If You Can’t Stand The Heat: Masters & Doyle Deliver With ‘The Kitchen’ [Review]
Most comics tend to have a high-concept fueling them; some twist which reveals the characters live in a heightened world where readers can’t predict what will happen next. The rules keep changing, and that’s how we define the characters we read. The cast of Fables could have anything happen to them in each issue – their capacity to endure the fantastical is one of their central traits. By contrast, the first issue of Vertigo's new eight-part miniseries The Kitchen is set in a totally real, unfiltered world, where the characters and setting feel authentic and full. The central trait of this series is that is starts from such a relatively unremarkable premise and does so much with it.
From Ollie Masters, Ming Doyle, and Jordie Bellaire, The Kitchen surprises from the concept on. This is kitchen-sink drama, the type Michael Gambon and Julie Walters might’ve appeared in twenty years ago, but with an updated, contemporary sense of space and character. Rather than the typical angry young man, here we have three very angry women. Set in the wilds of Hell’s Kitchen in the 1970s, the ice in their hearts and fire in their fists promises that something's eventually going to crack.
Issue #1 follows three women, all of whom are wives to the mob. When their husbands are all hauled off to jail (within the first few pages) for committing a premeditated bout of grievous bodily harm, they are forced to take a proactive role in maintaining their power. That means hitting the streets, collecting debts and maintaining an authority over all the people who owe money to their husbands. Sticking to that general premise, the series slowly and methodically builds up their situation to naturally push them towards a tense desperation.
Which is a fairly simple story to tell, really. There’s no magic, time travel, or cross-genre hopping afoot – rather, we have three women, forced into a tough situation, where they have to sharpen up or get thrown out of town. It’s simple as that, and within four pages the creative team deliver that opening pitch. In that quick opening section, we see the husbands set up their attack, wait to be caught, and then get sentenced to jail, in a sequence which Bellaire marks out through use of black and white flashback. Rather than having the attack be the black and white sequence flashback, she instead holds off and uses the style to illustrate the court sequence instead. That throws the reader off, creating the sense that this whole thing was a foregone conclusion, and that there's some kind of longer-term plan being hidden from us.
With that opening beat established, the issue then slows the pace immediately to deliver a studied character piece, focused on the central of the three women left behind. It’s the blonde, Kath, whom we spend our time with here. Doyle and Bellaire deliver a sense of workaday tiredness which throws a blankness across Kath. She’s presented as someone who immediately settles to her new life, attempting to hide her inexperience with an icy, distanced persona. The hardest of the three, her calm charisma is what shores up this first issue, and maintains interest in the overall narrative. She seems sharp, but brittle, and Masters slowly builds on Doyle’s design work to make Kath feel realistic, engaging – and a problem in waiting.
The tension ratchets up slowly across the course of this opening issue, borrowing from the pacing of something like Boardwalk Empire in order to methodically construct a community which feels lived-in, exhausted, and fading. The three husbands, who vanish after the opening section of the comic, cast a deep shadow across Hell’s Kitchen, but their power is slowly fading through absence, and Masters uses that vacuum in his narrative to compel the characters into rash and headstrong action.
This is mostly demonstrated through Kath and Angie, the brunette, as redhead Angie doesn’t really get much to do by comparison. She shows up halfway through the issue and sits in the backseat – literally – without much immediate definition. Because of the pacing, this doesn’t yet feel like much of a problem, as we’re magnetised to Kath and her fledgling attempts at filling that power vacuum. Whilst this issue's situation isn’t as atmospheric as, say, The Long Good Friday or The French Connection – the artwork doesn’t quite manage to completely convey a fully realized, busy city for the characters to live in – it certainly hits an incredibly particular, tight tone for the reader.
With just this one issues, The Kitchen manages to establish itself as something new and different for Vertigo, a quieter and more low-key approach to crime than has been seen in comics for quite some time. I imagine comparisons would be made to something like Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips’ collaborations, but Masters, Doyle and Bellaire have a different kind of chemistry and approach to the crime serial here. The initial burst of testosterone quickly flares out once the husbands are taken out the picture, and is replaced with an icier sense of business that feels unique to these female leads.
There’s not so much a sense of noir in here as there is a sense of calm authority. The characters don’t make elaborate plans or choices, but instead attempt to find new, considered ways to maintain a status quo which the time and place won’t allow from them. This is a hugely successful first issue in that regard, building a tight central concept and narrative which creates an electrifying study of time, period, setting and character. Measured, calm and collected, the first issue seems authentic, intriguing, and intensely focused. This feels like a series to watch.