Cooking can be a key to a culture and way of life, but in Image Comics' Flavor it is the key to the ultimate mystery. Living in a walled and protected city away from the rest of the world, Xoo is an unlicensed cook in a world where chefs hold the highest celebrity status but also the most mystery.
For Flavor, Adventure Time artist Wook-Jin Clark is teaming with writer Joseph Keatinge and colorist Tamra Bonvillain on a book which could be described as Hunger Games meets Chopped - with an emphasis on the "hunger." In addition to the comic, Flavor will also feature backmatter by food scientist Ali Bouzari.
With the series scheduled to debut May 16, Newsarama talked to Flavor’s creative team about chef’s having rockstar status and Hayao Miyazaki visual influences.
Newsarama: So everybody, tell me what you can about the world of Flavor.
Joseph Keatinge: Flavor's a culinary fantasy set in a walled city where food is the most cherished commodity and chefs the ultimate celebrity. A young unlicensed chef works outside the bureaucratic bounds of the city-state and learns it's all rotten from the inside out.
Wook-Jin Clark: Flavor's world revolves completely around cooking and chefs. They are the pillar and foundation for which the world sits. Joe has set up that the cooking skills rise above all else and to be the best, means that someone has the skills in the kitchen!
Ali Bouzari: It's like the physics, chemistry, and culinary traditions of our world got poured through a delicious funhouse mirror. And there are swords.
Nrama: What do you think it is that can make a chef like a rockstar or hold celebrity status?
Bouzari: So many parallels! A lot of my chef friends and I are also musicians, and many of the tropes from that industry ring true in the restaurant world. Just like in the music industry, though, the chefs with the most talent usually have no time to spare for puffery and self-righteous silliness because they're too busy doing awesome stuff.
Clark: I tend to like chefs that are more subtle but have an informative approach to it. Kinda like Alton Brown! Honestly, I don’t know what makes a chef a celebrity! I do know that the ones I see the most tend to be the loudest or most robust!
Keatinge: I can't speak on celebrity status, but I feel what makes a chef interesting and worth learning from is if they bring self-expression to their work, while at the same time not mystifying their process. I'm much more interested in someone like sushi chef Jiro Ono, who has his small shop and simply does what he does best, versus someone who has fifteen TV shows and a line of salad dressing they had nothing to do with.
Nrama: Joe, Wook-Jin, what were some of the inspirations you pulled from for the visual inspirations? Buster definitely had this Hin vibe from Howl's Moving Castle.
Clark: I love Howl's Moving Castle. Buster's inspiration is pulled from Joe's real-life dog BlackJack! Other visual inspirations for me come from me being influenced both by European comics and manga. I wanted to try and find the inbetween or as close I could when drawing Flavor. There's a book series called Agito Cosmos by Olivier Milhaud and Fabien Mense that I really enjoy! Books like that are what I want to create. Something with lively characters, but also have the background be flush with vigor and stand on its own but also still fit with the characters.
Keatinge: Buster is 100% based on my dog, but credit where credit's due, Hayao Miyazaki's a significant influence on me in general, much less on Flavor. His storytelling is unparalleled; I absolutely love how no matter how fantastic his work gets, the focus remains on the tiny moments. The small, human, minute interactions and relationships take center stage despite a giant tanuki cat spirit hanging around.
Nrama: Tamra, most of the first issue feels so open, wide, and warm, what are the choices you did to create that mood?
Tamra Bonvillain: I guess I'm kind of keying off the art and the tone I feel the story reaches for. Some darker things occur in the story, but it doesn't feel overly oppressive or bleak, and I'd like to reflect that in the color. It's a lively, busy world, so I tried to keep everything bright and colorful, and apply warmer lighting to the setting. Of course, when things do start to get more somber in tone, I try to reflect that in the choices by making things feel duller, cooler, or just kind of weird.
Nrama: Ali, can you talk about your length of collaboration with the creative team here?
Ali: My role in all of this was to open up the world of how flavor and cooking in our world works. We dove into physics, psychology, chemistry, and cheffy techniques to establish a baseline language that could be translated to a fantastical world like the one Xoo lives in.
We weren't concerned with minutiae like how Buster should hold a knife; it was more about creating a world of food that felt like it existed before you opened the book. Astrophysicists helped the team behind Interstellar get a grasp on how to make all the space stuff seem real and lived-in, and this was maybe a less bro-y version of that.
Nrama: Rich Tommaso is credited as designer, and I'm a huge fan of his work, tell us what it was like working with him and how you feel the designs came out?
Keatinge: Rich is one of the most interesting and versatile cartoonists working today and his sense of design fascinates me. I love the look he brings to all his individual work, so I recruited him to help specifically with our front cover trade dress and he knocked it out of the park.
Clark: Rich is a great dude! I love him! When I used to still live in Atlanta, he was someone I enjoyed spending time with and picking his brain about everything! Working with him has been great, he's a life saver. He helps me with cover/logo design. I'm such a dummy about that stuff so having an expert with a keen eye has been great!
Nrama: What dishes do you love to prepare at home?
Keatinge: Over the last couple of years, I started boxing, so every meal I prepare has some sort of focus on what will help me improve, train, and perform. Lots of protein, lots of vegetables. Figuring out how to make variations on a theme, primarily chicken, vegetables, and fish. The Croatian side of my family introduced me to vegeta and that's in everything from breakfast to dinner.
Ali: My thing lately has been cooking grains like rice and farro with crazy amounts of spices. Like a 50:50 mix of grain and whole spices (cumin, coriander, poppy seeds, sesame, sumac). It's super crunchy and feels like you're a 17th century spice lord.
Clark: I'm not a great cook, but since working on this project I've been trying to get better! My new favorite go-to meal is making bacon-wrapped chicken, with quinoa and green beans.
Bonvillain: Turkey sandwiches! That's about the extent of my culinary knowledge. Otherwise, I feel like I've really mastered the art of microwaving.
Nrama: What do you think we can learn from cooking that we can apply to everyday life outside the kitchen?
Bouzari: Cooking and eating are powerful tools for characterization. You can tell a lot about someone from how they dress, their posture, or their speaking cadence (which people like Tamra, Wook-Jin, and Ariana excel at bringing to life), and food is an extension of that. One of my friends loves to talk about how you can tell whether someone has ever cooked in a Michelin-starred restaurant by where they leave their knife on a cutting board. My favorite kind of people watching is to go somewhere like a barbecue truck, hang out with folks from different walks of life, and see what of their true colors shines through as they decimate a plate of ribs.
The best thing you can pull out of a kitchen into everyday life, apart from snacks, is the ability to use food as a personality test on your friends, colleagues, and prospective life mates.
Keatinge: It's like anything else, you can learn a lot from someone's craft even if it doesn't apply to your own. Jiro Ono, who I mentioned earlier, has these two slim volumes of quotes - one's on gastronomy the other one, philosophy. It doesn't matter if you cook or not, there's something in both which will apply to whatever your craft is or where your life's at.
Clark: I think cooking has a lot of similarities to comics and life. In cooking, just as in life, things take time and attention. The things one might learn along the way in life, be it good or bad, act as ingredients towards the greater “meal” so to speak which will become one's path. In Flavor, I think Xoo goes through those experiences as well. Being thrown a curveball could be like cooking without a key ingredient. A good cook will know what can be substituted to make up for the shortcoming and make it their own.