When "The Walking Dead" #63 hits stores this week from Image Comics, the zombies won't be the only creatures in the book with dangerous appetites - they'll be joined by a decidedly more alive and gainfully employed flesh-eater by the name of Tony Chu.
The first issue of John Layman and Rob Guillory's Image series "Chew" will be reprinted alongside the Robert Kirkman black-and-white horror comic as a special flipbook at no additional cost to "Walking Dead" fans. "Chew" #1 has already sold out in its first and second print runs, and a third is on the way. There are copies of the issue available for surprisingly high prices on eBay and elsewhere online. Truly, the series is shaping up to be Image's next breakaway hit, leaving one to wonder: did the publisher have any idea how hungry fans would be for "Chew?"
"Well, we thought it would do well and we knew it was a strong book, but I don't think anyone imagined it was going to catch fire as quickly it has," Image Comics Publisher Eric Stephenson revealed to CBR News. "The initial orders were actually a little disappointing, so it was one of those things where we were just very anxious for people to read it. We felt like the book would start to build from that point. Speaking for just myself - and I'm very cautious, very conservative when it comes to my expectations - I felt it was a great book that stood a strong chance of building a solid audience over time. It seemed like the sort of thing that would develop really positive word of mouth over a few issues, so I'm really pleasantly surprised that happened sooner than I was expecting."
"Chew" is the story of an FDA agent who solves crimes by gleaning telepathic information from every single food product he eats, including human flesh - but that's not the only standout feature that the book has to offer. "Chew" benefits from the interplay between characters like Detective Tony Chu and his boss Mason Savoy (also a Cibopath, or food-mind-reader) courtesy of John Layman's writing, as well as the finely crafted illustrations and panel work from artist Rob Guillory. It also doesn't hurt that Chu's bizarre powers exist on the backdrop of an equally bizarre world where chicken consumption has been criminalized due to an Avian Flu pandemic.
"I remember John giving me the pitch for this and it was like, 'Chicken prohibition? Sold!'" Stephenson recalled. "There just isn't anything else like 'Chew,' and anytime a book can stand out from everything else on the racks, I think you have a real shot at success. Plus, John does good work. We'd worked with John a few years back on a miniseries called 'Puffed' and that was fantastic, really funny. John's a great writer with a pretty unique perspective on things. He's a wonderfully twisted guy, and I think his slightly off-kilter sensibilities make whatever he writes worth reading."
"Right from the start, there was a lot of humor in the book," Stephenson continued. "There are obviously some very dark elements to the story, but John wasn't approaching it like - there was this show back in the '90s called 'Millennium' that dealt with a police detective with psychic powers, a detective called Frank Black who would have these horrific visions, and that was a really grim show -- probably too grim, really, because it wasn't on very long. John could have gone that route with 'Chew,' but instead he's taken something that could have been very grisly and made it a bit more accessible, just by the tone of his writing."
Now that the word is out and the results are in on "Chew," what's the atmosphere like around Image headquarters and throughout the Image community? "I think everyone's very happy for John and Rob," said Stephenson. "Obviously, we want every book to succeed in some way, but there are any number of great books that never find the audience they deserve, whether they're published by Image or someone else. The best comics aren't always the best sellers, just as the best films don't always attract the biggest crowds and so on. There have been a few instances where we've launched books we all felt were amazing and nothing happened. It's the most difficult thing, really, because even if you understand that you can't always marry quality with commercial success, it can seem like a failure, no matter how good the book is. It can be heartbreaking. But yes, we're all very excited for John and Rob, very proud of them. They've put a lot of work into the book and instead of getting the equivalent of a blank stare, people are actually paying attention to what they've done, so that's quite cool."
Eric Stephenson said that Layman and Guillory are both excited about the success of the series to date, though "relieved" might be a more accurate word to describe their current emotional state. "John's a really humble guy, so it's not like he's climbing onto his roof to beat his chest and howl about how fantastic it all is. He's really modest and the sense I get is that he's just very happy people want to read the story he set out to tell. Nobody wants to toil away on something for months and months only for it to go unnoticed, so it's a bit of a relief. And John has a lot of stories he wants to tell about Tony Chu and this bizarre world he inhabits, so I think a big part of that relief is that he won't have to stop before he gets to explore this character and this world as fully as he'd like."
Prospective fans that have yet to discover "Chew" will get their chance to bite the bait when the first issue is reprinted in "The Walking Dead" #63. Pairing the two books seemed natural to Image from both a business and creative standpoint. "It's pretty simple, really. 'The Walking Dead' reaches a wider audience and we wanted to expose 'Chew' to as many readers as possible," Stephenson explained. 'The Walking dead' is not only our best-selling book, but 'Chew' seemed like something that might appeal to its readership. They both deal with somewhat uncomfortable subject matters and more directly they're the only two books we publish that regularly involved the consumption of human flesh. 'The Walking Dead' is obviously more extreme on a certain level. It's a very uncompromising book, much darker in tone. They're both pretty macabre, though, so it seemed like a good match."
When Eric Stephenson puts it that way, it makes one wonder: just what is it about these dark, macabre themes found in "Chew" and "Walking Dead" that resonate so strongly with readers? "Well, it's the morbidity of it all, isn't it?" he offered. "If you look at things on TV and the number of shows that deal with murder investigations, things like 'CSI' or 'Homicide' or whatever, if you look at the fact that over 31 million people watched the Michael Jackson memorial or the way people react whenever someone of note dies, it seems pretty obvious that our society has a genuine fascination with this stuff. There seems to be a pattern there, you know? Whether it's zombies or killers or bizarre deaths, there's a morbid fascination with death and, more specifically, how it relates to our lives, what we can learn about the living from the dead."
Despite the signs of promise it's showing so far, "Chew" is not the first bit of proof that comic book readers are looking for more than just standard superhero fare, but it's definitely another notch in a continuing list of titles that fans look towards as an alternative to mainstream stories. "I think there are always readers looking for something different," Stephenson stated. "That's how 'Bone' took off. That's what made 'Strangers in Paradise' a success. 'Y: The Last Man,' 'Transmetropolitan,' 'Preacher,' 'Hellboy,' 'Criminal,' 'Mouse Guard,' 'The Walking Dead.' I think, years from now, when overviews are done of the best comics, it's going to be the non-superhero books that hold up best.
"And I say that as someone who absolutely adores a well-told superhero story. But there are so many superhero books out there and so many of them are just mining the same seam. And at a certain point, you get tired of reading comics with Norman Osborn in them, you know? A lot of the tried-and-true titles you're referring to, for all the craft the writers and artists bring to those books, they read less like stories and more like marketing exercises. Some people respond to that and enjoy that sort of thing, but I really do think there's a readership out there that wants something different. I think people do tire of repetition. Not everybody wants half a dozen comics about the same character or the same group of characters. I don't think it's a coincidence that a lot of these more unique books tend to come along at times when the market is saturated with a lot of similar product."
For now, it looks like that very market will be a happy place for "Chew" if the book continues to perform as it has. "We increased the print run on 'Chew' #2, not just because the first issue sold out, but also because initial orders actually increased from #1 to #2. Orders have gone up again on #3, even more dramatically than they did on the second issue, so we're definitely going to be adjusting the print run accordingly," Stephenson confirmed. "Knowing John and knowing a bit about what he has in store for the book, I think 'Chew' has the potential to enjoy a really healthy run."
"Chew" #1 will be reprinted in a special flipbook edition of "The Walking Dead" #63, on sale this week from Image Comics. "Chew" #3 hits stands August 5.