CBR News: For the readers out there who haven’t read or heard of “Chew” just yet, would you mind offering your take on the basic premise of the series?
John Layman: “Chew” is the story of Tony Chu, a federal agent with the ability to get psychic impressions from what he eats, and as a consequence he has to eat all manner of horrible things in order to solve crimes. It is a food-centric book, and most of the storylines and characters in some way have a strong connection to some aspect of food, cooking or eating. It’s set in an alternate near-future where a bird-flu pandemic killed millions of people, and the government has instituted a Chicken Prohibition as a result – actually, a prohibition on all form of poultry.
In terms of storytelling, visual and character potential, what appealed to you both about the idea of creating a comic book world around a cibopath such as Tony Chu?
Layman: I don’t know. It was not so much cibopathy – the ability to get psychic impressions from what is ingested – that is the central aspect of the book, so much as food itself. I wanted a platform to be able to tell a bunch of different sorts of stories, and it seems that food is so central to human existence that it could be a springboard for all manner of stories.
Rob Guillory: I just liked the idea of defining our own icons within the mythology of the series, and being able to build this from the ground up gave me total freedom to integrate my visual sensibilities into the backbone of the story. We really did have a blank slate to scrawl whatever we wanted onto it, without having to answer to anyone. It was very liberating and very fun.
What did you expect or hope that readers might enjoy about the premise?
Guillory: As an artist and as a fan of the book myself, I really hoped they’d appreciate the amount of originality we were putting into it, and that they wouldn’t just write us off as “weird.”
Layman: I didn’t expect readers would enjoy it at all. I expected it to flop, or make a tiny ripple in that vast ocean that is comic book. I wrote it for myself, figuring a select few weirdos would “get it” and it would have some small cult appeal. I never, ever, ever thought it would be received with the amount of enthusiasm that it has. I’m very grateful, but even today still surprised.
Which came first, the cibopath concept or Tony Chu?
Layman: The power came first, and Tony sprung out of exploring that personality. The natural response to that “power” is not to enjoy it – seeing cows slaughtered whenever he eats a hamburger or whatnot – so the character is likely to be a bit introverted and tortured. Probably a bit of a loner, probably with some anger issues. Tony is the result of what I think is the normal response to this strange ability of cibopathy. Some of the other characters introduced in the book are more of an explanation of the abnormal response.
The fact that Tony can get psychic impressions from food he eats is only one of the weird elements at play in “Chew.” There are far-off planets, widespread avian flu pandemics and/or government conspiracies, and more. What made you guys decide to set Tony’s crazy power in an equally crazy world, as opposed to having his ability being the only crazy element in an otherwise “normal” world?
Layman: It was not intentional. I didn’t set out to create something purposefully weird. In fact, after my previous two creator-owned projects “Puffed” and “Armageddon & Son” came out, I set out to do something a little more commercial, and when I was done developing it, it was about cannibals and bird flu and aliens and government conspiracies. I sort of felt like I could not do something creator-owned and commercial if I tried – and then, strangely, “Chew” surprised everybody by succeeding commercially.
Rob, on a visual level, what are some of your biggest challenges and greatest pleasures in illustrating “Chew?”
Guillory: My biggest challenge is simply topping whatever I did in the previous issue. And this is mostly a self-imposed challenge. I find, because the book’s got such a spontaneous feel where anything can happen, I don’t really feel like there are any expectations on me, other than my own. I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that I’m relatively unknown as an artist, too. People don’t really know what to expect from me artistically, so I’m free to really play around and try new things.
As for why I love drawing the book, John’s given me a great deal of trust since this all began. I get the freedom to really do whatever feels right to me, and that’s very rare in comics. I feel like we’re creating this world together, and that keeps me very invested and very happy. Plus, every issue is something new. One issue, I’m drawing vampires. The next, I’m drawing ninjas or aliens. The diversity keeps me on my toes.
One of my favorite visual elements in the series is the sporadic “origin stories” littered throughout the issues – the “meet so-and-so” scenes. Can you describe your methods and goals when crafting these scenes?
