WonderCon '09: John Layman on Debuting 'Chew'

Chew #1

Readers who’ve followed the writing career of John Layman are used to his creator-owned ideas being kind of…out there.

While the corporate mascot gone very, very wrong story of Puffed and Stay Puffed went into their own land of…different, this June, Layman, with artist Rob Guillory are looking to move the goalpost a little further with Chew, a police procedural starring a “quirky” investigator that makes Monk’s Adrian Monk look just as normal as anyone you’d pass on the street.

We’d best let Layman take it from here, as we’re not well-acquainted with the legalities and liabilities of this kind of story and who can be held responsible for what.

Newsarama: John - describe Chew for us, big-picture wise. What's the underlying idea, and who's the main character?

John Layman: Chew is the police procedural starring Tony Chu, a federal agent who gets psychic impressions from the things he eats. He’s Cibopathic, which means he can eat an apple, and tell you what tree it was harvested from and what pesticides were used on it. Or eat a hamburger, and feel what the cow felt when it was slaughtered. Or… he can chew on a murder victim, and see the victim’s last moment, and the murderer, and so on.

The story is set in the very near future, three years after a bird flu epidemic killed 16 million people around the globe. In American, the F.D.A. is now the most powerful law enforcement agency in the world, sorta like Dept. of Homeland Security after 9/11, and the federal government has instituted a Poultry Prohibition to ensure there are no more outbreaks of the avian flu. Tony Chu has been brought on to the Special Crimes Unit of the F.D.A., where is special talents are put to good use.

NRAMA: And this idea came from...er...where?

JL: Well, I’m a really fat guy, and I think about food a lot, so that is surely part of it. I’ve had a lot of food-centric stories rattling around my head, and at some point I had a brainstorm that a book like this could be a vehicle for a lot of these stories. Like the food critic who is such a good writer readers can actually taste the food she is writing about when they read her reviews, but she’s become so jaded about the culinary world she only reviews restaurants that get a ‘D’ rating or worse. She’s the love interest for the book, introduced in issue #3 after she writes a review that gives half its readers food poisoning, and sets off an epidemic of projectile vomiting!

NRAMA: What are the basis for Chu's powers?

JL: That’s unknown, at least within the first story arc.

NRAMA: So how much can he tell from just…tasting?

JL: Well, that still being determined. Even Tony does not quite know the scope of his “power.” As far as he knew, he’s the only person in the world with his ability. Of course, he finds out otherwise when he enters the F.D.A., but how Tony’s power stacks up with the two other Cibopaths in the world is still as of yet unknown.

NRAMA: Okay - got the wonky power, but what's up with the change in the world with the bird flu? Why did you go down that road to tell this story?

JL: Well, make no mistake, this is a cop book, and the focus is on cases. But there is a larger “conspiracy” storyline at plays out at a different level, or will over the course of the series –this is a series with a distinct ending, in the same manner as Preacher or Y The Last Man, by the way. And, like Y, it’s really the extrapolation of a single fantastic event, and its real world consequences. In this case, what if the government was so determined to stop another bird flu outbreak they decided to outlaw poultry? We got cultures that don't eat beef, cultures that don’t eat pork, what if you take away chicken? What happens to Thanksgiving when you take away the turkeys? You are gonna have smugglers, and an entire subculture will rise devoted to giving people what they want. It’s obviously going to be controversial. For somebody like Tony Chu, he’s torn, because he’s not a big believer in this chicken prohibition, and people in his job are not terribly popular, just like I imagine people trying to stop the Prohibition of alcohol was not.

Bottom line, there is about a billion story ideas that can spin out of two words, “Chicken Prohibition,” and this book is going to explore many of them. But, at the end of the day: Cops and robbers, guns go bang bang, blood splattering and heads ‘splodey ‘splodey—but with cannibalism!!

NRAMA: Fair enough. What can you tell us about Rob Guillory and how you convinced him to join on with this?

JL: Rob’s a phenomenal talent, smart and fast and awesome, and an as amazing a colorist as he is with the pen and ink. I’d been looking for an artist Chew, taking my time to sniff around and find the right person. Brandon Jerwa introduced me to Rob, as a guy who was really talented and versatile. They were working on a book together, a kid’s book, I think. But then Brandon had that unfortunate “wardrobe malfunction” around that Scout Troop, and I think as a condition of his parole he had to abandon his various children’s projects. And so, there Rob was. He read the scripts that were written and was enthusiastic and did a couple of pages which blew me away. He was also one of the few people in the world who had read (much less enjoyed) Puffed, my previous very twisted Image Book, and he was already familiar with my work.

NRAMA: This all sounds like it could get gory...and gross. Is that the plan?

JL: Absolutely, usually my books have some dark or subversive humor in them. I can’t really avoid it even when I try, and while this book plays it straight for the most part, there are some moments that are really twisted and wrong. Tony Chu’s boss, for instance, absolutely hates him (and for no good reason, which makes it even funnier,) and takes great delight in sending him on assignments that make best --and grossest-- use of Tony’s powers. So if a corpse turns up in a sewer or a garbage dump, you better believe Tony gets the case. Actually, some of it is even grosser than that, but I know how delicate Newsarama readers can be.

NRAMA: Thank you for that. What's your first arc about?

JL: The first arc, “Taster’s Choice,” is about Tony’s new role as an agent for the F.D.A., the most powerful and controversial law enforcement agency on the planet. He’s learning to cope and get the hang off the new job, and cases that are bigger than the average murder case. He’s also got a new partner, a partner who plays a mentor role, but who carries a few dark secrets. It’s Tony’s discovery of his partner’s secrets, even as he goes about day-to-day police work, which makes up the (bloody) heart of the first storyline.

NRAMA: And when does it start?

JL: June. Monthly thereafter, though we will probably take short breaks between story arcs to ensure the book comes out regularly, as least until we get our sea legs and an audience discovers how freakin’ awesome this book is.

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