Meet John Layman.
He is the writer and co-creator of “Chew,” the Image Comics series about FDA agent Tony Chu, a cibopath who gleans psychic information from anything that he eats, except beets. Layman’s “Chew” is filled with several other similarly bizarre components including a powerful food writer, a far off alien world and a fruit with unknown origins that tastes just like chicken. It’s a story that has resonated with an extraordinary amount of readers, leading to multiple sellouts, accolades and now – best of all – a monthly column right here on Comic Book Resources!
Welcome to CHEW ON THIS, CBR’s monthly discussion of all things “Chew”-able. Following the release of every new issue, we sit down with Layman for an exclusive question-and-answer session about the latest turns-of-events in the world of Tony Chu. On top of that, readers are invited to write in to see their very own questions answered by Layman. In short, this is your one-stop shop for everything “Chew!”
This month, we’re talking about the first issue of the brand new “Chew” story arc titled “Flambe,” which sees Tony investigating the fiery alien message written in the sky at the end of the last issue. Plus, Layman discusses the chicken ban, illustrator Rob Guillory’s hidden Easter eggs, a possible skip month and much more!
CBR News: “Chew” #16 opens with a sequence that focuses on one of the series’ most prevalent topics: the bird flu pandemic and subsequent chicken ban. As we see in the beginning of the sequence, chicken consumption was a fairly popular (if not particularly healthy) way to load up on calories over the years, but something happened three years ago that changed the game and led to today’s current chicken ban. I’m sure it’s no coincidence that “Flambe” begins with this sequence, John, so tell us: how important will the bird flu outbreak and the chicken ban be in this arc? Is there even time to deal with something like this when the sky is quite literally on fire? Is that kind of the point?
John Layman: That is exactly the point, and really, the entire point of “Flambe.” A cosmic event has taken place that is so big and omnipresent that the idea of a chicken prohibition stops mattering to most people. Yes, in “Chew,” a bird-flu killed millions, but now people are potentially staring down the end of the world.
As part of this opening sequence, we’re treated to two back-to-back money shots of Mother Clucker’s, one set three years ago and the other set in the present day. There are some noticeable differences between then and now, with the E.G.G. acronym spray-painted on the restaurant in today’s incarnation being one example. I’ve said before that I’m cautious of looking at anything in “Chew” as a mere coincidence, so in the spirit of that, how much should we be reading into the differences between the various shots of Mother Clucker’s? Were you simply trying to show us how the times have changed between then and now, or are there important clues here that we’re going to be kicking ourselves about later?
There are no hidden clues, it’s more of a big picture comparison of the two cataclysmic events. The second spread, in addition to showing the fire-writing, shows how the chicken prohibition has affected society. That is, what had been a thriving neighborhood is now a desolate ghost-town. We’ve seen in the past how an underworld has risen because of chicken prohibition. Here, we see how “legitimate” business has been affected, and it is not a pretty site.
If there’s one important difference between “three years ago” and “today” that I noticed, it’s that there doesn’t seem to be nearly as much panic on the streets in response to the flaming sky as there was during the bird flu pandemic. Today, the street is practically empty for two guys, who are either sitting quietly or walking around drunk and pantsless. Give us a taste: how is the world reacting to the flaming sky? Going further, how are people reacting to this latest incident as opposed to the outbreak three years earlier — do you think the outbreak created an atmosphere that’s better or worse equipped for the flaming sky?
Well, keep in mind, by issue #16, the fire-writing has already been up for a week or so. There is only so long you can run rampant in the street in a mad panic. A lot of what we see in “Flambe” is the slow-burn reaction to the fire-writing, and how different people deal with this. Again: if it really looked like the world could be ending any day, how would that tear at everyday society?
Diving into this Mother Clucker’s scene, there’s a lot of emotion going on here, understandably so given recent events, and Chu is doing his best to hold everything together. What’s going through his mind right now in light of the fallout of issue #15?
Tony is a nose-to-the-grindstone, all-business, uber-serious guy, so amid all the chaos, he is going to be the guy who is still trying to adhere to the rules as best he can. Tony is not a lot of fun, which makes it all the more fun for me to abuse the heck out of him!
If Chu is mostly put together on the surface, Colby is an absolute wreck. What’s going on in his head — other than a bad case of alcohol poisoning, that is?
Colby’s response is a little more indicative of the Average Joe. He recognizes things are not business as usual, and so he is going to respond atypically. In Colby’s case, since he is brilliant comic relief, that means he is drunk out of his gourd, at least in issue #16.
It wouldn’t be a new arc of “Chew” without introducing some new type of “food guy,” and you get it out of the way in this first issue of “Flambe” with Daniel Migdalo, the voresophic. Can you give us a breakdown on what a voresophic is and where the idea for the power came from?
