Confession: I’m always a little torn on how to best review anthologies like this. Sometimes I’ll mention just the pieces that made a strong impression, either positive or negative, but that tends to potentially ignore large swaths of entries. Sometimes I’ll systematically run down every single entry and give my general thoughts, but that tends to devolve into something cold and mechanical. With the sheer brute force of 60(!) entries in this black and white book, I’m leaning toward the former, but I’ll certainly try to blend a representative sample of the two approaches. I’m such a foodie, so the premise of this book was really intriguing; the last decent food anthology I reviewed was Inbound 5: The Food Issue from the Boston Comics Roundtable. Yost’s Birdcage Bottom Books ran a successful Kickstarter Campaign, even reeling in support from some retail establishments and fellow publishers like Koyama Press, Hic & Hoc, and Tugboat Press. As far as contributors go, it’s a fairly impressive line-up. It includes some I was familiar with (some of these I’d even label as personal favorites), like Noah Van Sciver, Hazel Newlevant, Marek Bennett, Darryl Ayo, Josh Bayer, Pat Aulisio, Aron Nels Steinke, Box Brown, and Hawk Krall. It also includes some pretty big “gets” in terms of names, people like Alex Robinson, Renee French, Jeffrey Brown, and Keith Knight, along with quite a few names that were new to me. I always enjoy being exposed to new creators, so on paper this was a very effective balance of contributors.
The packaging of this phone book-sized affair is terrific! It’s got a glossy color cover that absolutely pops. I was in an LCS the day this shipped and observed quite a few people gravitate toward it, follow their curiosity, pick it up and flip through it. There were only a handful of typos in the book, I’m thinking 5 or less, and I say “only” because sifting through countless submissions and corralling all of this content as an editor must have been like herding rabid cats, so a couple are bound to slip through in a project of this magnitude with so many different lettering styles and content demands. Most of them were small gaffes, but I was surprised to find some in the end creator credits, stuff like “enthusiest” and “dimentional.” That was largely overcome by the outstanding endpapers by John Kerschbaum, which sandwich the contents and feature highly detailed, both frightening and funny all at once, depictions of food good going in… and… food… inevitably… umm… going out. This was a smart choice that shows off some great art and also lets the reader know the book isn’t going to take itself too seriously.
At a high level, Digestate is a strong effort. However, most anthologies are known for being notoriously uneven and difficult to control a consistent level of quality. Any time you deal with a larger sample size, remember we’re talking 60 entries here, you assume a greater risk in varying quality. Digestate is, unfortunately, not immune to this dynamic. Perhaps this is “day job” me talking, but I tend to try and convert things to quantitative analysis for easier consumption. I can be a numbers guy fascinated with metrics and statistics, so let’s try that. The good news is that very few, if any, of the entries here were found to be of poor quality. What I did find was a somewhat middling effort that skewed to good because of a number of standouts that tended to pull the holistic grading up. In other words, out of 60 entries, I calculated 23 Grade A’s, 19 Grade B’s, 17 Grade C’s, 1 Grade D, and no Grade F’s. The scores in these ranges also included 10 “+” marks and only 2 “–” marks. The end result after crunching everything was that Digestate earned a flat Grade B. That might sound sort of ho-hum, but again I want to stress the sheer size (60 entries!) and the difficulty inherent in maintaining consistency. Let’s dive in.
Two pieces received Grade A+ in my notes. “Slaughterhouse Stories” on page 148 by J.T. Yost was the first. It’s an extended piece that reads more like an expose on a news show, with illuminating illustrations depicting the horror of factory-farmed food. It’s a powerful set of personal stories regarding something that plays like half gladiator academy and half bureaucratic death pit. Everything about the experiences recounted is bogged down by corporate inertia and bottom line-driven thinking. The other highest grade was “Dirty Dish” on page 252 by Hawk Krall. Even though I’d read it before, the walnut oil and shenanigans happening, in all restaurants in my experience, were still literally LOL moments.
