guttergeek the discontinuous review of graphic narrative

April 2008

James Stokoe, Wonton Soup (Oni Press, 2007), $11.95, paperback.

by James Moore

There’s that old saying: ‘Everything’s been done, nothing’s original. That’s just what people with no passion say when they’ve run out of ideas. Fuck those people.” -- -- Johnny Boyo in Won Ton Soup

In a way, it’s an old story. A young man turns his back on a an educational system he views as stifling, and goes out on his own to see the world and fuel his passion in his own way. Now imagine that story as if Jack Kirby attempted to tell it as an outer space cooking manga. That statement sums up the approach by Canadian writer/artist Jamie Stokoe to his debut graphic novel Won Ton Soup.

The book follows Johnny Boyo, a space trucker with a passion for extreme cooking, who left cooking school to explore the universe and learn about exotic alien cuisine. An encounter with a bad of space ninjas leaves Johnny, and his roughish, comedy-relief co-pilot Deacon Vans, temporally stranded on the planet he left a year ago while their ship is repaired. While grounded, Johnny reunites with his girlfriend, Citrus, and is challenged to an Iron Chef-style competition with a creepy set of alien twins.

The plot is fairly straightforward, but it’s the execution that makes the book shine. Every other page there seems to be a new idea, an interesting alien, or fascinating set piece. Johnny Boyo’s world is one of anthropomorphic pandas, food that will strangle the chef if not prepared just right, and enormous techno-towers shaped like ancient alien cooking gods. There is a nice, lived-in quality to the world Stokoe creates which is as much the result of his picaresque, assured pacing as it is due to his craggy, organic linework.

Stokoe’s character designs have the kind of pleasantly striking uniqueness you would see more commonly in manga than your average indie comic. He tends to go for simple iconic personalities, at least in this first volume, but there is clearly room for complexity down the road if
Won Ton Soup continues. Johnny and Citrus’ relationship, for example, has a melancholy undercurrent of two people on separate paths that wish they could walk together.

Won Ton Soup is a genial book, quirky and funny without being overbearingly so. It is a funny page-turner that just rolls on and on, soaking up the otherworldly scenery. It is a book more about just wandering around and experiencing—and taking joy in that experience—than about forcing its characters into artificial conflict for the sake of tension and drama. It is an effective storytelling choice that mirrors the protagonist who tosses off a ‘Luke you are our only hope’ moment with a sardonic, “I don’t have energy for this,” and for whom the final conflict is about having fun, instead of winning. It celebrates passion, learning, and creativity over victory which is refreshing in a medium so often preoccupied with “Changing things for Spandex Man forever!!.” Stokoe is clearly a creator with passion and ideas to spare, and if this auspicious debut is anything to go by it will be well worth seeing what he cooks up next.