Before He Wanted to Be a Chef, Anthony Bourdain Wanted to Draw Comic Books

By as told to
Excerpt from the Bourdain-written Get Jiro. Photo: DC Entertainment / Langdon Foss, José Villarubia, Dave Stewart, and Todd Klein

Anthony Bourdain will be be remembered as a chef, a writer, a television personality, a filmmaker, a world traveler, and an advocate for the marginalized. But lest we forget, he was also a geek. Bourdain grew up reading the envelope-pushing sci-fi and horror of publisher EC Comics and the outré underground work of R. Crumb and his cohort. As an adult, he made good on his fandom, eventually co-writing two graphic novels, the dystopian 2012’s Get Jiro! and 2015’s Get Jiro: Blood and Sushi; and one anthology horror series, this year’s Hungry Ghosts. Comics editor Karen Berger, founder of DC Comics’ adult imprint, Vertigo, first brought him into the comics fold with Get Jiro! at Vertigo and returned to working with him on Hungry Ghosts at her Dark Horse Comics imprint Berger Books. We spoke with her about Bourdain’s love of the sequential-art medium and what it was like to work with him.

I was a fan before I started working with Tony. He was doing No Reservations, and I had found out about him because he had done an episode with [comics writer] Harvey Pekar, when he had gone down to Cleveland. That wasn’t the first time I had heard of him, but that was the first time I’d actually watched his show, was the Harvey show. I think it was the fact that Tony was not attracted to glitz, he was not attracted to glamor. He was a renegade, he was a rebel, he loved to get in the trenches with the average person. That episode in particular, they go with Harvey Pekar to a soup kitchen. And Harvey was like, “You know, this is like one of my favorite places to go to. The people here are really nice, the food’s always really good.” And there they are, kind of sitting around with the homeless people, eating. It was moving in its simplicity and basic connection to human nature. Out of all of Tony’s work that he’s done, from his writings and all of his food and travel shows, and his comics, he was always out there trying to connect with people, I think, but doing it his way. I had so much admiration for his “fuck you” attitude.

After that, I was pretty much hooked and went out and got Kitchen Confidential. A couple years later, Joel Rose, his longtime friend and co-writer, who is also an old friend of mine, contacted me. He said, “Anthony Bourdain and I are longtime friends, and he’s a huge comics fan, and we have this great idea for a graphic novel that we’d wanted to do, and you were the first person we wanted to talk to about it.” So Tony and Joel came up to the office — I was at Vertigo — at 1700 Broadway, and we talked. As a comics fan, he was really, I think, happy to be visiting DC Comics. Really nice, easy to talk to, and really excited about doing a graphic novel. It was pretty simple, actually.

We didn’t talk about Vertigo. His comics love goes back to the undergrounds: Huge R. Crumb fan, huge EC Comics fan. Tony originally wanted to be a comic artist. He’s told stories when he was on our panel at New York Comic Con when we launched Berger Books. He was there, and it was fantastic that he made the time to schedule it to be there. On that panel, he talked about how he’s a huge underground comic fan, and he wanted to be an artist first, but his art wasn’t really good enough. He talked about how he went to some small comic show in the ’70s and he showed his work to [underground publisher] Denis Kitchen, who basically told him his art wasn’t very good. Joel was editing a underground magazine, this proto-hipster literary mag in the ’80s, and Tony had sent him some samples, some comic stuff, and Joel got back and said, “Hey, the art sucks but the writing is pretty good.” They have been longtime friends since then. He wanted to be a comic artist. That’s what he wanted to do. On our panel at New York, he was like, “Comics are my first love.” He was so happy to be writing comics. He always had a bristle at that the celebrity chef stuff. He wanted to be known as a writer as long as I knew him. He was a writer, first and foremost.

Excerpt from Get Jiro! Photo: DC Entertainment / Langdon Foss, José Villarubia, Dave Stewart, and Todd Klein

The last time I saw him in person was at New York Comic Con in September. He was on our panel, he did a signing. He was again very outspoken about his love for comics, which was such an honor and a privilege to have him say that and to have him be there for the long jump of Berger Books. That was the last time I had direct contact with him. But we spoke through emails. Very quick: “This is good, this isn’t.” He was a man of few words in terms of emails.

He came to San Diego Comic-Con when we launched Get Jiro!, as well. I can tell you about a funny story. When he was up in San Diego, he was greeted with a couple panels, signings. When he first came to the booth, he was so tall and people are like, “Anthony Bourdain!” What are we going to do with him? You can’t hide Anthony Bourdain. So he went into the storage closet. He was like, “This’ll do, this will be a good place to hang out before I have to go to a panel.” Then when we all went out for dinner, I took him to a restaurant in San Diego, Sally’s, right by the Hyatt, which I’ve been going for years, and I know one of the waiters there. I stopped by about a half-hour earlier just to give him a heads up that I was bringing Anthony Bourdain. I know if I told them too far ahead of time they would freak out, you know. So I told him, and sure enough, he freaked out. I gotta tell you, we got compliments of the chef for this amazing appetizer selection of seafood and everything. Then we got again this whole dessert array of stuff, compliments of the chef. When I got the check, I looked at Tony and said, “This was the cheapest meal I’ve ever had.” He was very gracious to everybody, he was a mensch. My heart’s breaking.

Anthony Bourdain Once Dreamed of Being a Comic-Book Artist