Ollie Masters (writer), Ming Doyle (artist), Jordie Bellaire (colorist), Clem Robins (letterer), Becky Cloonan (covers)
As superhero properties continue to be optioned for film and television by the dozen, there are fewer choices for those of us who aren’t super into all things, well, super. My level of excitement for pretty much any upcoming superhero movie is dwarfed by how pumped I am to see a film adaption of The Kitchen. Released by Vertigo in 2014, this eight-issue short run comic tells the story of three 70s-era mob wives who take over the business while their husbands are in prison.
The Kitchen, in many ways, is a traditional mobster story, meant to appeal to preexisting fans of the genre. Artist Ming Doyle establishes the setting and era largely through clothing, hairstyles, and single-panel shots of local businesses. Writer Ollie Masters doesn’t define mob-specific phrases such as “made-man,” and the characters never openly lay out rules of the world. Whether a reader walks into the story with oodles of background knowledge about the mobster genre or not—I did not—doesn’t matter; the world-building Masters and Doyle offer is enough to bring readers to the book’s true purpose: allowing three unique women to explore what it means to be mob bosses.
When the story begins, Jimmy, along with his buddies Rob and John, run the Irish mob in Hell’s Kitchen. The three men are sent to prison, presumably for a term of 3-5 years, and their wives, respectively—Kath, Angie and Raven— begin to collect dues from local businesses in an attempt to keep things running. Slowly, they realize that Jimmy’s reputation won’t hold while he is in prison. Quickly, they realize that they are all much more capable than they initially thought.
Despite being so short, The Kitchen often feels like a slow burn. The first three issues function as a kind of escalation to their refusal to relinquish control of the mob. Jimmy and his crew are, of course, unexpectedly released early from prison thanks to their lawyer. Because the story is not about them, no details about the case are provided; the men simply return home to confront their wives, each of whom confirm that there is no going back to the world as it was before. They have fought, killed, blackmailed, extorted—they have, in a stunningly short time, built names for themselves that are not to be fucked with.
Masters and Doyle create this slow burn by allotting time in which specific moments and actions can hold extra weight. Kath’s impulse to beat a man and shoot off his ear, Angie’s choice to gut a man with an ashtray rather than be blackmailed, and Raven’s willingness to tangle, both romantically and in business, with the Italian mob, take up surprisingly large amounts of space not only in panels but also in captions. The series hits its stride in the fourth issue, where Robins, Masters and Doyle use carefully placed caption boxes to fill in just enough background about each marriage to contextualize the wives’ reunions with their husbands. Having gotten a taste of what these women are capable of, the reader is ready to see where they’ve come from, and piece together the unique merit of taking up such a trade.
The merit of a mobster life for women living in a second wave feminist era is, perhaps unsurprisingly, being in control. Angie and Kath find a mode of control through money, guns and fists, but Raven finds it in strategy. During a meeting with the Italian mob, each panel seems to center and even zoom in on Raven. Her black hair pops against Angie’s red and the texture of it makes it stand out against the black backgrounds. She’s clearly come into something that the other two women have not: an ability to see and manipulate the bigger picture, and to make her (albeit violent) business acumen known. In a way, this story is closer to an inspirational sports story than a mobster story. Sports stories are often about individual athletes realizing, through intensely physical events as well as emotional ones, that they are capable of achieving their goals. Replace an ice skating competition with a murder/extortion/manipulation spree, and it’s really the same idea.
The story from here becomes more about Raven, and about how these new lives are changing Raven and Kath’s relationship, but I’ll spoil no further. It’s very very much worth it to read the series yourself before the film adaptation appears.
News of a film adaption for such a moody, brilliantly violent and fashionable comic is inherently exciting. However, there are and always will be bad adaptations, and there are some possible pitfalls I hope New Line Cinema will avoid. The most obvious would be turning the captions into narration. Doyle, Masters and Robins were working within the limitations of an eight-issue comic run and, because it’s Vertigo, one plagued by ad breaks. While the captions serve as genius shorthand for diving into the interior worlds of these women, straight narration will be too clunky in a film. Flashbacks are a chance to play with costuming and pacing using time and space that the comic just didn’t have.
Structural concerns aside, my biggest worry is that the filmmakers will use the additional space to flesh out the male characters. Masters and Doyle go out of their way to ignore the mob husbands in favor of telling the stories of these three women. The most interesting and fleshed out male character is unarguably Tommy, a lower level gangster who spent a good deal of time in a mental hospital and, upon returning, immediately becomes the women’s enforcer and cheerleader. He’s there to help with the odds and ends, to dispose of bodies and help Angie throw the roughest punches, but he knows that his place is back in the getaway car. He also has my favorite line in the series: “Just ‘cause you ain’t got a dick don’t mean you gotta be treated like one.” Tommy needs to be carefully cast, but, like the rest of the men, should not be allotted much more screen time than he received in the comic.
The Kitchen is a short-run series that packs a serious wallop. A film adaptation is bound to be fun for mobster movie and noir fans, especially those tired of male-dominated movies, and is extra thrilling for fans of the comic. I’ve got my fingers crossed that it stays woman-centric, builds on the incredible pacing Masters and Doyle used to create their story, and paves the way for similar adaptations. Ladykiller, anyone?