Indie Hit CHEW Takes a Bite Out of the Comics Market

Grab a Bite with Indie Comic Hit CHEW

Chew 7

One of the surprise hits of 2009 was Chew, the new crime/SF/comedy/action/horror/misc. series from Image Comics.  Since its debut earlier this year, Chew has gone through multiple reprints of its early issues, been promoted in Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead and blown away comic fans with its offbeat take on…well, everything.

So what is Chew?  Well, let’s start with the hero, Tony Chu, who happens to be a cibopath, someone who gets a psychic impression from everything he eats (except beets).  This makes solving murders a cinch…if you don’t mind snacking down on a corpse.


But that’s just the start of Chu’s world.  See, in this reality, all poultry has been outlawed as the result of a worldwide pandemic the government claims was an avian flu.  That means that there are plenty of speakeasies where you can go for an illegal chicken dinner.  And the FDA is more powerful than the FBI.

And things only get crazier from there.  Cyborgs, alien worlds, mysterious fruit, frog-obsessed Yakuza and psychically-powerful restaurant critics are just a few of the characters we meet, and not only does all this make sense, it’s headed somewhere fast.

With the latest issue in stores now, along with the trade paperback collection “Taster’s Choice,” writer John Layman and artist Rob Guillory stopped by Newsarama to talk turkey about their savory success story.  Food puns aside, you’ll see the creators discuss the origin of their work, their collaborative process, and more, along with some art from upcoming issues. There’s even a referrnce The Milagro Beanfield War.  Presumably, someone will get it.

Newsarama:  John, Rob – I'd like to start with is the old chestnut of, “What's your response to the book's success?”

John Layman: Um…

Rob Guillory: “Holy s**t” kinda sums it up for me. If you can say that.

Layman:  I'm grateful for it, but still don't completely get it.  I certainly was not expecting it.  Every issue is the issue I figure everybody is gonna sober up and turn on the book.

Page from Chew #7

Guillory: Ditto. I kinda figured people would catch on eventually – but not at this level or speed.

Nrama: Given the offbeat nature of the book, how far did you figure you'd get to take it?

Layman: I thought it would go on, but sorta have breaks between story arcs, and I didn't even know if Rob would be on for the duration.

Originally, I thought it would be a series of miniseries, and it would take some time to recoup my investment in it, and it might even have rotating artists.

Nrama: Rob, were you on for the duration?

Guillory: Yeah, I was really hoping we'd have enough steam for 10 issues, if sales would support us that far. But I wanted to draw every issue from the very beginning.

Nrama: How did you two crazy kids come together for the book?

Layman: I’d been looking for an artist for a while, hitting up friends i knew from my editing days-- seeing if they had anybody to recommend.  A Dynamite/G.I. Joe writer named Brandon Jerwa introduced us-- he'd been working on a project with Rob for Toykopop that got scuttled.

I met Rob last year in San Diego, and gave him scripts for the first couple issues and told him what I was looking for.  Strangely, Rob knew me already from a book I did with Dave Crosland called  Puffed,  and stranger still, he seemed to dig  Chew.

Guillory: Even stranger, people had been threatening to introduce me to John for years, thinking he'd like my work. Really weird, actually.

Layman:  Really?  I did not know that.

Page from Chew #7

Guillory: Yeah. Kody (Chamberlain) had mentioned it a bunch of times – as far back as five years or more.

Layman: Ah.

Nrama: See, this is the sort of interview where all the secrets come out.

Guillory: It's true.

Nrama: John, how long had you been developing the initial idea for  Chew , and where did the spark of inspiration come from?

Layman: That's something I can’t really recall. It's been so long ago.  As far back as  Puffed , my next thing was going to be about a civil war breaking out on a Polynesian island over a new type of fruit, sorta my version of  The Milagro Beanfield War, and that turned into the second storyline, “International Flavor.”

But I had all these different ideas, unified by food, and I decided rather than develop them separately, fold them into one another, with the central part of it being the cannibal cop protagonist and the post-bird-flu chicken prohibition being the central backdrop.  

From there, stories came pretty fast and furiously.

Nrama: Rob, what was your initial reaction to this concept?

