Smash Pages Q&A: Blue Delliquanti

The creator of ‘O Human Star’ discusses entomophagy, working with food writer Soleil Ho and much more.

Blue Delliquanti is best known for the webcomic O Human Star, which has been running since 2012. Delliquanti has also made shorter comics which have appeared in The Nib, Mine!, Beyond and the just-released Smut Peddler: Sex Machine, but Delliquanti’s new book is something of a departure. Meal was co-written with food writer and journalist Soleil Ho and centers around Yarrow, who moves to Minneapolis to work at a restaurant that serves insects.

The book is an enthusiastic and thoughtful primer for those who are unaccustomed to entomophagy (that’s eating bugs), but it’s more than that. It’s a story about food and our connections to it. It’s about the communities that have eaten and have a relationship to these foods for generations, and what it means for others to “discover” that. It’s a love story that captures some of that feeling from moving to a new place and working at a job that’s much more than a job. The tagline for the book is “Dreams. Love. Entomophagy.” I recently talked about those things and more with Delliquanti, who will be appearing this coming weekend at the Queers and Comics Conference in New York.

I always like to start by asking people, “How did you come to comics?”

I got into comics as a ten- or eleven-year-old from a broad variety of sources. I followed a few newspaper comics religiously, including Peanuts reruns, Foxtrot, a few others, and then this was compounded by superhero films jumping into the spotlight around the same time — I was really invested in the X-Men as a middle schooler. Most telling, though, was getting into indie comics because of Jhonen Vasquez and the Nickelodeon cartoon he was showrunner for, Invader Zim. Hello, 2001!

At the time I lived within walking distance of a comic shop so I went in every Wednesday after school and just started absorbing anything that caught my interest — Vasquez’s Squee! was a big one, a huge chunk of Marvel’s Ultimate line, and lots of manga getting translated in that early ’00s manga boom. In retrospect, I was very fortunate that the store employees channeled my enthusiasm by recommending books by artists I now consider extremely influential to developing my style, like Mike Mignola.

Over time that blended with work I dived into on my own, like Hiromu Arakawa, Naoki Urasawa, Paul Chadwick and a lot of online comics, although I didn’t have a good sense at the time of just what a small world webcomics could be. I never would have guessed while reading Templar, Arizona in high school that I would be working with Spike Trotman a decade later.

How do you describe Meal?

Meal is about a young woman who moves to a new town in the hopes of securing her dream job: cooking at a new restaurant that specializes in insect cuisine. It’s a dive into food and restaurant politics with a meet-cute romance mixed in — or vice versa.

So how did you got interested in entomophagy?

I traveled a lot when I was in college, and that included an opportunity to visit northern Thailand. While there, the community I was visiting organized a dinner of fried crickets with vegetables and rice. To collect the main ingredient me and some other folks went out to the bug-collecting stations in the fields around town, and scooped up the insects that had been drawn to the lampposts set up at each station.

The collective activity of gathering these crickets, understanding how to find them, and how to make them into a delicious meal stuck with me long after I left. I found myself paying attention to other stories of insects collected as culinary ingredients and how those stories were told — and by whom.

Meal is not just a story about cooking and food, it’s a story about gentrification and Columbusing. I wonder if you could talk about this because that is important to the book and it’s really important to this conversation around food today.

Yeah, absolutely. Insects are a really illustrative example of this phenomenon you see a lot of in the States, where there’s an incredibly rich variety of cuisines and food traditions practiced but they are all viewed through the lens of this single dominant food narrative, and these cuisines’ level of obscurity, favor, and understanding can change a lot depending on how they’re spoken about in the narrative at the moment. 

Insects are eaten in a lot of cuisines that Americans would consider marginalized, from Latin American to Southeast Asian, but because insects have such a “yuck” factor in the dominant food culture, people who eat bugs have to deal with those dishes being misunderstood and have it reflect poorly on their cuisines or even their cultures. That is, until an insect dish becomes “trendy” or “cool” in the mainstream narrative, and suddenly people who would have been ridiculed for eating such a dish are eclipsed by enthusiasts capitalizing on the dish while pushing the original practitioners out. 

This is a cycle I’m starting to witness happen with insects in a way not dissimilar with what happened with sushi, or pho, or poke, for example, and I hope that calling attention to it in a narrative will help enthusiasm for entomophagy grow in a respectful and sustainable way.

People know you mostly for O Human Star, and this is a different kind of project for you. You obviously have a feel for comics, for design and pacing and all that they entail beyond just being a good artist, but a graphic novel is a different beast than a serialized comic. What were the challenges for you in making the book?

Graphic novel production is much different from webcomic serialization! I don’t get that immediate feedback that comes from uploading a page on a weekly schedule, and it’s tough sitting on hundreds of pages that I know readers may only see a full year after I’ve finished my work on it. But I have much more flexibility going between working on page 8 and 89, for example, and it leads to a much more visually consistent work that doesn’t show off the same kind of growing pains that I feel are visually obvious after seven years of working on O Human Star.

You co-wrote the book with Soleil Ho, who I know – like most people I’m guessing – from one of the best food podcasts, Racist Sandwich. How did the two of you end up writing the book together and what was that process like?

