Greetings, Maniacs, and welcome to another edition of The No-Fly Zone—Mania’s weekly space for the many and varied corners of comicdom. Here at the NFZ, we leave the superhero set to our friends over at Comicscape. We like everything else—science fiction comics, horror, romance, biography, noir, and even offbeat superheroes like Kick-Ass. But, if it’s tights, fights, and sprawling shared universes, we leave it to Chad Derdowski over at Comicscape. Someone has to buy all those variants and crossovers.
This week, the NFZ threw a few questions at artist Rob Guillory about his collaboration with writer John Layman on Chew, which hits the shops from Image today. Chew starts off with a really original premise. In the near future, the government has outlawed chicken after a bird flu pandemic kills millions. Consequently, a black market for poultry has arisen, and the FDA has become a law enforcement agency. Tony Chu is a good cop, but he has a talent that both assists his investigations and makes his life miserable—he’s a cibopath, which means that he can experience the memories of anything he eats. If he eats an apple, he gets to feel pesticide. If he eats a cow, it’s a slaughterhouse in his mind. There are only a few other cibopaths, but one of them is Mason Savoy of the FDA. Savoy recruits Chu out of Philaphelphia P.D. for a shot at professional and culinary glory as the cold case guy for the FDA. It’s a great gig, if Chu can get past eating pieces of murder victims and dodging the swords of chicken-pushing Yakuza. It’s damn hard to be a cibopath. Chew deals with some pretty icky subject matter, but Layman and Guillory lighten the air with a comedic edge that makes it all a lot easier to digest. Rob Guillory was kind enough to answer a few questions as Chew hits shops.
No-Fly Zone: Give us a little history and background on Chew. How did you and John Layman come to work together?
Rob Guillory: Chew is John's brainchild, first and foremost. I'm pretty sure he came up with the idea after a long herb binge, though. I came along some time after he'd given birth to the idea, when he was looking for the right artist to bring this twisted thing to life. It just so happened that several months before, I'd worked with a buddy of John's—writer Brandon Jerwa—on a doomed Tokyopop project. Apparently, Brandon thought I'd be a perfect fit for Chew, even though I'd never really done anything like it. John contacted me shortly after, sent me this crazy-ass pitch, and I loved it. The rest it history, really.
NFZ: Chew begins with a really intriguing premise. As a cibopath, Tony Chu could solve almost any crime with just a bit of evidence to munch on, but it means eating a lot of strange stuff. Was there any basis for the idea of cibopathy or is it completely made up?
RG: If there is a basis, John ain't telling even me, and I draw the damn thing. From what he tells me, he just had a lot of food-based stories, so I assume Tony Chu's ability came from another one of those.
NFZ: Chicken is outlawed in the world of Chew, thus creating a black market and making a lot of average people into criminals. Can you comment on the parallel between this and drug laws in the United States, or am I completely reading into it?
RG: Well, I could certainly see where that parallel could be made, and I wouldn't put it past John to have that in mind when really setting in stone how the government in the world of Chew reacts to certain catastrophes. In this case, however, I think the inspiration was the US government's reactions (some would say overreactions) to something as horrible as 9-11, or more recently the swine flu madness. Without getting political, I think it's fair to say that the government has overreacted once or twice in its history, so something like the prohibition of a food isn't that over the top, I think.
NFZ: Chew is written and drawn with a comedic edge to it. Given the grisly nature of the story, it could easily be a horror title, but the lighthearted tone and art makes the premise a little easier to—-god help me—swallow. Did you go out of your way to make the book look a little more cartoonish for that reason?
RG: From the jump, it was John's plan to counterbalance the twisted, sometimes grotesque nature of this subject matter with a lighter visual style that made it more palatable. I think it's brilliant, and it works perfectly for me. I'm a huge stand-up comedy fan, and I think humor bleeds into my work in a cool way that makes people chuckle, myself included.
Really, I just want to bring a sense of quality and fun back to comics that I think has been squashed in recent years with all the gloom, doom, and superhero rapists that a lot of the mainstream guys have been shilling. Fuck that. Comics are supposed to be fun. And we're bringing it back in a way that people have never seen before—ironically, via some pretty dark subject matter.
NFZ: Can you explain your collaboration process with John Layman? Does he just give you scripts, or do you have more input on the initial story? Or, do you work from plots with the dialogue dropped in after?
RG: Layman is a pro a thousand times over, and an all-around good guy. He gives me a tight script, heavy on description, but he’s loose enough to let me play and put my own spin on things. Everything's in there, including dialogue. I've worked on projects where the writer sends me dialogue-less scripts, and I just think it's kinda soulless. It's my job to nail the soul of the character down on every panel I draw, and that's impossible without it. John's dialogue is brimming with life, and it dictates the tone of everything I draw. It's a very organic process. His scripts inspire my drawings, which in turn inspire him to raise the bar on subsequent scripts. It’s very cyclical. And like I said, John's got a very broad, long-term plan for the book, so that's in place already. But I'm finding that we're very improvisational, and I love tossing ideas at him and playing devil's advocate. I'm a fan, after all.
NFZ: Chew takes place in a very fleshed out world—one in which bird flu has made chicken illegal (perhaps)—and then it throws an interesting story with Tony Chu on top of that, while managing to not be a tedious origin story. How do you guys balance the need to explain your world with the responsibility of telling a good story at the same time?
RG: We don't spend much time on exposition in Chew. We're very much a show-and-tell kind of comic. So, instead of spending page upon page explaining our world via flashback or whatever, we throw our character right into the mix, and the details of the comic's society are revealed as he lives his life in that world. It's way more fun and spontaneous that way, I think. Chew is a book where almost anything can happen, and one of the fun things is the process of revelation of the world it takes place in. There are so many layers to explore: an avian flu pandemic, a food psychic, a possible government conspiracy. There's a lot there that we'll be exploring just in the first five issues, not to mention the issues after.
NFZ: Tell us a little bit more about the visual development of Chew. If you have any early sketches you'd like to share, please do. Are there any approaches you abandoned, or did you go for the book's current look and feel from the start?
RG: Well, I'd experimented with a few "edgier" looks in the early stages of the book, but none of them really felt right to me or John. Really, this style that we settled on is just pure me. This is my natural visual vocabulary. This is how my mind works, put directly on the page, and it was really liberating when John just said, "Just do what you do." That just set me free, and it's been a blast ever since.
NFZ: Is Chew a miniseries or an ongoing title? If it's a mini, do you have plans for further volumes?
RG: The story has almost endless possibilities, so, barring the first five issues don't bomb, there will be more. We're thinking monthly from here on out, but again, it depends on us not losing our asses. But by issue four or five, I think we'll know.
NFZ: What other comic projects are you working on that we can look for?
RG: I've got a few personal projects that I'm working on in my spare time. But for the moment, Chew is a fulltime job since I'm doing all the art, including colors. It's a crazy, crazy ride, but I definitely have the best job on the planet.
NFZ: Anything else you'd like to add? Go nuts.
RG: Thanks to anyone who picks up the book. There's simply nothing like this on the shelves. John and I have really poured a whole lot of love into Chew, and we think you'll enjoy the ride.
Kurt Amacker is the writer of The No-Fly Zone, Mania’s weekly alternative comics column. He is also the author of the comic miniseries Dead Souls, published by Seraphemera Books. Dead Souls is available from the Seraphemera Books website, Amazon.com, and at comic shops everywhere. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.