Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Review time! with ‘The Delicacy’

“If we could share an evening now and then I’m sure we’d find true happiness again”

I’ve been doing so many of these reviews that we’ve come around to another culinary comic, a nice subset of comics that show up occasionally. The Delicacy by James Albon (which is published by Top Shelf) is the latest one I’ve read, and it probably won’t be the last!

In many ways, this is a standard story. Two brothers who live on a small island off the coast of Scotland with their hippie mother are visited by a solicitor who tells them they’ve inherited a decent estate from their aunt, their mother’s sister. Their mother, Sarah (who calls herself Pegasus), wants nothing to do with her sister or her filthy lucre, but her sons, Rowan and Tulip (whose real name is Danny, and he goes by both in the book), decide to check it out. Rowan loves farming, while Tulip is interested in cooking, so when they arrive in Saffron Walden (which is not too far north of London, but far enough that they can’t see each other too often if one lives in the city), Rowan decides to start farming, while Tulip takes some money, heads to the big city, and opens a restaurant. For a very good deal of the book, it’s about Tulip’s efforts to open his restaurant and thrive, which he decidedly does not do. Albon shows a lot of interesting issues with opening and maintaining a restaurant, and we see Rowan doing well while Tulip is struggling. It’s not revolutionary, but it is an interesting book. Of course, if you read the inside cover flap, you know something is coming, but it’s not until pages 95-97 (the book is 319 pages long) that Rowan shows Tulip the new mushroom that’s growing in one of his back gardens and Tulip tastes it. It is, of course, the most amazing thing he’s ever eaten, and he immediately starts using it in his dishes, which become super-popular and skyrocket him to fame and fortune. Again, there’s nothing too original about this, and even Tulip’s change to a darker version of himself, one obsessed with status and wealth, isn’t surprising. What is interesting is that Albon, again, keeps showing us what’s behind it all – Tulip feels pressure to keep the mushrooms coming, even though he and Rowan can’t figure out why they grow so well, and this leads him to take risks with the food and his fortune, as he’s terrified of it all ending. We also see how success begets more need to succeed, and while it’s hard to feel a lot of sympathy for Tulip as he becomes more abrasive and obnoxious, it’s also understandable why he’s turning into this ugly person.

They discover the secret of the mushrooms, of course, and I won’t spoil it, because it’s logical enough but still a bit surprising. Rowan doesn’t want to push for more, but Tulip is in too far. Things spiral, as they do, and Albon follows things to their logical conclusion. What began as a look at the restaurant business becomes something much darker, as Albon expands on the narrowness of the focus early in the book to examine what drives people to succeed and why that can twist easily into something horrible. The book isn’t just an indictment of the “city life” that corrupts Tulip, either. At one point, Rowan goes back to visit his mother, and he realizes that for all her hippie talk, she’s just as bitter as Tulip has become, and living in the country hasn’t made her a better person. It’s a nice side trip, as Albon shows that it’s not London that corrupts Tulip, but something inside him.

One problem with the book is the way Albon writes it. Many parts of it are in third-person omniscient, and it’s a weird fit. It’s as if Albon is reporting a news story, with snippets of information about Tulip and Rowan and the other characters in the book. I don’t mind third-person narration, and I actually think more comics could use it, but not to the extent that Albon does, and by giving either information that has no bearing whatsoever on the book (we get a brief history of the hotel where the solicitor stays when he brings news of Sarah’s sister’s death) or that we can figure out ourselves. It certainly doesn’t ruin the book, but it would have been nice if Albon had been a bit more judicious with it, as it interrupts the flow of the narrative in many different places.

Albon’s rough art is nice, as he doesn’t idealize the people or places in the book, but it’s not gloomy, either. His characters are occasionally strange-looking, but they’re human, with human foibles, so as Tulip slowly changes into something worse (still human – the book isn’t supernatural or anything), Albon can shift his facial expressions to uglier looks, as he allows his greed to overtake his brighter qualities. Albon is satirizing the restaurant industry to a degree, and this comes across mostly through some of the more grotesque eaters at Tulip’s restaurant, who don’t appreciate his artistry but love stuffing their gobs. The maître d’ that Tulip hires, Marcel, is a wonderfully smarmy character, and Albon draws him just the right amount of sheen and sleaze to make his presence uncomfortable every time he’s on the page. Albon shows the neighborhood where Tulip’s restaurant is well, too, as the reviews of Tulip’s place change the area from a bit of a slum to a more up-scale place. Albon doesn’t make explicit any thoughts on gentrification, but it feels from the art that he’s commenting negatively on the gaudiness of some of Tulip’s other ventures and the more homey feel of his original restaurant and the businesses around it. Gentrification is too big a topic to deal with in this book, but Albon does a nice job of commenting obliquely on it through his art. Of course, the food dominates the book, and Albon is very good at giving us sumptuous dishes that we can believe would take the London food scene by storm. The two-page spread where Tulip tastes the mushroom for the first time is wonderfully drawn and colored, making us believe why Tulip would go to such lengths to keep the supply coming. The book is colored very well, too, as Albon keeps everything bright for much of the book, only shading a bit at times to hint at the darkness that will engulf the brothers later. The book never gets too dark, and Albon generally reserves the darker colors for times such as night, when naturally it would be darker, but just some of the scenes he chooses to set at darker times hints around at things to come. It’s pretty keen.

The Delicacy has some issues, but overall, it’s a very strong comic that takes its time getting to where it needs to go, so everything that happens always feels like it’s coming from a natural place inside the characters rather than being forced on them by the dictates of the plot. The plot does interfere just a little, but all stories need inciting events, after all, and the one Albon chooses isn’t a bad one. This is an interesting story about success and what it can do to people if they’re not prepared for it, but Albon manages to sneak in other kinds of social commentary as well, which is pretty keen. I linked to it below (that’s the digital version, although the print version is available), so if you’re interested, check it out, and remember that using that link for anything helps us out just a tiny bit, as well!

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

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