Guillory: Yeah, the origin pages are an ingenious device that John came up with before I ever came on board. For them, my goal is the same as John’s: to sum up everything the reader needs to know in a very succinct fashion. They’re very simple and to the point, down to the format, which is always the same. I think it’s the simplicity of it that works so well.
Layman: The “origin pages” were something I came up with, really as a vehicle to deliver a large amount of information to the reader that needed to be delivered in as clear a manner as possible. I’m dealing with some abilities that are, at least as far as I know, original – like cibopathy, or Amelia Mintz’ saboscrivener ability, the ability to write about food so vividly and accurately a reader actually gets the sensation of taste when reading her work. My thought was, “Why beat around the bush?” Just lay it out there and then do it in a visually consistent format so the readers get used to the delivery of this type of information. Plus, it makes for a good “hook.”
Let’s discuss Savoy, Tony’s former partner and mentor who’s also a cibopath. Was it always your intention to reveal him as an adversary to Tony or did it develop over the course of plotting the story?
Layman: That was there all along, and a funny thing was, it was the high-concept of the first story arc, but I could not reveal it without ruining the ending: “What if Clarice found out she was partnered with Hannibal Lecter?”
Do you wish you’d kept Savoy’s true nature a secret for longer, or was it a necessary move towards the future of “Chew?”
Layman: No. There is plenty of stuff coming out, and while I could have drawn it out longer, it would have just pushed back other stuff I want to get to. I have no intention of treading water, and “Chew” readers, over the course of a few story arcs, will learn that the status quo is that there is no status quo in “Chew.” Change will come fast, and often.
Rob, there’s a visual trick that some people haven’t noticed on the cover of issue #5 – namely, the reveal that the severed ear on Savoy’s plate belonged to Tony. How did you come up with the design for this cover?
Guillory: Initially, John came to me with the idea of putting Tony and Savoy on opposite ends of a dinner table, with the ear between them. I liked the idea, but it ended up feeling a bit crowded and even more obvious than what I ended up with. Putting the reader in Tony’s shoes on the cover, and putting his reflection in the mirrors seemed like a very subtle solution. I think it was a success. A lot of readers didn’t really notice the subtleties of the cover until after they read the book, which was pretty cool.
It occurs to me that Savoy is not just a cibopath, but he’s also a very large cibopath. How did the design for Savoy come about? Should we maybe get the impression that he enjoys the psychic energy he gets off of eating? Were there other reasons you wanted to give him this stature?
Guillory: When we first began working on “Chew,” John gave me a few visual references to consider when designing the characters. For Chu, it was Ken Leung, [who plays] Miles on “Lost.” And for Savoy, it was Orson Welles. From the start, I loved the dynamic that comes in the huge size difference between Savoy and Chu. Chu’s kind of a squirrely, tiny guy, kind of Peter Parker-esque, who really gets no joy from his “gift.” And his size makes him a serious underdog, which makes him lovable, or at least relatable.
But for Savoy, I wanted to take the really dignified, overly-proper look of Welles and mix it with a really imposing, scary physical presence that dwarfed Tony and made Savoy way more of a threat. I wanted the reader to wonder, when Savoy eventually did turn, how the hell could Tony stand a chance against this guy? Plus, there’s a humorous side to Savoy’s design with the huge belly, which fits with the overall tone of the book.
Going forward, what can we expect from Savoy and his presence in the series?
Guillory: Visually, I think Savoy’s turned the corner from being a gentleman to being just plain scary, and I think he’ll have a way more foreboding vibe when he returns.
Layman: Savoy is my favorite character, and it was a real challenge to keep him out of the second story arc. He’ll be back soon enough, though.
How was Amelia Mintz developed? Like Tony, was she built around the idea of the saboscrivner, or did the character come first?
Layman: Amelia and her ability existed so early in the development of “Chew,” I honestly can’t say which came first.
Guillory: Design-wise, I liked the idea of drawing a female lead that wasn’t the typical boob-tastic comic stereotype. There are different types of “sexy,” and Amelia’s is definitely a quirky one.