I never know where my ideas come from, though I do confess to smoking lots of pot. I was an English major in college, and one of my favorite aspects of this was etymology, the study of language and root words. So the word-geek in me has lots of fun combing over Latin and Greek and combining root words and prefixes and suffixes to make new words. In this case, “Vore” is Greek or Latin — I forget — for “to consume,” and “Sophic” is Greek or Latin for “to know,” or “to feel,” or something like that.
And yes, I’ve already been lectured about how it is bad form to mix Greek and Latin root words, but I’m writing a comic book about cannibals and cyborgs and illegal chickens, so I’m not terribly concerned with absolute realism!
Right before Tony and Caesar go to see Migdalo, Tony gets a phone call from his recently introduced twin sister. Even if her call isn’t coming at the best time, there’s some important information here that readers shouldn’t gloss over — namely the fact that Toni works for NASA and she’s joined some sort of UFO-centric task force. Given the fact that Toni’s a favorite of yours, it seems pretty safe to say that her work for NASA is going to get highlighted in a future issue. How long do we have to wait for that, and how excited are you to get to it?
Toni plays a big role in issue #27, which we are publishing out of sequence. It will come in March, after #18. She’s also the focus of #19, coming in April. And she’ll be playing an even bigger role in an upcoming arc. Other than Colby, I think Toni is my favorite “Chew” character to write.
When we catch up with Migdalo in the present, he’s become a beast of a man that Tony and Caesar eventually have to put down. Hats off to Rob for one of the greatest and most visually disturbing fight sequences I’ve seen in “Chew” thus far. I’m a little bit disappointed with the outcome, though: just when I was thinking that Migdalo could be a fun recurring presence in “Chew,” Tony quite literally leads him to his doom. Was there some temptation on your part to keep Migdalo alive at the end of this scene, or were there overarching reasons to kill him off? Any chance we’ll see him again in the future?
Migdalo returns in “Chew” #18. And #20, so to speak.
Good enough for me! One last thing about Migdalo — in a fantastic bit of lettering, Migdalo is quite literally talking in code, sprouting out mathematics like it’s his first language. Are the formulas he’s reciting arbitrarily chosen just to reflect to the reader that this guy’s brain is brimming with too much knowledge, or did you seek out specific formulas to fit into the balloons?
They really are meaningless. This is way spoilery, but I figure if people are reading this far into the article, they are actually interested, so there is no reason to be coy or cryptic. In case it isn’t clear, Migdalo eats so much that he sees the cosmic “truth” to what is going on, and it drives him mad. Honestly, now that I think about it, it’s a blatant rip-off of the crazy “sees the truth” cop in “Dark City,” one of my favorite movies, though that just occurred to me now, not while I was writing it.
The formulas themselves are complete bullshit. I just googled some crazy math equations, and then turned what I saw up to eleven. That’s one of the benefits to lettering your own book. I spent literally hours fooling around with the lettering on that page, trying to make it perfect, and I’m really pleased with the results.
Okay, one more Migdalo question, then I’m really done. The newspaper clippings in his office seem to pertain to the flaming sky for the most part. Were all of these headlines deliberately chosen by you? And what’s this about a Michael Bay movie hoax?
That’s just Rob screwing around with his little Easter eggs and in-jokes. I don’t really mind, because everybody loves them and they add to the overall readability and re-readability of the book. Even I find myself finding new stuff every time I read the book. And I think this goofy stuff help keep Rob sane as he races against deadlines.
By the time the issue is over, Mister Clucker’s is back open for business. Is this just one man lashing out against the system, or is it a sign that the people of the world are ready to lift the chicken ban in light of the flaming sky?
Both! The only thing Layman loves more than chronicling someone sticking it to The Man is sticking it to The Man himself!
Looking ahead at “Chew” #17, the cover alone tells us two things: one, it looks like NASA is coming into play even sooner than I’d expected, and two, the forbidden fruit from “International Flavor” is making a comeback. The microphone is yours, sir: what’s on tap for the next issue of “Chew,” and what can we look forward to as “Flambe” trudges onward?
Actually, the cover to #17 is a total bait and switch. Yes, NASA and an international space station play a key role, but the issue is really my “Food Columbine” issue, about a bullied high school student with a food power who is pushed too far and snaps — violently. It’s the sort of book that Paul Levitz would be itching to pulp, if he could.
Also, on another note, by the time this sees print, Rob Guillory and his wife are very likely to be new parents, so I hope everybody joins me in wishing them the best. We’re doing our damnedest to stay on schedule, but with the new baby, and also an awesome 5-pager we are doing for the Hero Comics — the Heroes Initiative charity book, a story where Tony ingests a designer drug — there is a good chance we’re going to slip off schedule a bit. We’re probably going to have to take a skip month, in addition to the standard one we take after every arc, and we hope our readers are understanding about it. We want to keep the quality up, and I’d rather skip a month than tread water with some useless fill-in. So again, thanks in advance for your patience while Rob adjusts to these extraordinary changes in his life.
“Chew” #16, written by John Layman and illustrated by Rob Guillory, is currently on sale. Check back next month for another edition of “CHEW ON THIS,” and make sure to send us your questions!