What follows are some others that jumped out at me and also scored in the Grade A range. I really enjoyed the big eyes and low-slung perspective shots of Cha’s entries on page 8 and 278. As the first and penultimate entries, I was left wondering why Yost didn’t make Cha’s second piece the actual last piece of the book, thus bookending everything with one artist. Anyway, I was unfamiliar with this creator, but with such a distinct style, it’s one I’ll absolutely keep my eye out for. Sophia Wiedeman’s “How To Eat A Chicken” on page 44 was both pragmatic and bearing a profound sense of sadness. I loved the simple clean lines that were able to relay mood. Marek Bennett’s “Successful Slaughter!” on page 56 was something I’d read in his self-published minis, but the Slovak slaughter of half a bull is still a winner. It’s steeped in age-old food traditions, culture, and politics. On page 80, we find “That Peanut Butter Kid!” from Alex Robinson. This probably wasn’t an easy story to tell, but I appreciated how forthcoming Robinson was with personal food and sensory issues, and how those have impacted his personality and social leanings. These meaningful and honest portraits are becoming increasingly rare in the world of autobiographical comics. Brooklyn’s Darryl Ayo delivers “Taco Town” on page 100, and it’s clearly one of the best pieces in the book. It’s about raucous street level superheroes @ Taco Town, and it reminded me of Street Angel or an Afrodisiac riff from Jim Rugg. Noah Van Sciver (who is in, like, every anthology it seems, in addition to having just published his opus The Hypo at Fantagraphics) shows up on page 128 in “3 Bowls Of Raisin Bran.” There are a couple of typos here (argh!), but there’s also an uncomfortable honesty I find so damn appealing. The story showcases the dangers of mixing massive quantities of Raisin Bran and alcohol. It’s simply hilarious when his characters sweat profusely. Page 184 features Jesse Ruliffson’s “City Chickens,” and I really dug the thick inky lines which focus on a returning desire to close the gap between producing and consuming. On page 222, Nicole J. Georges “Boycotts” a few food establishments. I love pieces like this that lend a personal touch to real places, and deal with our sometimes fickle ethical stands. Dan Piraro’s “Bizarro” pieces begin on page 260 and deal with the embedded hypocrisy and elitism that can exist in food culture. Artistically, Piraro was bordering on a Steve Parkhouse type of aesthetic in spots, which is something I’ll never complain about. The last piece I want to mention in the Grade A range was Victor Kerlow’s “Taco Head” on page 20. Instead of Romero-like zombies, here we get a fast food-based symbol of rampant mass consumerism, masquerading as another pop culture point of reference. Kerlow employs a loose and robust visual style that entertains, but also transcends its basic trappings to make a larger point, sort of hitting what “good art” should do and be right on the nose.
Moving toward the middle ground, and at the risk of a gross generalization, a lot of these pieces had perfectly fine art, but just didn’t’ jump out and WOW me from a narrative standpoint. On page 239, Jonas Madden-Connor’s “Our Happiness Is Guaranteed” has a pretty abrupt end, but I really enjoyed the odd sci-fi spin. Ben Snakepit is a creator I’ve never really warmed up to, but page 39’s “Sometimes, Revenge Is A Dish Best Served Steaming Hot” is, if true, a great story about the punk/vegan connection that recounts a pretty wild incident. L. Nichols gives us “The Wonderful World Of Vegetables” on page 47 and it’s full of great art. While I can certainly identify with the general notion (my favorite foods as a kid were broccoli, artichokes, peas, and cherry tomatoes all grown on our farm), there’s no real narrative thrust to speak of, no story, no “there” there. Page 194 has Pranas T. Naujokaitis tell the tale of, umm, “The Tell Tale Burger” and it has some absolutely great cartooning ability concerning the guilt of sneaking some junk food meat, but it plays rather one-note. Like a joke that builds for 3 pages, simply delivers a punch line, and then exits the stage, the audience unsure if they’re supposed to be clapping or waiting for something more to transpire. Neil Brideau’s “Tell Now, The Tale Of The Argus Mushroom” on page 204 is a bizarrely fascinating creation myth, but it drags on too long and I lost interest by the end. Page 228 begins Adam Hines’ “Last Thoughts From The Watchtower,” a great title to be sure, with great accomplished art, and great experimental layouts, but it’s a bit hard to follow and there’s lots of dense text to slog through at the bottom of every page. It’s an interesting idea, but I’m not sure it married the basic idea of words and pictures together in the most optimal fashion.
Bringing up the rear, I won’t dwell on these too long, but many of the stories in the Grade C range had some type of vague non-sequitur ending, or just didn’t otherwise make their purpose very clear, like Sam Henderson’s one-pager on page 27. Then on page 28, Josh Burggraff’s “Broccoli In A Land Of Meat” was a very ambitious attempt at longer form goings-on, but just goes on and on for too many pages. Something something food riots and rough doughy caricatures with fuzzy repro quality; I just couldn’t seem to connect and find an entry point. By the end of this one, I was admittedly just glossing over the pictures and scanning dialogue. Other examples of the Grade C range include Minty Lewis on page 114, with some sort of Fruit-Of-The-Loom riff (I think? Maybe?) and Jungyeon Roh with “H.O.T. – Holistic Organic Temptation” on page 248, bearing some good art, but sort of a pin-up-y, sketchbook-y thing that didn’t do much.
So, there’s 23 of the 60 pieces touched on, or 38% for my fellow statistics nerds. At 38%, I get a Grade F for coverage volume, but I do feel this sample is essentially representative of the whole. Of course, your mileage may vary. Overall, Digestate is a very slick package housing an ambitious collective effort of both established names and hungry up-and-comers. Like the best buffets, you might not like everything, but there are definitely enough great dishes to justify the entry fee. Grade B.