Ambidextrous 298: Chew on This!

Chew #1

John Layman and I have been talking a long time about Chew

The writer of such diverse works as Puffed, Gambit, Armageddon & Son, Thundercats, Tek Janson, Bay City Jive, Army of Darkness vs. Marvel Zombies, Xena: Warrior Princess, Left Behind, Scarface, and House of M: Fantastic Four has been laying low recently, planning his next frighteningly original work Chew. Exaggeration, you say? Once again the sole purveyor of this column is overstating for dramatic effect? Okay then, read the following premise of the series by John Layman and Rob Guillory and see if you can disagree---

Tony Chu is a cop with a secret. A weird secret. Tony Chu is Cibopathic, which means he gets psychic impressions from whatever he eats. It also means he's a hell of a detective, as long as he doesn't mind nibbling on the corpse of a murder victim to figure out whodunit, and why. It`s a dirty job, and Tony has to eat terrible things in the name of justice. And if that wasn`t bad enough, the government has figured out Tony Chu`s secret. They have plans for him… whether he likes it or not.

With the first issue in stores in only two short weeks, I asked creators John Layman and Rob Guillory to answer a few questions about the series to get their take on a variety on subjects, but you know, mostly on the book. All attached art is by Guillory, and when I say all, I mean all. More on that below though. Enjoy.

Brandon Thomas: Why Chew and why now?

John Layman: Why not? All I wanted to do was guest write a couple Ambidextrous columns, but you would not return my calls, Brandon, so I was forced to come up with a comic book in a clumsy attempt to capture your attention and affection.

BT: Well, I guess it worked then, didn’t it? So where in the world did you get the idea for the title character and his highly unusual abilities?

JL: No idea. Does anybody have a good answer for where inspiration comes from? At least for Chew, I have no idea. It’s an idea I’ve had for a long time, and I’ve taken my sweet time developing the story and working it out, but I don’t have the slightest freaking clue when inspiration first struck.

BT: One of the best bits from the first couple issues involves the possession, sale, and distribute of chicken products being against the law. How exactly did this happen, and why do you hate chicken? What did it ever do to you?

JL: There are two things you need to know about the comic Chew. One, it is about a guy, Tony Chu, who gets psychic impressions from what he eats. The second, it’s set in a near future after an avian flu, where the government responded by instituting a Poultry Prohibition.

I think this idea came several years ago, probably as a joke, when everybody was panicking about a potential bird flu, and maybe there was some snarky Elliot Ness-like scenarios that spun out if it---federal agents kicking down doors to stop chicken smugglers like they did with alcohol during Prohibition.

But as I thought more about it, I decided to play it straight, and examine what sort of world this would be if this actually happened. The funny thing, as I write this, everybody knows we just got through a Swine Flu hysteria, a lot of health scares about the potential pandemic, to the point where tens of thousands of pigs were executed in Egypt, and the media had everybody in the grip of panic for weeks. Suddenly the idea of a Poultry Prohibition, set by a government after a bird flu kills millions, does not seem quite so absurd.

BT: So this was merely a logical extrapolation of past (and now current) world events and not a thinly veiled vendetta against chicken per se? And are there any plans to incorporate some ripped from the headlines elements from our recent swine flu outbreak into future arcs?

JL: Nah, this isn't Law & Order. Chew is about 87.9% pure escapism. If people want to read nutty left wing political screeds, they can go to the Millarworld Current Affairs forum, where I pick fights daily. Chew is about wild, unpredictable, lunatic comic book fun. (Of course, it’s fun in the same way riding a roller coaster ten times in a row after eating a double chili dog—fun, but also apt to be a bit sickening.)

BT: Okay, so I see you’re refusing to answer the question about a possible chicken vendetta, but perhaps we should move on. I remember you being very excited about finding a guy like Rob Guillory to handle the art chores. What told you he was the guy to work on this with you, and what have you learned about the book having seen a few issues of it completely drawn?

