FLAVOR #1 / Writer: Joseph Keatinge / Artist: Wook Jin Clark / Colorist: Tamra Bonvillain / Letterer: Ariana Maher / Culinary Consultant: Ari Bouzari / Publisher: Image Comics / Released: May 16, 2018
I’ve longed to throw pepper in people’s eyes. Especially that combustible pepper that trains run on. I’ll have to make sure that I avoid the guards, though, because using those peppers for combat purposes is a violation of the Apicius Act. And who knows what will happen if they find out I’m also an unlicensed chef! These are just a few of the events to be found in Flavor #1, the first issue of the only series I can think of with a culinary consultant.
Xoo and her parents have a restaurant. Unfortunately Xoo’s parents are wheelchair-bound and unlikely to recover. Xoo has stopped going to school and taken on the role of chef (despite not having a license). In the walled-in city where Xoo lives, though, running a restaurant isn’t for the faint of heart. While trying to acquire a once-in-a-hundred-years truffle, a competitor throws pepper in Xoo’s eyes so he can get ahead in line. Later at home, the landlord Xoo’s family lives under brings in Xoo’s uncle as caregiver in accordance with the law. At that point the issue appears set to end on a quasi–family drama dynamic (albeit a weird one) before a final scene involving that pesky competitor, the guards who arrested him, and something completely unexpected adds another…ingredient to the story.
Flavor #1 is one of those first issues that tells a story in an unusual world while providing context through little more than implication. This is always a dangerous course to chart. Too often this narrative strategy leaves readers in confusion almost from the first page. The longer the story goes the worse the confusion can get. Joseph Keatinge has penned a script that sidesteps that danger almost entirely. The opening pages are high energy with Xoo in pursuit of a difficult-to-acquire goal. Keatinge introduces a measure of competition almost immediately with the pepper attack. We see the value of food and its preparation through references to ingredients and chef licenses. The rest of the issue proceeds at a slower burn while maintaining a bright, almost ebullient atmosphere; additional characters round out Xoo’s world, and they all feel of a piece with this setting while being distinctive from the young woman who is clearly the main character.
For all the praise there are two noticeable speedbumps in Keatinge’s worldbuilding in Flavor. One of them rears its head near the end when the landlord (Mrs. Tee) confronts the whole family. Xoo’s brother, Geof, has been brought in as a caretaker to help remedy Xoo’s “situation.” Keatinge doesn’t make it clear how the situation is supposed to be remedied. Just what is a win here? Further, any success would seem to involve Geof as a permanent paid serf—compensated for his trouble but tied to that household. The second problem is the business with Xoo being an unlicensed chef. Many characters (Xoo included) mention her being an unlicensed chef, but there’s no sense that this has any consequences; it started reminding me of not getting a tetanus shot as an adult.
Keatinge’s script, minor flaws and all, isn’t the only thing building this world though. Artist Wook Jin Clark and colorist Tamra Bonvillain successfully depict a world that feels lived in. Clark starts the issue off with five dynamic pages (the issue’s first two pages are a spread). This is somewhat impressive in its own right because the action in question is mostly Xoo riding her bicycle to the train station. But what’s equally impressive is the amount of background detail. This city is Xoo’s world, but she’s not the only one in it. The city is inhabited by a multitude of characters, none of them featured in this story, who feel every bit as alive as Xoo. When Xoo makes a woman drop her grocery bag I can’t help but wonder what dinner she’s ruined.
Keeping with that lived-in feel, Bonvillain’s outdoor color palate feels sunbleached, walked on, and leaned against. This city didn’t spring up yesterday with its inhabitants spawned like the beginning of a video game. The world of Flavor #1, with its not-quite-fantasy sensibility, feels more real than many superhero books that claim to take place on Earth.
One of the best rewards as a comic reader is to be taken by surprise by a book. Flavor #1 wasn’t on my pull list, and it’s not of a genre of books I usually pick up. Nevertheless the quality here is undeniable—significantly greater than many higher profile books maintain. There are definitely first issue jitters. But there’s nothing here that would give me a moment’s pause in getting the next issue. Someone’s got to support these unlicensed chefs, after all.
Verdict: 4.5 out 5 Garuda Truffles
Theron Couch is a collection of 1000 monkeys on 1000 typewriters trying to produce Hamlet. From time to time he accidentally types comic book reviews. Theron’s first novel, The Loyalty of Pawns, is available on Amazon and he’s published assorted short stories. Theron maintains a blog with additional comic and book reviews as well as posts on his personal struggle with mental health.