Guillory: Well, John kinda soft-sold me in the beginning, just saying it was a police procedural. He left all the crazy out of it, no doubt to keep from scaring the crap outta me.  

But when I first heard it, I couldn't quite wrap my head around it. It took the first script to really sell me. It's totally brilliant.

Layman: I think a lot of people did not get it when I explained it—probably, partially, because I am not the best salesman.

Nrama:  Rob, what was the process of developing the look of Chu and his world, and what were your major artistic influences?

Guillory: I tried a couple different looks. The first was this darker, sketchy look that John hated.

Layman: Yeah, I wanted something lighter and more fun. because with a different artist the subject matter could make the book very dark and ugly.



Guillory: I did it because for so long editors had kinda typecast me as the “cartoony guy.”No one ever really trusted my instincts, which John did outta the gate. And from there, it's been a dream. 

The look of  Chew  is just my natural visual vocabulary. This is how I think. I love comedy, horror, drama, etc... And it all comes out in this style.

Page from Chew #7

Nrama: How far in advance have you guys planned on doing  Chew ?  Because the first arc casts a lot of ideas out there, which are now paying off in the second arc.  There's a sense that there's an endgame for this thing.

Layman:  We're saying 60 issues, just because a lot of my other favorite comics were that long.  It seems like a good length where a story can unfold like a novel, but not feel padded.

Nrama: Rob, you 60 for 60?

Guillory: Hell yeah. Never heard of anyone doing a two-man book of this quality for 60 issues.

Nrama: You see this sticking to just the main book, or doing any side stories in this world?  You've condensed some very intriguing backstories throughout the run so far.

Layman: Well, the cast continues to grow and I definitely see some periods where the focus is off of Tony Chu, the lead character.

Nrama:  You pull off something very interesting with the introduction of a new character in issue #7 –I don't want to spoil too much for our readers, but it shows how this book can turn on a dime.

Layman: Yes, I would advise readers not to get too comfortable with a status quo to this book, because things will change significantly and awesomely.

Nrama:  Can you give readers a hint as to what to expect over the course of “International Flavor?”

Layman: Well, it really just serves to flesh out the world a little more. You see another government agency in action, you see another part of the world. And we spend just a bit more time with one of the peripheral characters, Tony's disgraced superstar chef brother Chow.

Here's the thing: With “Taster's Choice,”the central storyline was “What if Clarice found out she was partnered with Hannibal?”but I could not say that, or it would ruin the ending

“International Flavor”is like that. What the storyline was about will be evident 4 pages away from the end of issue #10.

Nrama  So it's sort of an illusion – you don't know the trick until it's been pulled off. 



Layman: Yes, except that implies probably more cleverness than I am capable of.

Nrama: Rob, what has been the challenge in designing the characters and locations of the book?  What's the line you want to pull off between exaggeration and reality?

Chew 9 Cover

Guillory: The only challenge has been topping whatever I did in the previous issue. I have a ball designing these characters. After you design a character as over the top as Mason Savoy, it kinda frees you up to just let your imagination run wild. 

I have a pretty good sense of how far is “too far” in terms of what's over the top and what's not. The line that we're walking is just to not belittle the important moments by making them laughable.

Nrama:  As you two have gotten used to working together, how has your collaboration changed?

Layman: I think I write a little more action than before, just because I want to see what Rob does.  But it hasn't changed much. Rob has my trust completely.

Guillory: I dunno. It's always stayed the same on my end. I love getting new scripts and seeing what John does.  The only big change is that John's writing directly to me, whereas in the beginning, John had written three issues before he met me.

Nrama: John, have you ever been physically revolted by a scene as rendered by Rob -- and Rob, have you ever been revolted by something John's written?

Guillory:  HA.

Layman:  Hold on, on the phone with Image --

Guillory:  I've revolted myself a few times. The big puke panel in Issue 3... I had to take a walk in between inking it.

Layman: Chew #6 is sold out!  I just found out!

Guillory: Nice!

Nrama: Congratulations, guys!

Layman: …where were we?   Yeah, i was a little nervous about the poo in issue #6.  We wondered if we were going to far, or should move it off panel.

Guillory: HA! I'm SO glad I drew that turd.

Nrama:...and Newsarama sinks to a new low. 



