties.
"As a teenager, I wanted to work in comics, so the fact that it’s happened a little later in life is awesome, fun, and a little bit scary," said Bourdain, best known for his Emmy Award-winning series No Reservations, during a packed Comic-Con panel that walked fans through the graphic novel. "But so far, this has gone beyond my wildest dreams."
The lavishly illustrated culinary satire, published by DC Entertainment’s Vertigo imprint, chronicles a dystopian future where eating has become the sole form of entertainment and chef warlords spar over foodie philosophies and turfs. At the heart of the story is Jiro, a hardline sushi chef who only wants to prepare good food for appreciative patrons—lest he lop off their heads for disrespecting his craft with pedestrian orders.
On a more subversive level, the book takes America’s obsession with food to its absurd extreme—but one not so far removed from reality. "Where you source your food as a chef is a political stance," Bourdain told the audience. "In California, chefs are getting threatened over the livers of water fowl, which is illegal. It’s not unreasonable to extrapolate how serving a tomato out of season could lead to violence. We live in an increasingly food and chef-obsessed world.
"No culinary culture takes its food as seriously and fetishizes food as much as the Japanese," he added. "Sushi chefs can spend seven years on rice before they move on to fish. Nowhere is sushi more popular and more misunderstood than in America."
For those paying attention, there were previous indicators of Bourdain’s comic interest—namely, a 2007 No Reservations episode built around Cleveland and Harvey Pekar, who has since passed on. Bourdain joined Pekar and illustrator Gary Dumm in a comic about the experience, and years later, helped champion a Harvey Pekar statue.
"Harvey took him around, but we weren’t gourmands or had cable, so we didn’t know who he was," says Joyce Brabner, Pekar’s widow, business partner and co-author. "A big feature of the show was Tony eating strange things. Harvey took him to Zubel Books, which is housed in an old Twinkie factory, and came up with the idea for him to eat the old Twinkie filling that was still lodged in the overhead pipes—the logic being that there were so many preservatives in it, it probably hadn’t spoiled. So Tony opened up the pipes and ate it. Even Harvey knew that was a little off-palate…
"What impressed me was not what went in his mouth, but what came out of it," adds Brabner, who is still in touch with Bourdain. "He was one of the most intelligent, well-informed people. He’s got a terrific mind and he’s curious about everything."
But the seeds for Jiro go back even further, to 1980, when Bourdain sent some comics he’d written and drawn to Joel Rose, then the editor of Between C and D, a New York Lower East Side alternative literary magazine. The verdict? "I liked the story," says Rose. "The illustrations? Not so much."
Rose became the first person to publish Bourdain. "I always thought, from the time we met, that he was a really great writer—and we’ve been friends ever since," Rose tells Fast Company in a joint interview with Bourdain.
"Basically, Joel was the one person in the world who thought of me as a writer for 20 years of my cooking career," adds Bourdain.
"He was always denigrating himself, and I was always, `What are you talking about?’ " laughs Rose. "He was such a natural. His voice always came out. And I felt like he didn’t need anything, but some confidence."
While Bourdain pursued a culinary career, Rose wrote the graphic novel La Pacifica, and the novels Kill the Poor and Kill Kill Faster Faster (the latter two later made into films), and the more recent 2007 novel The Blackest Bird. Bourdain’s literary turning point came when an essay he wrote for a free local paper ended up in The New Yorker. At the same time, he sent Rose a long email from Tokyo describing the scene from his hotel room window and his first visit to the Tsukiji fish market. Rose showed them to his wife, Karen Rinaldi, then an editor at Bloomsbury Publishing, who signed him to a deal that became the 2000 bestseller Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly. (In 2005, it was turned into a short-lived Fox series of the same name; Bradley Cooper played Bourdain.)
"She had just given birth to our son Rocco, was breast feeding him on our living room floor propped up by a whole mess of pillows, and was in no mood. I had to be insistent," says Rose.
"So Joel is entirely responsible for my career, which is basically what we’re saying here," says Bourdain.
The book jumpstarted Bourdain’s culinary empire: hosting the Food Network’s A Cook’s Tour, writing for HBO’s Treme, three crime novels, a 2007 No Reservations bestseller based on the series, and 2010 Kitchen Confidential follow-up, Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook. With the end of No Reservations comes two new gigs for next year, as a CNN commentator and host of a new ABC cooking show. And, of course, more graphic novels with Rose.
Meanwhile, Bourdain and Rose would spend Thanksgivings talking about doing a graphic novel together until there was finally an opening in both their schedules for what would become a two-year project.
"I knew I wanted a sushi chef as the hero," says Bourdain. "From my travels and love of sushi, I know how much work goes into making traditional sushi well. They’re not allowed to touch the fish until they’ve gotten the rice correct. So I well understand the pain of the misunderstanding, misuses, and abuses of sushi. There are a few well-known sushi chefs in the world who are very intolerant of people treating their sushi badly. I thought, `Wouldn’t it be great if someone took that to extremes?’ I had to imagine a world where that would be perfectly acceptable."
"Tony wrote down the story in, like, a minute—it was so good," says Rose. The collaboration just flowed from there. "It was perfect from the start. We just work very fluidly together. He would send me the most vivid scenes. I did the nuts and bolts, breaking it down into panels."
"I’d write till I’d hit a wall, then ignore the wall, and continue as far as I could, and send it off to Joel, saying, `This is what we need.’ We’d edit each other. It was a back-and-forth thing," says Bourdain. "Then, once Langdon became involved, he had a lot of super-detailed questions for the art—what wine, what year, what knife would you use with what fish, sending reference shots of different kinds of eels." (Even colorist Villarrubia recalls getting notes on using the wrong shade for a sausage.) "But the food really jumps off the page."
Their easy collaboration made the project seamless for Berger, Vertigo’s senior vice president and executive editor. "These guys knew what they were doing," she says. "Tony has a natural ability to think visually. The satire fits into what Vertigo does—commentary about society and the way we live in extremes, taken to extreme ends."
Bourdain is very much a part of that satire. "The novel is very much about lampooning and satirizing the excesses of a mindset that I very much benefit from," he says. "But it’s not just what I find silly and ridiculous about the food world, but also what I like about it. I’m putting some of my own fears, prejudices, and passions into it."
Click the above slideshow for walk-through of some "Get Jiro!" pages.