Cooking with Monsters: The Beginner’s Guide to Culinary Combat

IDW. Sept. 2023. 256p. pap. $16.99. ISBN 9781684059836.
Hana Ozawa and Bobby Binh are childhood best friends from different islands of the Asian-coded Archipelago entering the Gourmand Academy of Culinary Combat together. Giant spatulas are the weapon of choice for taming and defeating a “feastiary’s” worth of beasts, from bullfrogs to basilisks. Becoming a warrior chef requires equal parts combat and cooking skill, and Hana hopes to excel at both in order to impress a warrior chef who saved her long ago. The class prodigy, Olivia, who is Black and bisexual, elicits crushes from Hana and Bobby as well as a mutual grudge with Hana when they are assigned each other’s preferred mentor. The diverse personalities, including several more classmates, are expressed via their choice of dishes, combat styles, mentor relationships, and socializing. The story balances the fantasy violence of fighting monsters with grounded and relatable issues affecting each student. Cultural discrimination, anxiety, transitioning (two characters are trans), romance, bullying, and self-improvement are all touched upon. The narrative is not overpowered by any one angle, nor is it overcrowded by the charming cast. Similarly, the artwork sells the action, drama, and humor equally. For example, a lesson against a monster may include a prologue of chalkboard doodles by the class or acrobatic spatula strikes, and a dramatic reveal turns bubbly friends into cold shoulders afterward. Readers who do not pace themselves may feel stuffed by all the character development, all the more reason to savor each scene.
VERDICT A diverse palate of character ingredients simmered thoroughly to express flavors any reader can enjoy.

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