Editor's note: We've updated this story to correct two details about Langdon Foss. He has one daughter and one son, and it was a friend's brother who worked for NATO. Our apologies for the errors.
Author and celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain, perhaps best known for his No Reservations book and Emmy-nominated television show, knows what he likes, and what he doesn't. And he never shies away from telling anyone what he thinks, good or bad. Just last month, controversy reared again over Bourdain's comments about fellow Food Network star Paula Deen, who announced in January that she has Type 2 diabetes and had signed a deal to endorse a diabetes drug. "Thinking of getting into the leg-breaking business, so I can profitably sell crutches later," Bourdain posted on Twitter.
So when Bourdain says in a phone interview from his home in New York City that he and his co-author Joel Rose are "over the moon" about the artwork done for their debut graphic novel, Get Jiro, you can't not believe him.
Bourdain and Rose went into this project with particular requirements.
"Of tantamount importance was, it's gotta be gorgeous," Bourdain says. "We like beautiful artwork. We insisted on nothing but that. I mean, if we didn't get the artist we wanted, there was going to be no point in the enterprise at all. I'd rather not do the project.
"We sure didn't need to do this for the money," he adds. "We did it because it's like, a super-cool, fun thing to do. And as it turned out, we got what we wanted, which was to hold a really beautiful object — a beautiful, handcrafted, full-color object — in our hands. And that's, very greatly, almost entirely, the work of Langdon. We could not have hoped for better."
That "Langdon" he refers to? Colorado Springs' own Langdon Foss.
Waiting for the call
The road to this 154-page graphic novel assignment has been a long one for the Colorado-raised Foss. After focusing on art and Asian studies at Colorado College, the 1995 graduate travelled to Asia, then returned to the Springs to pursue a career in art.
He submitted a portfolio to one of the kings of the industry, DC Comics, and as he waited for a call back, kept himself busy working as a graphic designer for advertising agencies; doing spot illustrations for fantasy novels, magazines and role-playing-game companies such as Wizards of the Coast and White Wolf Games; and designing plastic figures for Star Wars games. (He also did Alice in Wonderland-type cartoons for NATO training manuals, a gig secured through a friend's brother who works for the intergovernmental organization.)
Every six months or so, he'd call DC Comics to check on his file, because drawing comics was always what he really wanted to do. He says they'd tell him, "Langdon, we're waiting for the right project for you." But after seven or eight years, it was disheartening.
"After a while," he says, "you start to think, 'Yeah, it's easier to say that than just, "Langdon we don't want you."'
And then about two years ago, the phone rang.
"Perseverance paid off," the 39-year-old says. "And yeah, I think this is going to be my career for the next couple of decades. That's what I would like."
Victuals and violence
In many ways, with Foss' experience in Japan and his detail-obsessed personality, the project DC offered was exactly the "right project."
Per the marketing campaign, Get Jiro is a blend of Eat, Drink, Man, Woman; Oishinbo; and The Good The Bad and The Ugly. Per Bourdain, a big fan of classic Japanese Samarai films, it's the story of a renegade (and righteous) sushi chef "for whom disrespect of his hard work or his product is unbearable."
Bourdain says he knew he wanted something intensely foodie, with all the details right. Perhaps even more so, he wanted something "that was gonna be really, really violent. ... I remember when I was young, in the underground and even in the regular comics, the more blood, the better."
Similar, in fact, to the Japanese series he discovered as an adult.
"I ran into the manga series, Oishinbo, which are really detailed, sort of, super-nerdly foodie Japanese manga. And I thought, 'Wow, if I could do something really violent and yet this accurate about the sourcing and preparation of food, that would be really cool.'"
And so that's what he and Rose, a former DC Comics editor, did. They placed a brilliant young sushi chef in a slightly futuristic Los Angeles dominated by food culture, and controlled by gangs of chefs. ("I think it's Bourdain's heaven and hell all rolled into one," Foss says with a laugh.)
Because Jiro is a prodigy and an amazing fighter, each of the two gang leaders, Bob and Rose, wants him on their side.
"Bob definitely seems a lot like Bourdain," Foss says. "He's the international meat-eater. He'll stuff cream down a goose's neck for months just to get to its liver. And Rose, she's all about the eco movement, local foods. And yeah, if you don't like it, she'll kill ya."
It's a struggle for Jiro because "he just wants to make sushi," Foss adds. "So basically he deals with these two gangs in order to allow himself the peace and the space to perfect his art.
"Which I think is beautiful."
Jiro v. Jiro v. Foss
Many people will hear of Get Jiro and immediately connect it with the recently released documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi. The film tells the story of 85-year-old Jiro Ono, a sushi chef considered by many to be the best in the world.
However, Bourdain, who has eaten at Ono's restaurant, says the timing of the two pieces was just coincidental. And the two characters could not be more opposite.
"I mean, I think they would both be displeased were you to put wasabi into your soy sauce, but I don't think Jiro, Jiro Ono, even provides you with that alternative," Bourdain says, laughing. "They couldn't be more different. Either physically or temperamentally."
And yet, there is a certain commitment that does tie Jiro Ono, the restaurateur, with the artist behind Jiro, the comic-book character.
