Monday, January 28, 2013

Food and Drink: Knisley, Antal, Brideau/Toosi

Let's look at three comics that investigate the visceral and cultural joys of food and drink.

A Comic Guide To Brewing, by Lara Antal. All three of these comics have extensive how-to and history sections, which is not surprising when talking about food. What's a bit different about this comic is that it's told from the point of view of a character from Antal's series, Tales of the Night Watchman. The character, a barrista, speaks with such expertise about the subject that it's clear that Antal herself has spent time brewing coffee for a living. Antal's in-depth discussion on the kinds of coffee and the complexities of making it in its many forms is actually quite fascinating, especially in the way she cleverly designs each page to give it a lively, active feel. Her chops as a draftsman are not quite up to snuff in providing the kind of detail necessary to really highlight the different brewing systems and other technical stuff, though she more-or-less gets her point across. Of course, this was done as a 24-hour comic, so it's understandable that it's a bit rushed. Antal includes fun little gimmicks with this comic, like a cardboard spoon attached to the front cover.

Yock Yok, by Neil Brideau and Fereshteh Toosi. This is an odd little project from an organization called Regional Relationships, which "commissions artists, scholars, writers and activists to create works that investigate the natural, industrial and cultural landscapes of a region." In this case, writer Toosi investigates a curious food local to New Orleans and Virginia called Yock, which is classic poor people food that has a fervent following. It's essentially noodles and a ketchup-based broth that has as many permutations as it does different names and spellings. Brideau is not a top-notch draftsman, but like Antal, his clever design work makes each page a pleasure. The book is lighthearted in tone, freely dipping into tall tales surrounding yock while acknowledging its status as a beloved, crucial and above all else, regional food. It's hangover food that's cheap to make and generally contains whatever happens to be laying around the kitchen. It's not unlike pho or any other peasant food that relies on ingenuity and years of subtle alterations to attain its status as a comfort food icon. The fact that it is still very much a regional phenomenon in an age when industrial and commercial food is so dominant is both interesting and reassuring. The comic comes in a fancy bronze-colored envelope and comes with a CD containing an interview between Toosi and a woman named Joy Smith, who knows quite a lot about the subject.

Relish: My Life In The Kitchen, by Lucy Knisley. Knisley's new book will be published by First Second in April of 2013. This can best be described as a "food memoir", as Knisley mediates a number of key events in her life through the making and consumption of food. Born to foodie parents in a time when that term and way of life was just coming into being, Knisley was nourished by her parents in more ways than one. There's a sense in which this book is lightweight and a fluff piece; negative emotions and aspects of Knisley's life are mentioned only in passing or avoided altogether. At the same time, Knisley clearly hasn't had too traumatic of a life; she has two loving parents, lots of friends and tons of rich experiences as well as a career as an artist. Of course, not every autobio story has to be about the Holocaust, terminal illness, or dead parents in order to be engaging. Vanessa Davis' comics are a good example of this, and while I don't think Knisley is quite in her class as an artist, there's a cheerful, familiar and friendly tone to her work that immediately draws the reader in and makes them comfortable. Indeed, as Knisley's clear line and bright colors flow along and relay funny anecdotes and family recipes, I immediately wanted more. It's not what I would call comics junk food, but rather a simple but expertly rendered piece of pastry.

Knisley is simply a cheerful sort with a sharp eye and a highly-developed sense of wonder. She ends each of the brief chapters with a recipe that's brightly-rendered and amusingly annotated. Knisley is also far from a food snob. Her parents denied her processed food as a youngster, so she naturally gravitated towards it
and often ate it in secret. The chapter on junk food is funny and spot-on: people eat junk food because it tastes good, and eating it on rare occasions is not such a bad thing. She highlights this by discussing a trip to Rome with her father as a bratty teen (she gently chides herself for her behavior more than once in the book), where she got revenge on her dad one morning by going to the McDonald's across from the hotel and then chowing down on burgers and fries in front of him. A child of divorce, Knisley was nonetheless loved by both parents, even if her relationship with her father was fractious at times.

Knisley's eye for and memory of detail is a key reason why this book is a success. For example, in detailing a trip to a Mexican village as a pre-teen, she makes the page come alive when depicting how she and her best friend had total free reign to spend money there, thanks to their sick parents. The anecdote about her friend discovering Mexican pornography was as funny as her description of the cheap, astonishing delights of taqueria food was evocative. Indeed, considering that one can't smell or taste what she experiences throughout the book, she does a remarkable job of bringing to life everything around the experience itself. For example, her description of the circumstances of consuming a number of apricot-filled croissants on a humid Italian morning made my mouth water not so much for the food, but rather for the sheer aesthetic joy that Knisley experienced that morning. Above all else, that connection to simple beauty and her ability to convey it is what draws me to Knisley's work. It's not just a croissant, it's a means of expression and connection, which is how Knisley views food. Relish is a simple book about simple pleasures, providing account after account after why such enjoyment is so important.

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