When word hit that writer John Layman would be returning to monthly comics and on a creator-owned property for Image, the news was enough to make fans of twisted comics tales salivate with metaphorical hunger.
Of course, when they heard the pitch for Layman and artist Rob Guillory's June-debuting "Chew," the same readers probably lost their real appetites pretty quick.
"Chew" focuses on the stomach-turning adventures of Tony Chu, a federal agent who uses his powers as a Cibopath - one who gets psychic impressions from what he eats (i.e. murder victims) - to solve crimes in a possible future where massive Avian Flu deaths have made the Food and Drug Administration a more powerful government agency than the Department of Homeland Security.
And while Layman admitted to CBR that one hook could be enough, the combined craziness of "Chew" really gets his kettle boiling. "The cannibal cop aspect alone could probably sustain a series in and of itself, if I wanted to take a more conventional route," the writer explained. "But the back story is what really sets the imagination on fire. I suppose I was a little inspired by 'Y The Last Man,' taking one fantastic element and extrapolating real world consequences from it. If there was a bird flu tomorrow and the government outlawed poultry how would the world change? I mean, could you imagine life without fried chicken? What about Thanksgiving? What about religions that already disallow pork or beef? What happens when you take chicken out of the equation?"
Layman explained that eating made for the connective tissue that combined both Chu's bizarre powers and the world coping with an epidemic. "I had a few different ideas, and I realized at some of my favorite story ideas revolved around food, so 'Chew' is intended as a vehicle to tell these sorts of stories. The fact that Tony Chu is a federal agent who gets psychic impressions from what he allows me to tell these, as does the fact this is set in a post bird-flu world where the government has instituted a Poultry Prohibition. Certainly one part of [that societal change] is the criminal aspect. Where there is a desire for something, there will be someone to supply it. To quote a line from 'Chew' #1, which is itself a spin on another familiar line, 'If you outlaw chicken, then only outlaws have chicken.'"
Tony Chu gets drafted into service for the F.D.A. because of his unique abilities -Â a match that doesn't always fit -Â although the secrets behind his powers will initially take a back seat to his using of them. "We're not going to be dealing with origins for a while, though it's certainly something I'd like to tackle down the line," Layman said. "This book is a police procedural, with a larger overarching story that will become apparent over the course of the book. At least for now, the focus will be on cases."
As with any good detective series "Chew" will be driven by the personality of its leading man, who found his inspiration in a person many fans will be familiar with. "Well, I'm going to admit that Tony Chu is modeled after Ken Leung, who plays Miles on 'Lost' and was great on 'The Sopranos' and 'X3' and everything else I've seen him in," Layman confessed. "If there is ever a TV or movie version of 'Chew,' he's got exactly the right intensity for the part and is this great mix of engaging and appealing and likable, while being a little unlikable at the same time-just like Tony Chu, who's a guy a lot of other characters in the book regard as kind of a dick. At least, that's what his own brother thinks. And his partner."
Speaking of supporting cast, Layman promised that he and Guillory will be developing plenty of new players to help sweeten or sour Tony Chu's outlook on his task of taking a formaldehyde-filled bite out of crime. "You're going to meet a big mixture of characters, and all of them have a very different and distinct relationship with food. Tony's abrasive partner John Colby is a nonstop caffeine, tobacco, alcohol, sugar and junk food fiend, and will eat just about any crap he gets near, much to his partner's dismay-because Tony's can tell you exactly what's in that 7-11 hot dog or the old pot of three-day old coffee. Tony's brother is a TV celebrity chef, and a very vocal critic of the government's Poultry Prohibition, and he has no great love for Tony, so they butt heads a lot."
But not every character in the book will arrive only to torture Tony as everyday adversaries. A few key allies emerge early in the story as well. "When Tony joins up with the Feds in the first story arc of 'Chew,' he meets a mentor figure in Mason Savoy, who also has the power of Cibopathy," Layman revealed. "Mason has been doing the job for a while, and doesn't have the same resistance to it that Tony does.
"And of course there is the love interest. Her name is Amelia Mintz. She is newspaper food critic, and a Saboscrivner, which means she writes about food so accurately, so vividly and with such detail, you can actually taste the food as you read her reviews. Unfortunately, she's pretty down on the culinary world every since the institution of Prohibition, so she only reviews restaurants that get 'D' health ratings or worse. One of Tony's first assignments is to bring her in after half the city reads her latest restaurant review and gets food poisoning -Â and sets off an epidemic of projectile vomiting!
"You'll meet most every major player in the first arc," Layman revealed. "There is one glaring exception, the third known Cibopath, who is only alluded to in the first story arc. I know exactly when he will show up, and between Tony Chu, Mason Savoy, and the mystery third player, the third guy may be the most interesting of the three."
And while "Chew" will serve up not-so easily digestible murder mysteries each month, Layman promised a larger plan will present itself once readers get oriented to the unique taste of the series, particularly once Tony Chu steps outside his everyday stomping grounds. "Tony's office is in New York, but there is not going to be a single geographic focus. He'll go where his cases take him (which off course, allows for more story possibilities). The first story arc will see him in Philly, NY, DC, and to a joint US/Russian space observatory in the Arctic, of all places! There is going to be a lot of traveling in the book, globe hopping. In fact, the second story arc is called "International Flavor," and the majority of that story takes place outside the continental U.S."
As for what the detective will be eating along the way, John Layman kept his lips sealed, but needless to say it won't be anything on the menu at your local restaurant. "The stuff in the first story arc is pretty bad. But at the beginning of 'Chew' issue #6, Tony Chu is asked to eat the absolute most terrible, disgusting, miserable, awful thing a person can possibly eat. You know what I'm talkin' about!"
"Chew" #1 debuts this June from Image Comics.