Soleil’s writings and podcast kept popping up in my research as I was working to understand that food gentrification narrative and what kind of story I wanted to tell with Meal. I originally reached out to her to see if she’d be interested in providing feedback on my original draft and help me figure out what wasn’t quite clicking, but we quickly realized that not only were we both familiar with each other’s work, but she and I shared a lot of connections within Minneapolis, my hometown and the setting of Meal. Our working relationship on this book developed into a friendship I really treasure, and Soleil’s influence on the core message of the book is crucial to what makes it work.

I know about and have eaten bugs, but one thing I hadn’t heard about was a-ping. I wonder if you could talk about it. Because I want to try it now (even though I dislike spiders).

A-ping’s difficult to achieve in the States, because the tarantulas we find here (New World tarantulas — they’re more docile and have urticating hairs to protect themselves) are totally different from the tarantulas you would make into traditional a-ping in Cambodia (those are Old World – they’re not as hairy, but they’re way more aggressive). It’s an iconic dish in Cambodia that became more widely eaten once traditional food sources were cut off by the Khmer Rouge – as a result, it’s often misunderstood by westerners as a desperate choice made by a people on the verge of starvation, when the more nuanced narrative is that of an existing regional tradition being shared more broadly in a way that influences the Cambodian people to this day. I would love to try traditional a-ping some day.

I know that you live in Minneapolis, but why did you decide to set the book there?

As I mentioned earlier, Soleil and I have both lived in Minneapolis for a significant amount of time, and Soleil in particular has a great understanding of Minneapolis’s incredible restaurant scene. There’s something about being able to recognize what is unique to a particular city – how to navigate it, what its art and food and culture is like – that makes me want to pay homage to it in comics over and over again. I’m always pleased when Twin Cities readers can immediately recognize landmarks or commiserate about the weather. 

You also have a story in the new anthology, Sex Machine. Do you want to say a little about your story and what you like about making short stories?

Sure! I love robot stories, and I’m always really interested in how the concept of robots influence our perceptions of really human concepts. In O Human Star, that includes concepts like identity and family. In Sex Machine that includes attraction and, yup, sex. For that story I got to collaborate with the incredible artist Jon Cairns, whose crisp linework and paneling style is something I’ll never be able to achieve with my own work. The most fun thing about collaborating with other artists is watching them interpret concepts or scripts in a way that’s far different from how I initially visualized it – and of course it turns out way better.

Soleil Ho has an essay “How Can I Describe the Taste of Chicatanas.” Why did you want to include that in the book?

Soleil has a great understanding of comics as a medium and that’s why her work on the main story of Meal was so instrumental. But ultimately I wanted Meal to include her unadulterated voice because it was that voice that helped me understand the direction Meal needed to grow in. Soleil writes from a place of nonfiction – she documents real things undertaken by real people, and I want readers to understand that while the story of Meal itself is fictional, there are lesbians of color running restaurants and serving chicatanas in our world today – and there are writers sharing their stories, too.

You also include recipes in the book. How did you decide what to include? And how have your own experiments with them gone?

I developed recipes that followed the arc of a multi-course meal while evoking the narrative arc of the book. There’s easy, accessible comfort food, a more challenging entree, and a sweet, visually appealing dessert. I definitely had the most trouble getting the dessert exactly right, since I was adapting a technique for an existing Japanese dessert (mizu shigen mochi) to incorporate additional ingredients. It’s a delicate waterdrop-looking cake that’s meant to dissolve after a short amount of time, so you have to make sure it gelatinizes properly. I had a lot of batches come out looking and feeling like breast implants.

You cite The Drops of God and Wakakozake as two influences on this book. Can you talk a little about the influence of those manga series on your work?

The Drops of God and Wakakozake are great examples of comics about cuisine concepts that might be considered niche and esoteric, where the authors’ expertise, enthusiasm, and creativity shine through and really connect with the reader. I hoped that I could inform my readers about grasshoppers as thoroughly as TDOG does about wine, or helps them reconsider a dish the way Wakakozake encourages you to celebrate fried chicken or the humble potato salad.

I do have to ask about O Human Star just because I have you. Do you want to say a little about where things are right now and what’s coming up in the comic?

Oh boy. I just hit a major turning point in the narrative where the three major characters are all starting to be honest with each other, and the comic’s primary themes of identity, love, and acceptance are being tested in a major way. I hope that my readers are finding it as rewarding to read and I am to get here after seven years of work.

So last word, why should people get over their uneasiness toward insects? Why is this the ultimate American made foodie comic? Why is Meal a wonderful Minneapolis set tale of romance? Take it where you will.

I’ve found that a recurring theme in my work is what happens when individual people are exposed to an idea or a concept that utterly changes the way they’ve perceived the world and how they navigate it. In OHS, I’m interested in how people’s ideas about technology and gender identity can change over time, and with Meal I’m interested in what happens when the boundaries of food, taste and cuisine change and reflect the input of more people. I don’t think it’s right to encourage people to “be brave” when it comes to learning new things about food or whatever – instead I’d encourage people to be vulnerable, be humble and be creative, and that usually leads to unforgettable experiences.

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