JL: Well, he’s captured all the characters dead-on from what I had in my head. He also does unbelievable action sequences, which pushes me to turn up the adrenaline from issue to issue. Originally, I’d planned to have a different artist per story arc, but Rob is such a part of it, there is no way I can do anything without him. Hell, I’m even reluctant to do variant covers by some of my big name friends, simply because I want Rob to touch every aspect of this story. (Which is not to say there will not be variants in the future, but there are no plans, and I don’t want to do anything on this book that seems “gimmicky.”)

BT: And Rob, how did you hook up with Layman, and what made Chew something you definitely wanted to do?

Rob Guillory: I got involved through a friend of a friend, really. I’d done some work for Tokyopop with a writer named Brandon Jerwa that went south, but nevertheless I guess Brandon had a good time working with me. So when John popped up and started fielding for artists, I was the first guy Jerwa thought of, which is flattering. Layman cold-emailed me the premise and the first script the day before San Diego Comicon. We met the next night and have been working together ever since.

As for why I decided to be a part of Chew, it had a lot to do with just how completely different it was from anything else on the shelves. I’d always wanted to do something fun and totally original, and this book is all of that and then some. Plus, after reading John’s scripts, I absolutely knew that this would be my chance to put a real stamp on a comic from the ground up. And what makes Chew even more special is, because it’s such a diverse, wide-sprawling story, I get to really leave my mark here without being pigeon-holed into being just one category of artist. I get to draw comedy, action, drama, and horror all in within the constraints of one story, and that’s special. And I just love working with John, so that was a plus, too.

BT: You’re handling every inch of the artwork, right? How long does it take you to complete an issue and what’s your overall process like? Do you finish all of the pencils first before going on to colors, or do you jump back and forth?

RG: Yeah, I handle all design, pencils, inks, and colors on Chew. I can produce a 22-page issue in around a month and a half, but I’m working on whittling that down for future issues. Lately, after I crack the thumbnails, I do rough pencils on all 22 pages in about 2-3 days, just to lay the foundation. Then, I hammer out the inked line art at a rate of a page a day. I tighten up pencils a bit before inking, but leave them fairly loose, since I like the work to have a slightly improvisational feel to it. I love slipping in little gags and background jokes, just for my own amusement. After that, once the inked art is complete, colors take around 3-6 hours, depending on complexity. I’m pretty anal, so I baby the art a bit. My process is pretty straightforward. Not a lot of tricks to it, really.

BT: What other projects have you worked on, and what ultimately led you to comics?

RG: I’ve been flipping through comics since before I could read, so I guess it was just a natural progression. I got into drawing at a really young age and started making my own mini-comics in the fourth grade. It just stuck with me until I got into college and decided to really make a push to do this for a living. I think I’ve always been a fairly natural storyteller, and that’s what drew me to this medium.

I’ve worked on a bunch of indy and anthology stuff over the last few years while I was maturing as an artist. I’ve done some stuff for Image Comics’ Popgun anthology, Ape Entertainment’s Teddy Scares, Random House’s The DFC Anthology series over in the UK, and a handful of other things that I can’t even remember. Anthologies were a great way to hone my skills, get published and not completely embarrass myself [laughs]. Chew, on the other hand, is all me, completely naked and on display, so it’s very exciting and nerve-wracking at the same time.

BT: Bringing Layman back into the convo, cause I’m sure he shares all of those feelings, the world of Chew is one where not only has poultry been outlawed, but where the FDA has ascended to become the most powerful branch of law enforcement in the world. How deeply are you going to spend digging into just what this means for the United States as viewed through the lens of this series and have other countries made similar changes?

JL: Well, again, this was a reaction to real world events. 9/11 was a terrible tragedy, no doubt, for the amount of damage and death it caused, but one could certainly argue the government reaction to it was disproportionate to the damage it caused to us as a nation. So again, extrapolating from a bird flu where millions die, what is a potential reaction of a government? Chew explores that, and not only in the U.S. As we get further into the book, we’ll see not just national repercussions of the avian flu, but international. I’m currently writing the second story arc, “International Flavor,” which will take Tony Chu out of the country and we’ll get a more global perspective.