Layman: I guess there is more scrutiny on Chew  than I expected, and it has made me a little nervous.

Nrama: What's the most disturbing thing you have ever eaten in real life?

Layman: Arby's!

Guillory: I dunno. I ate a taco once that turned my piss green. Which is not natural.

Nrama: Was it Del Taco?

Guillory:  Nope, a local place in my hometown. I shall not name it, for fear of being taken out.

Nrama: The Taco Mafia is known to do that.  Hey, how's beef and pork doing in the world of  Chew ?

Layman: Thriving.

Nrama: I'm disturbed to think of the implications for fast food in a world without chicken.

Layman: Amen to that.

Guillory: Hey, not just chicken. All poultry.

Nrama: One thing I dig about Chu is that he doesn't just get to be a vegetarian of vegan.  EVERYTHING has a horrifying history for him.  Well, not beets.

Layman: Well, I don’t think fruits and vegetables are horrifying, but it's noise, at least, a   distraction.  Beets are the only thing that gives him any sort of psychic silence.

Nrama:  When you're doing a book where food is such a major element, what are the challenges in conveying the sense of taste, both through writing and art?

Layman: I dunno. I don’t really see it as a challenge. It's more universal, I think, then, say, music in comics.  I know some people totally dig a mesh of music and comic – I for one do not.

Guillory: Right. Taste is universal. Everyone has to eat. And these days, there's this huge foodie culture. Food shows and whatnot. It's a ripe subject

Nrama: Rob, I'm afraid to ask what kind of research you've had to do to get the proper facial expressions associated with unwilling cannibalism.

Guillory: I have had some BAD food experiences. My stomach is extremely sensitive. So I can relate to Tony's situation. I've been there, to a lesser degree.  It's like method acting. But not.

Nrama: Perhaps it is best that we do not recap these experiences in detail.  “I've seen things you people wouldn't believe...”

Guillory: Exactly!

Nrama: What's been the most rewarding part of working on a book like this?

Layman: Well, I've never worked on an ongoing before of my own. Seeing people really embrace the characters, and want to know what happens next... it's been very satisfying, 

And just that fact that so many people have embraced it…I thought only a select few weirdos would like  Chew , and I was fine with that.  Perhaps sometimes I misunderestimate comic book readership.

Guillory: Having the freedom to build a whole mythology from the ground up. Not having to answer to anyone but John. And doing all of this on our own makes the success that much deeper.

Nrama: And it's Christmas, so let's say some nice things about those fine folks at Image.

Layman: Yes indeed – they have been great, especially Robert Kirkman, who has really help guide the book, suggesting the flip book, and the $9.99 price point on the TPB. Robert makes all these ideas and I resist them, and then eventually go along with them, and then it turns out Robert is right

Nrama: The Prophet Kirkman...

Layman: For a backwoods Kansas hillbilly, he really knows his stuff.

Guillory: Kirkman is my hero at Image. Just a really smart guy, who's really down to earth.

Nrama: Beyond this current storyline, what can readers expect from  Chew?  Be vague but intriguing.

Layman: Um… well...

Guillory: Craziness. And a lotta fun.

Layman: When the first five issues came out, everybody seemed to like it, but they thought #4 was sorta a throwaway issue that did not mean anything in the big scheme of things.  

As it turns out, nothing could be further from the truth…there will be hints as to why in this current storyline, even in next weeks #7. and even more in the storyline after, #11-#15, “Just Desserts.”

Guillory: Yeah, there's a big twist coming. I can't wait to see that executed myself.

Nrama: And Savoy is still out there...

Layman: Indeed he is.

Guillory: Can't wait for the third Cibopath myself....

Layman: …or the fourth…

Guillory: I didn't know we were going that far in this interview! HA. Actually, that's my absolute favorite part of the upcoming story. And the rest of Tony's family.  Chew  really seems to be about the Chu family.

Nrama: Well, I should do the ever popular “Anything else you'd like to talk about that we haven't discussed yet?”

Guillory:    The usual stuff. Thanks to all the readers for supporting the book. 



Stuff your face with five issues of Chew with Taster’s Choice, or pick up issue #7, in stores this week.



Zack Smith (zack.zacharymsmith@gmail.com) is a regular contributor to Newsarama.

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