Hungry Ghosts #1
Berger Books, January 2018
Writers: Anthony Bourdain, Joel Rose
Hungry Ghosts is a new horror anthology comic book series from Berger Books. It is notable in several respects. First, it is co-written by celebrity chef and TV personality Anthony Bourdain (and indeed many of the stories within the anthology bear a thematic connection to food). Second, and probably more relevant to horror comic book fans, is that the comic is being published under Dark Horse Comics’ new sub-imprint, Berger Books. Editor Karen Berger, who was the founder of DC comics’ mature Vertigo imprint, spearheads this new line of creator-owned titles. Berger was responsible for recruiting iconic authors such as Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore in the 1990s. Many comic book fans will naturally expect a lot from Hungry Ghosts. Star power – Mr Bourdain, for certain, but particularly the formidable Ms Berger’s name – will draw many readers to the title. But can it meet these expectations?
Unfortunately, the first issue will most likely fall short for some people. But it is not for lack of trying or even lack of quality. There is a solid overarching theme present in the comic, and the story is well presented. Each food-themed horror story is told via a narrative superstructure involving a wealthy businessman holding an exclusive dinner for famous chefs at his yacht. During the dinner, the host proposes a game called “100 Candles.”
“100 Candles” is an eerie game which was played in Japan during the Edo period. It involves filling a room with 100 candles and a mirror. Each participant will tell a scary story, go into the room, extinguish one candle, and look in the mirror to ensure that they are not possessed by an evil spirit. The methodology is that the scary stories summon spirits to appear. As the game goes on and more candles are extinguished, the room gets progressively darker and many participants tend to bow out of the game out of fear.
The “100 Candles” game being used as a medium for telling short horror stories is interesting (a horror version of Geoffrey Chancer’s Canterbury Tales, circa 1387-1400), and there are hints within the comic that imply that there is something sinister going on with the dinner, hidden away in the backdrop. However, the short stories at least in this first issue are of uneven quality. The first one, about a man who gets hunted down and eaten by the ghost of a beggar that he refused to feed, is crude and pointless. The second tale, on the other hand, is unsettling and is a great throwback to 80s-90s horror comic book anthologies. The story involves pirates who rescue a beautiful woman from drowning, with the full intent of using her as a sex slave. The pirates get their comeuppance when the woman instead savagely takes their testicles and transforms into a horrifying half-crustacean monster.
We think short story anthologies inherently tend to have uneven quality. Accordingly, we are inclined to give this first issue of Hungry Ghosts a pass, while it finds its feet. The main problem we have is that there are only two stories contained in this issue, and as such the comic ends abruptly. The reader does not recover from the first story’s poor showing. This first issue would have benefited from having more stories. Hopefully the problems with quantity will be addressed once more issues are released, and the series will with luck make for a solid read if (or when) collected and re-released under a single volume.
At the end of the day, we recommend Hungry Ghosts to fans of horror comic books, especially ones who miss DC Comics’ Silver Age mystery/horror comic books. But do not expect the quality of Vertigo Comics during the 1990s just because of Karen Berger’s name.