HOWEVER: I need to add, based on my answers, you might get the impression Chew is a political book. It is not. Or at least, politics take a solid back seat, and the foreground is all about police work, bullets flying, cannibalism, crazy action and very weird--and often very gross--scenarios our poor protagonist finds himself in the middle of.

BT: The third issue looks to be introducing another strange food-related “power” into the mix, that of Saboscrivner Amelia Mintz. How prevalent are these type of abilities in the book, and is she going to be a character we see a lot of in the future?

JL: Amelia is the love interest, so yeah, she will play a large role in things, assuming Tony doesn’t screw things up. All the major characters are being doled out in the first issues, and Amelia--a food writer able to write about food so accurately you can a sense of taste every time you read her food reviews—is the last major character…except one.

BT: You’ve worked on a variety of projects at pretty much every comics publisher there is, but Chew marks a return to the stands after a little time away. Just what has John Layman been up to between your Army of Darkness/Marvel Zombies mini and Chew?

JL: Well, I worked on Tek Jansen with my good pal Tom Peyer for Oni Press. That book was hobbled by the Hollywood Writer’s Strike for almost a year, and I think it fell off a lot of people’s radar. Primarily, though, I took a short step away from comics to work on video games. It’s something I had been doing anyway for the last 5 or so years, but I got an offer from Cryptic Studios to write what was the Marvel MMO. That game got scuttled, and I stayed on as the writer for Champions Online. Now, that game is getting closer and closer to launch, and it was always my intention to return to comics, so Chew is me stepping into the mix.

BT: What do you think will make Chew the next big project from Image, and something that will contribute to the growing legacy of John Layman?

JL: That’s a loaded question. I’m far too cynical to ever imagine anything I do will be the “next big thing,” so I just try to write stuff that’s interesting to me, that I can be proud of, and that is stuff I would want to read. Looking over the books I’ve done, it’s definitely an eclectic mix, and I would not have it any other way. I like superheroes, sure, and like writing them, but I’m far happier to have a backlog of more varied, interesting, and oddball stuff, even if it doesn't sell quite as well as straight superheroes.

BT: I am aware of the legendary John Layman cynicism, but even you have to admit that you’ve led a varied and interesting life in the comics industry, both as a writer and an editor. What I was getting at is what have you learned about writing comics that will ultimately be applied to this series and how long do you plan to pen the adventures of Tony Chu?

JL: Well, I’ve learned, no matter how thrilling it is to put the words in the mouth or tell the story of a legendary character like Spider-Man, there is a certain kind of fulfillment that comes with telling your own story, and guiding the fate or your own characters. In my perfect world, Chew lasts about 50-60 issues. It has a distinct ending, but I’d like to take my time getting there. I really love books that are planned out as a complete “novel,” like Preacher or Sandman or Y or Transmetropolitan, and this is certainly something I aspire to with Chew. On the other hand, Old Layman is very cynical about comics, and I’ve seen more than a few very deserving books fail, because an audience just simply is not there.

Having said that I want to thank everybody who gives the book a chance when it comes out on June 3rd. You won’t be disappointed.

BT: And I want to take the opportunity to thank John and Rob for taking the time to answer these questions. As John said, Chew #1 hits stores on June 3rd, and there is a sneak preview of the series in the back of Walking Dead #61, which is in stores now. Check it out, as it’s a great book with great art, and there’s honestly nothing like it out there on the stands. More information can be found on the official Chew website.

Thanks for dropping by, and back soon.

The Fiction House

Catch Up: 

Ambidextrous 297: Joe Casey: The Works

Ambidextrous #296: This is Why: Grant Morrison's JLA

Ambidextrous #295: Priced to Move

Ambidextrous 294: Colorist Wanted

Twitter activity