With strong artistic back-up from Ming Doyle and Jordie Bellaire, writer Ollie Masters makes a confident debut at Vertigo with The Kitchen – a tale of mob wives picking up where their husbands left off.
It’s hard to know what to make of Vertigo Comics at the moment. There’s no doubt that the creator-owned party has moved up the street to Image Comics of late, but while the imprint might not be quite the industry-changing powerhouse it once was, it’s still capable of letting off the odd party-popper.
And, in a link to the past, anglophile executive editor Shelley Bond has continued to tap British writers for their offbeat outlook, in recent series as diverse as The Royals: Masters of War (Rob Williams), Bodies (Si Spencer) and The Names (Peter Milligan).
The latest plucky Brit to make the leap is the emerging Brighton-based scribe Ollie Masters, who has teamed up with artist Ming Doyle (Mara) to create The Kitchen – an eight-part crime series set in the gritty environment of 1970s New York.
The book focuses on three mob wives – Kath, Raven and Angie – who find themselves having to adapt to a radically different way of life when the long arm of the law finally catches hold of their respective hubbies.
With the ‘business’ – and their lifestyles – starting to fray, Kath decides it’s time to take control and to start picking up the protection money the men aren’t around to collect. By the end of this opener she makes a decision that will have serious consequences for all three women.
Masters’ writing is well balanced, letting the visuals carry the story to a large degree. The opening pages set the scene with some confident storytelling, slipping between past and present with clarity (helped by the colour cues provided with characteristic skill by Jordie Bellaire).
And while Bellaire captures the decade’s sludgy tones, Masters and Doyle also keep the moral outlook from being too black and white. These are women have lived well off the proceeds of violence, intimidation and theft, yet when they’re suddenly left vulnerable in a male-dominated world that largely disregards them, we somehow feel we should be rooting for them.
However, when Kath makes her fateful choice at the issue’s conclusion, we begin to wonder how far is too far; Kath might feel “untouchable”, but hubris has a nasty habit of dragging nemesis along right behind it.
Doyle’s gift for portraiture makes her a great fit for this character-based story, and the women’s personalities are etched on their faces. Where she does a bit less well, however, is in creating the sense of the teeming, claustrophobic Hell’s Kitchen of the 1970s – part of a creaking metropolis that was on the verge of implosion at the time. The period detail is all there, but there’s none of the mythic atmosphere that oozes from the films of the decade, from The French Connection to Mean Streets and Dog Day Afternoon.
However, one noteworthy and very welcome aspect of the project is its female focus – both on and off the page. For all of its genre trappings, the core of the story is three women stepping out of their husbands’ shadows and taking control of their lives.
And apart from the book’s protagonists, the heavily female creative team (as well as the visuals from Doyle and Bellaire, Becky Cloonan provides covers) offers a different flavour and set of sensibilities from most of the testosterone-fuelled monthlies on the rack.
The Kitchen also gets the mental cogs ticking over about the historical depiction of the mobster’s wife in pop culture. I’m sure people with better knowledge than mine could wax a bit more lyrical, but from the brassy Warner Brothers molls of the 1930s to the excluded ‘victims’ Kay Corleone (The Godfather) and Karen Hill (Goodfellas), and then on to the altogether more complex and complicit Carmela Soprano, the women of gangster fiction always offer another viewpoint in what is one of pop culture’s most enduring narrative genres.
All in all this is an engaging and confident start to the series, putting a rewarding new spin on the notion that a woman’s place really might be in The Kitchen.
Ollie Masters (W), Ming Doyle (A) • Vertigo Comics, $2.99, November 12, 2014