There’s something intimately appealing about a graphic narrative that so deftly wrongfoots the reader by taking them in one assumed direction before turning their expectations on their head. I went into James Albon’s The Delicacy from Top Shelf Productions without reading any publicity about the book and for the first third or so thought I was reading a gentle and comforting piece of culinary comics, an example of the small but emerging sub-genre of graphic gastronomy (has that term been claimed yet or is this another Broken Frontier first?). Albon’s story suddenly veers into far darker territory, though, becoming an exploration of just how far we might be willing to go in order to achieve our dreams. And it’s a bleak foray indeed.
James Albon’s work has been covered before at BF. Last year I described his graphic novel A Shining Beacon as “one of the most brutally relevant graphic novels since Hannah Berry’s Livestock.” The Delicacy follows brothers Tulip and Rowan who leave the insularity of their Scottish Islands home when they come into an inheritance from their recently deceased uncle and aunt. Using their departed relatives house and gardens as a base for growing organic vegetables they tentatively use their newfound wealth to start up a small restaurant in London, employing Rowan’s farming knowledge and Tulip’s cooking skills.
As time passes the brother grow further apart with Rowan making new friends in the local village, and Tulip adapting to life in the city. The discovery of a new form of mushroom with an irresistible taste in the garden of their uncle and aunt’s former abode proves key to their success. Suddenly the restaurant is overwhelmed with guests wanting to savour this delicacy. But the brothers become acutely aware that demand cannot match supply. As they try and understand the true nature of the mushrooms, and how to cultivate them, questions arise about just how much Tulip is willing to sacrifice in the pursuit of success and the darkest of secrets comes to the fore…
Albon’s pacing is notable here given the stark journey he takes his protagonist on from naïve outsider in an unfamiliar world to cynical and self-serving pragmatist. In early sequences we root for the brothers as they struggle to build up a business and a restaurant team, and cheer them on as they slowly expand their operations and meet with success. But then one pivotal scene, employing a mix of threat and poor decision-making, acts as a catalyst for a startling transformation in their lives. Albon takes us into Bizarro Ebenezer Scrooge territory with Tulip, a once thoughtful and amiable lead, spiralling into a seemingly inescapable cycle of ambition and greed. His employment of authorial narration – a storytelling tool that has been far too casually abandoned in comics over the last decade or two – adds an extra narrative perspective on events that allows the reader to be both participant and observer in the reading experience.
Visually James Albon’s work employs a loose, impressionistic style that allows readers to quickly bond with his characters. That serves to make latter sections of The Delicacy all the more jarring and disarming. As ever his use of colour is an integral part of this storytelling. Here it serves to make the reader positively salivate whenever food and its preparation come to the forefront, and there’s an exquisite scene where the near ecstasy of eating the mushrooms is translated into dreamlike euphoria. One group restaurant scene particularly stands out in its depiction of the social rituals and vibrant humanity of the shared dining experience.
Individuals may react to The Delicacy as either the grimmest of comedy dramas or as a parable on family relationships and the tyranny of ambition. Either way this is James Albon’s strongest work to date and yet another example of the wonderfully eclectic curation of Top Shelf Productions.
James Albon (W/A) • Top Shelf Productions, $24.99
Review by Andy Oliver