First, while Foss will scale or flip scenes on his computer, he still does much of his work "the old way," by hand.
"I value the spontaneous line," he says. "I know people who draw completely digitally and they're like, 'Langdon, you fool. Just copy and paste it.' But I can't do it. Even in Get Jiro, there's this one page where there's these four pictures of a man's face and they're identical. And I made myself draw them — well, I used the same pencils as a guideline — but I made myself draw them uniquely each time. ...
"The reader can tell when they're duplicates and, I think, they're not buying this book to look at copy-and-pasted digital stuff. They want to see some nice, fresh, organic art."
Second, with limited kitchen knowledge — he did serve in a local Japanese restaurant for a short time — Foss did extensive amounts of research to make sure everything he put on paper was correct. After looking at pages and pages of kitchen photos, he figured out what kinds of equipment to use, but then he didn't know how to place it all — to fulfill Bourdain's request for "the greatest kitchen in the world."
In came Carlos Echeandia, who let Foss behind the scenes at his 21st Street fine dining restaurant, Carlos' Bistro. With notebook and camera in hand, Foss was allowed to wander the kitchen and glean what he could. (And, as one result, in to the book came Echeandia's image, as a one-page bit extra.)
On top of all the kitchen details, Foss had another area he had to research heavily: fish. Ask him how much he had to learn, and he simply laughs.
Time to pause
When Bourdain and Rose started seeing Foss' line drawings, they got both men's approval immediately.
"He rendered food perfectly," Bourdain says about Foss. "It turned out this is a guy who spent a lot of time sweatin' the small stuff. You know, 'Is this the right bottle of wine? Is this what freshwater eel would look like as opposed to saltwater eel? Is this what you would cook blanquette de veau in? Would it look exactly like this?' There was a lot of back and forth between artist and writers."
Back and forth, and leeway. Foss says it's the job of the artist to figure out what's important from the script — graphic novel scripts are constructed similar to a play's script — because not everything can be drawn. The artist has to figure out what the story is, where the emotional moments are, what the pacing is, and how to include as much as possible of what's described without losing the reader.
At one point, Foss felt a page built on a fight scene could be better used to give Jiro "some pause." Foss replaced the fight, in a moment after Jiro is really tempted by an offer from Bob, with Jiro walking away and buying food from a street vendor making authentic, original dishes. "Jiro finds his center," Foss says, which is seen in the contented look on the chef's face, as he sits on the ground eating a Malaysian sandwich dripping ingredients off its bread.
So what's next for Foss? Well, it's his turn to find his center.
"After doing food for 18 months — I love food, I guess — and kitchen appliances that have to look exactly as they look, I'm ready to freak out a little bit," he says. "And so I'm entertaining a script for almost no money as a result while I'm waiting for the DC people to give me something a little meatier.
"I've got my eye on something with robots and floating cities, talking monkeys, and, yeah, lots of good philosophy and literary references."
Springs artist animates in international ways
Langdon Foss' office is a small, wood-paneled corner room in the back of the west-side house he lives in with his wife, Megan, and their two young children. Photos and colorful drawings are tacked all over the walls, large windows let in rays of light, and a stack of line drawings from Get Jiro sits to the left of his desk, near a white, three-ring binder full of character reference drawings.
Foss plunks himself on a tall chair, one lanky leg hanging off the edge and one pulled up near his chin, foot on the seat. He shares pages of his work on Anthony Bourdain's debut graphic novel — heavier in details than I've seen in many comic books.
People have often described Foss' drawing, he tells me, as a cross between Japanese and European comics. The Japanese influence is easy to identify, especially in this, a book featuring sushi.
The European element, he has to explain.
"To me, it's very important that the characters, the figures, inhabit a space. And in a lot of American comics, with superheroes, it's all about the figure, the human form, and its relationship to other human forms — oftentimes, separated from their environment. ... I think the environment tells as much of the story as the people."
"We're getting all Buddhist in this interview, but you can't separate the organism from the environment, you know. One defines the other."
In the case of Get Jiro, Foss adds, the characters (realistically drawn, another typically European element) are living in a city dominated by food culture. To him, it's important that the reader not just see people in the background, but going in and coming out of restaurants and interacting with a variety of elements. He wants his work to feel three-dimensional.
As part of that, he thinks deeply about his presentation and using fresh angles — on a page where Jiro sits in the back of the car, the reader looks up at him from the automobile's floor.
Foss says he doesn't see this kind of work much in American comics. Yet he stresses, "I don't blame them, it's hard. It takes time. And you know, it's not like I'm doing a monthly title. I'd never expect somebody to put that kind of detail into a monthly title."
He's also approaching his work from a different head space than many comic book artists might be.
"A few years ago, my best friend died and triggered these investigations," he says. "Got me looking at other things other than just getting published. ...
"It made me realize that ... art is not just something you do. Art is a way you live your life. ... Seth was really good at challenging me, demanding that I become better and more excellent at every aspect of my life."
With Seth's absence, Foss realized he had to do that himself.
"I've been pushing myself extra hard ever since."
— Kirsten Akens