James Stokoe is perhaps most famous for his vibrant colors and “shit, son” sense-of-scale battle sequences in books both licenced (IDW’s Godzilla: The Half-Century War) and creator-owned (Image’s D&D cum Dio song-comic Orc Stain). But before he wrote/drew those, there was Wonton Soup, an everything but the kitchen sink “space trucker cooking opera” told in two volumes published between 2007 and 2009. Wonton Soup isn’t Stokoe’s earliest published work, but the real value in this new edition, collecting both volumes for a low price, is the opportunity to watch Stokoe’s development as a storyteller. The premise of Wonton Soup is familiar by design; culinary prodigy-turned-slacker Johnny Boyo and dreadlocked, sex-craved sidekick Deacon Vans carry exotic freight across the galaxy, stumbling into adventures and generally trying to put some distance between them and their respective homeworlds. The book exists in the background of universes like Dune or Alien, it’s Star Wars if The Empire Strikes Back spent its run time following that Ice Cream Machine Guy in Cloud City instead of Luke and Leia.
Early in volume one, Johnny finds a hologram projector in his bowl of space-chicken wontons that begs for the help of a chosen one who can save a fledgling rebellion from a super-weapon. Johnny, of course, ignores this and finds his off-planet hotel. Stokoe doesn’t explore this meta-textual angle with much depth but it does play off nicely in a sequence in which Johnny and his estranged girlfriend Citrus hash out their relationship baggage while a colonial marine “history documentary” blares off the TV in front of them; lines like “DESERTERS WILL BE SHOT!” playing off of Johnny’s admission that “you know why I left.”
Taken as a whole, Wonton Soup’s weakness is that it isn’t willing to commit to, well, anything. Stokoe creates a handful of pretty interesting and charming characters but places them in only in a series of vignettes. The first volume putters around until it reaches it’s (admittedly excellent) climactic Iron Chef face-off between Johnny and twin rivals from his former cooking school. The second volume goes for broke by opening with a prolonged space drug trip that ends up incorporating snippets of autobiography from Stokoe when he runs out of gas. Taken on their own, these stories are fun; read together they don’t add up to more than the sum of their parts.
Where Wonton Soup succeeds is in Stokoe’s conceptual creativity. He tosses off ideas like a group of space-camouflage ninja thieves, starcruisers shaped like Buddha or sub-intestinal political assassinations. Many creators would build an entire books around stuff like this, but Stokoe just uses them for atmosphere. Science fiction often runs into trouble when it tries to hard to make its conceits seem real. No one cares what powers a lightsaber or a what a giant sandworm eats. In contrast, Stokoe’s explanatory sidebars, usually detailing Johnny Boyo’s intergalactic recipes, work because they revel in absurdity and add a little color and texture with lines like “If the lettuce is cut too thick and chunky, the CXL will realise they are being prepared wrong and will strangle the chef responsible.”
As this collected edition transitions between volume one and volume two, you’re stuck immediately by how much tighter Stokoe’s pencils have become in the intervening two years.The first volume’s loose drawings and speech bubble typos give way to a far more visually polished work. While the first installment occasionally shows off clever uses of negative space, Stokoe’s willingness to experiment shines through with inventive layouts (like the aforementioned tripping sequence that ends with a series of panels that multiply as they shrink). At the end of the day ,Wonton Soup is an early effort but it’s an early effort from one of the best artists working today. While Stokoe doesn’t reach the ambitious heights of later works, there’s enough here to satisfy fans of his more recent comics or readers just looking for their weird-o sci-fi comics fix.