Would you classify Amelia as an important character to keep in mind? Clearly Tony would say so, but should readers expect to see her again soon?
Layman: In issue #3, a funny little guy in a Hawaiian shirt was determined to show food critic Amelia Mintz what he thought was a new, undiscovered fruit. At the end of that issue, Amelia is seen flying off with that guy. It just so happens that the second story arc in “Chew” #6-10, “International Flavor,” centers around this fruit. So, yeah, Amelia’s return is absolutely in the cards.
John, one of the otherworldly aspects of the book I particularly enjoyed was the idea behind Altilis-738, which has sophisticated life but seemingly got zapped into nothingness at the end of issue #4. Will you return to this idea eventually? Or was it more the idea of the planet getting destroyed – that there’s some sort of moral to be gleaned there – rather than a specific plot thread we can expect to be picked up on later?
Layman: A reviewer of issue #4 knocked the issue because he could not understand if the ending was an ironic punch line or an important plot point, to which I say, “Why can’t it be both?” The less obtuse answer is that there is indeed a larger story that will play itself out throughout “Chew,” and the destruction of Altilis-738 is definitely a part of it.
Clearly, fans have latched onto this series. Did you ever imagine it would find the audience that it has? Are you more conscious of the audience now when working on “Chew,” or do you try not to let it inform your work?
Guillory: Well, I had faith that if we worked hard and put our all into it, eventually – over a few issues or so – people would notice us and appreciate the quality of the work. But I never could have dreamed that we’d be embraced the way we have. It’s surreal to this day, and I’m grateful to the readers for giving us a shot.
Layman: There was some initial shock at having the book blow up so huge. I mean, I’d been a virtual unknown for so long, and the success of “Chew” was such an overnight sort of thing that I had to take a few days off to really process it in the beginning. Now I’ve learned to be appreciative and just not take it too seriously. I do feel an amount of debt to the readers that really drives me to make every issue a gift to them, which is a good thing, I think. If anything, it just pushes me to improve, but there’s no pressure.
Looking ahead, what can readers expect from the next arc, “International Flavor”?
Guillory: I’m a huge fan of John’s work, and I’m blown away at how he’s pieced together the second arc. “Taster’s Choice” was literally that: a sampler of all the different aspects of the story. “International Flavor” is way more linear, but still episodic.
Layman: “International Flavor” feels more linear, if only because it takes place in a shorter time period, and most of the action takes place on a remote Polynesian Island. However, like “Taster’s Choice,” each issue is its own self-contained case, and very different from the previous issue.
What can you say about the return of John Colby, Tony’s old partner?
Layman: Savoy’s absence from the book after issue #5 created a huge void, just because he is such a big personality in the story. Tony Chu is the star of the book, but he’s a bit of a dud. [It’s] sort of like how Jerry Seinfeld was the least funny of the quartet that comprised his show, but he was the glue that held the story together. Tony needed to be paired with a personality as big and bombastic as Savoy, and yet is completely different. Colby definitely fills that roll, and he’s a blast to write.
Guillory: I love Colby. Drawing him again brought me back to issue #1 all over again. Very excited about him and the introduction of many other characters – namely, the third Cibopath.
Anything else either of you want to add about the past, present and future of Chew?
Guillory: Just that I want the fans to know how thankful I am for their support. John and I are dedicated to putting out the best book on the racks, mainstream or otherwise, and they’re going to love “International Flavor.”
Layman: Yeah, what Rob said. Thanks to everybody who’s given this book a shot, readers, retailers and reviewers. And thanks in advance to everybody that hasn’t read the book yet, but plans on picking up the trade. Rob and I are doing our best to deliver a monthly dose of originality and surprises in a package so satisfying you should not want to wait for the trade – but if you do, that’s okay too.
The “Chew, Vol. 1: Taster’s Choice” trade paperback, which collects issues #1-5 of the series, arrives in stores on November 25, 2009. The second arc, “International Flavor,” begins with “Chew” #6, available on the same date.