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 new monthly column right here on Comic Book Resources!
CBR News is proud to announce the launch of "Chew On This," where we'll be discussing all things "Chew"-able. Following the release of every new issue, we'll 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!"
For this inaugural edition, CBR spoke with Layman about the book's origins, its success thus far and where things are headed in future issues. Plus, check out an exclusive first look at pages from "Chew" #11, in stores on Wednesday!
CBR News: John, thanks for kicking off the first ever "Chew on This" with us here at CBR! As good a place to start as any is the beginning -Â for the folks at home who haven't been reading the series, who and what is "Chew" all about?
John Layman: "Chew" is the story of Tony Chu, a federal agent with "cibopathic" powers, able to get psychic impressions from the things he eats. That means he can eat an apple and tell what orchard it was grown at or when it was harvested -Â or he can go to a crime scene and nibble on a murder victim to figure out whodunit.
"Chew" #11, in stores this Wednesday
Explaining Tony's power is the quickie hook for the book, but it's set against a more complex backdrop. This book is set in a near future where millions of people have died as the result of a bird flu, and the government responded by instituting a chicken prohibition. Tony works for the FDA, which, after the prohibition was instituted, became the most powerful law enforcement agency on the planet.
Even though this is Tony's story, he's not the only character in this world with some unusual powers at his disposal - there are other cibopaths, cibolocutors, saboscrivners, far off alien worlds and even a kinda-sorta vampire. Can you talk a bit about this mad world that you've constructed here?
"Chew" is a very food-centric book, and nearly all the major characters and storylines have to do with food in some way. One of the questions I get the most frequently, so I might as well get it out of the way now, is "How did you come up with 'Chew?'" The answer is it was a lot of different ideas that did not seem sustainable as a series. The idea of a chicken prohibition was funny, but did not seem to have any more legs than the typical Saturday Night Live sketch. Ditto the idea of the food critic able to write about food so accurately you could taste her reviews as you read them.
But when I realized that all these ideas were united by a common theme - food - and not only that, a theme that is universal to everybody, all these ideas sorta coalesced into what became a very rich universe...and more ideas are popping up all the time.
Overall, this book is a mix of graphic crime drama shenanigans and the ins and outs of mastication. Do you ever get queasy thinking up the crimes Tony has to solve? What's the grossest thing on the page or off that you've ever thought up while making the book?
Yeah, there was one idea I had about Tony eating a used booger-filled Kleenex. I just could not do it. I gag even thinking about it!
Your partner-in-crime on "Chew" is Rob Guillory. How did you guys hook up for this book? In your mind, what is it about Rob's style that works so well on a series like "Chew?"
Rob was working on a Toykopop book with Dynamite/DC writer Brandon Jerwa, which got scuttled. I was looking for an artist, and it was important to me I find somebody kinda light and fun. 'Chew' deals with a lot of ugly subject matter, but I wanted to create a book that I wanted to read, and one of my major complaints is that too many comics take themselves far too seriously. I wanted an artist who would keep the book fun, even when you are reading all this gross, stomach-turning stuff - and Rob totally fit the bill. With another artist, I suspect "Chew" would have come and gone by now, but as it is, the book is very accessible, because it is icky fun.
"Chew" has been kicking butt and taking names, both critically and commercially, since launching a year ago. In your experience talking with fans, fellow creators and other devourers of "Chew," does there seem to be any one key ingredient for why "Chew" is striking such a note within the comics community? Maybe a better way of looking at it is, what keeps this book fresh and appealing for yourself?
I have no idea why "Chew" seems to have connected to as many people as it did. I thought a few like-minded people would dig it, as a cult thing, but I never expected it to be any sort of "hit," and still can't completely understand it. I'm just grateful Rob and I are going to be able to tell the complete story we want to tell - we foresee it going about 60 issues.
As for what keeps it fresh, as you will see, particularly in issue #15, we're not going to be keeping things the same, and readers should never get comfortable. We're working toward a definite conclusion, which I know, and things will constantly be changing in this book.
This week brings "Chew" #11 to comic shops, kicking off a brand new arc titled "Just Desserts." Before we dive into that, catch us up a bit - we know there have been a few key twists and turns that have brought Tony to his current status in the FDA. What are some of the essential bits of information we need to remember from the previous arcs, "Taster's Choice" and "International Flavor," as we head into this latest story?
Tony's developed a lot in the last 10 issues. He did not have a lot of personality, especially in the first arc, and that's intentional. This is a guy that keeps to himself, who internalizes everything, and who has a hair trigger temper. It takes a while to get to know him. But by now we've met some of Tony's family and friends, and he's even taking steps toward getting a girlfriend. This arc, "Just Desserts," delves into his personal life more so than the previous arcs. Thematically, it is about partnerships, both personal and professional.
Readers are getting an early look here at the first nine pages of "Chew" #11 - and from looks alone, this is an issue packed with cavemen, murder mysteries and even some good old fashioned (and blood-covered) romance. What can you tell us about what to expect from this issue and how it sets the table for the new arc?
It's Tony's first date with the gal he's had his eye on since issue #3, food reporter Amelia Mintz. She's uncovered a story about a food club that commits crimes in order to procure the rarest [types] of meats. For instance, when a wooly mammoth is dug up in Siberia and sent to a lab, these rich weirdos commit whatever crime they have to in order to procure the meat, and twice a year they have a feast with all these crazy extinct foodstuffs. Tony and Amelia infiltrate this club, and how this issue ends sorta sets things up for Tony and Amelia's relationship in the issues to come.
You've got a comic in "Chew" that has a definite larger arc and world that's being built up left and right while we also get to see some compact, bite-sized mysteries along the way. How do you balance those two sides over the life of the comic, and which category does "Just Desserts" fit into, if it fits in one at all?
"Chew" walks an interesting line, because we try to make every issue its own self-contained case, while at the same time being part of a larger story. "International Flavor" felt a little more linear than "Taster's Choice," if only because "Taster's Choice" bounced around issue to issue while "International Flavor" saw Tony stuck on a Polynesian island for most of the arc. "Just Desserts" is somewhere in between, and in many ways it centers upon the reappearance of now-rogue FDA agent Mason Savoy, though this meeting will not be what the reader's expect or, possibly, even want. But the fallout to this meeting sets up the conclusion of the fourth arc, issues #16-20, which I am writing right now, entitled "Flambe."
We're going to be opening up "Chew on This" for fan questions starting with next month's column. Got any comments, requests, suggestions or what-have-you's to any readers who plan on tossing some questions your way?
It's pronounced "See-Bo-Path." And don't ask me "Why beets?" I'm sick of that question. Other than that, anything goes!
"Chew" #11, written by John Layman and illustrated by Rob Guillory, goes on sale this Wednesday.