By Aaron Kashtan
Relish: My Life in the Kitchen
I enjoyed Lucy Knisley’s Relish: My Life in the Kitchen enough that I started reading it in the morning and finished it the same day. The book is sweet and funny, and I particularly loved Knisely’s artwork. She has a clear line style that reminds me a lot of Rutu Modan, and she does lots of cool stuff with page layout.
A Comics Journal reviewer, however, castigated this book on the grounds that Knisley isn’t interested in exploring the serious implications of her story. This is true: she never examines the dark side of her parents’ relationship, or explains why they divorced, and she doesn’t really think about the socioeconomic implications of issues of her passion for food. I’d further note that she often does seem unaware of how privileged she is to be able to eat the kind of stuff she does, and when she praises fast food, she doesn’t seem to care that it’s a massive public health problem for poor people who can’t afford real food. Still, I think this sort of critique is somewhat unfair. Knisley was clearly not trying to write a memoir in the style of Fun Home, and she succeeded at what she was trying to do, which was to produce a fun, compulsively readable story about her relationship with food.
Let me explain this another way. In 1999, the late Kim Thompson wrote an essay with the deliberately provocative title “A Modest Proposal: More Crap is What We Need.” By “crap” he meant competent but unambitious genre work of the kind that dominates the European comics market. He explained:
What I see as missing from American comics is that bulwark of solid, unpretentious, accessible genre fiction – a more or less undistinguished mass of okay-to-good comics that might catch your eye and give you a thrill, that loyal fans would buy out of habit, and anyone else might just pick up for the hell of it.
We don’t have that in the U.S. What we have is Art Comics on one end and Unimaginably Awful Super-Hero Shit on the other. The handful of cartoonists who try to explore some middle ground of decent genre fiction are few and far between, and are usually ignored by the super-hero fans and scorned by the “alternative” fans…
Comics need Dean Koontzes and Robert Ludlums and Leon Urises and that Clear-and-Present-Danger guy, Tom what’s-his-name. They need stuff that’s kind of dumb but also a little bit smart, not particularly adult but not totally juvenile. They need a middle ground somewhere between Utter Shit and Great Art.
We are starting to get that sort of thing now, with comics like Chew and Morning Glories and Locke & Key, which do not have the highest artistic ambitions but are also not targeted at existing fans. These are comics that are easily accessible to new comics readers, and they are expanding the reach of comics as a popular medium. The thing that Kim Thompson misses, though, is that all the works of genre fiction he mentions are primarily aimed at men. What we also need is comics that are accessible to female and younger readers, and Relish is exactly that. It appeals to both genders, but seems to be primarily targeted toward female readers, and it can be appreciated without either a massive intellectual effort nor massive geekery. This is why Relish is the kind of work that makes me feel optimistic about the future of comics.
It seems like it’s been months since the last new issue of Saga. There is not much to distinguish this issue from earlier issues of the title, but it effectively advances the ongoing plot, although I’m surprised this issue doesn’t bring us all the way up to the cliffhanger at the end of #12. The cover is incredibly cute. The funniest thing here was the random flying rat in the Landfall hospital.
While I don’t have much to say specifically about this issue, I do have a comment on the entire series. In a Facebook thread about DC Comics’ latest PR fail, my friend Mike Gillis wrote that “I suspect that with Saga being a big success without big two distribution, Brian K. Vaughan isn’t going back to Marvel and DC any time soon.” Saga currently enjoys the same level of popularity and critical acclaim as something like Y: The Last Man or Preacher. As Mike correctly points out, five or ten years ago it would have been difficult for Saga to achieve such success unless it was a Vertigo title. If Vaughan and Staples’s project has become perhaps the most critically acclaimed commercial comic book in America, then this is possible because publishers like Image, Boom! Studios, and IDW have been able to compete with Marvel and DC for market share and for top talent. This can only be good for the diversity of the industry.