Meet John Layman.
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 and artist Rob Guillory'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 column right here on Comic Book Resources!
Welcome to CHEW ON THIS, CBR's ongoing discussion of all things "Chew"-able. Following the release of every new issue (we swear!), we 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!"
This month, we return to the world of "Chew" in a major way and catch up on all the major mysteries that found complications as the book rounded out 2011. From the space-affected "Flambé" arc where mystery sky-writing turned Tony's world upside down in more ways than one to the just-launched "Major League Chew" story that sees a few old faces coming back with a vengeance, we cover it all. Below, Layman reveals the truth behind the food-based power of Tony's sister Toni as well as hints at the future for his daughter and the rogue FDA agent Mason Savoy – not to mention new details about characters old and new, the impact of the now absent sky writing and more "Chew"-able goodness!
CBR News: All right, John! We've got a lot of story to cover, and I wanted to start with the end of "Flambé." When we first talked about the arc, you referred to the story saying it was a "slow-burn reaction to the fire-writing, and how different people deal with this." Since then, we say Tony Chu face down a psychopathic teen, international mercenaries, a corrupt Area 51 scientist and a mad egg cult. Then the sky-writing disappeared! Overall, how much did society change over the course of that story? Is stuff just so messed up in the world of "Chew" that no matter what happens, crazy people will be out there flipping out?
John Layman: I think the major and most fundamental consequence that came out of the events of "Flambé" is that the FDA is no longer the most powerful law enforcement organization on the planet. I’m a firm believer that the public, and even more so the media, is unable to juggle more than one “big thing” at a time. A big cosmic event took the focus off the years-old bird flu epidemic, and both focus and power is off the FDA and onto NASA.
Of course, the more small-scale consequence is the FDA experiences some downsizing, and our lead character, Tony Chu, is transferred by his dick boss over to the parking enforcement division.
Issues of "Chew" have always been focused on complete stories even as they build part of a broader tapestry, but with "Flambé" I got the feeling that you really focusing less on arcs as we traditionally think of them in comics and looking more at all the strange things that ultimately hold this story together. What's the appeal of writing in that issue-by-issue style for you?
Funny, I tend to think of "Flambé" as more unified as Vol. 3, "Just Desserts," just as Vol. 2 seemed more linear and cohesive than Vol. 1. Perhaps because when I write these I think of it in terms of not just 5-issue arcs, but simultaneously as 10-issue arcs, so the end of every ten issues tends to be more climactic. As far as the issue-by-issue, I’m determined to make a book that discourages trade-waiting, where you can pick up any issue at any time and be able to jump right in (more or less) and get a complete story for your $2.99.
Let's catch up with our supporting cast in the wake of all these crazy changes. Everyone has known about Toni having some food powers for a while now, and in the case involving the rogue Area 51er, we got a taste (puns!) of what she can really do. This read to me as almost a precognitive ability, though how it specifically relates to her brother's power I can't quite connect. What can we assume about how Toni can see what's coming, and when will we see more of this in action?
Yeah, Twin Sister Toni is Cibovoyant, able to see the future from what she eats just as Twin Brother Tony is Cibopathic, able to see the past from what he eats. I got a big kick out of our flash-forward issue #27, as our first major introduction to a character who sees the future was to jump ahead and show the future. Not a lot of people got that, I think, but it amused me. She’ll be taking center stage for the sixth arc, issues #26-#30, "Space Cakes."
On the other side of the equation, Mason is continuing his...well, I don't want to say nefarious plans because he's fighting for humanity in his own way, but you get the idea. The biggest moment on this front was when he drank the blood of former FDA agent Migdalo who used his power to gain knowledge from eating to become a big fat cosmically enlightened blob. In tasting that knowledge Mason learned that the sky writing and the powers of our various cast members were related. Does anyone else have as good an understanding of all this as Mason at this point? How much does he even really get what's going on?
I think Mason has a better idea of what’s going on than any other member of our cast. That being said, his knowledge is still woefully incomplete. Mentoring somebody with a similar ability – or perhaps even a more powerful ability – is Mason’s best bet to speed along his investigation. Assuming it does not backfire on him, that is.
Speaking of people who know what's up, what's up with our Vampire-ish gentleman these days? We know he was heavily involved in the NASA shuttle disaster and that he's showing up in the next arc (thanks to the flash-forward publishing of issue #27!), but why has he receded a bit into the background during these current issues?
He definitely stays to the shadows, though we’ll see a hint of him in "Major League Chew," and even more of him the sixth arc, "Space Cakes." He won’t play a large role for a while, and then he will burst on the scene in a spectacular, grisly fashion.
One last major element touched upon in the arc that's not necessarily a character is the Gallsaberry, which converted a minor player in an earlier arc into a fanatical cult leader. I think at this point, it's safe to assume that the Gallsaberry is maybe our one tangible connection between whatever cause the space fire and the powers of our cast. Are there any other elements to the broader mythology we haven't been introduced to yet?
There is one other major element we’ll see, more of a re-introduction than an actual introduction, but we’re not going to see that until after #30, our halfway point. And, of course, the Gallsaberry still has a significant role to play.
On to "Major League Chew!" With issue #21, we start with Tony getting "fired" from the FDA and end with him realizing that maybe getting shifted off his longtime beat wasn't the worst thing that could happen to him. What's your view on how you treat your characters? Do they get a brief reprieve from terrible shit because you want them to have one or only because it make the bad stuff that much worse when it hits?
I think #21 is as close to a happy story as Tony’s gonna get, except for maybe #11. Things are gonna get very dark for him this arc, and then he’ll be sidelined for a while, so I think it’s fair to say this is a very bleak part of Tony’s life. And, yes, that brief bit of happiness is only going to make the subsequent darkness that much more terrible.
That said, it seems that no matter what job Tony gets stuck in, he puts himself into the more dangerous, more high profile cases. On the whole, do you view his character as someone who's genuinely good even when it hurts him?
Actually, I don’t think of Tony as "good" at all. I think of him as sorta a dick. He’s only got one friend, most of his family hates him, he’s a distant, deadbeat dead, and he’s in the first normal relationship he’s had in years, maybe ever. So he’s not so much good as relentless dedicated to his job. You probably wouldn’t want to hang out with Tony, but if you need a detective, there is nobody more obstinate and determined as him.
I will say that I love Tony's new boss – especially the name Marshall Mello. Is there some metaphorical lesson we should be taking in a comic where the ass hole boss is named after a healthy fruit and the nice one is named after sugary fluff?
Well, everybody in "Chew" has a food name. EVERYBODY. By issue #60 I imagine it’s going to be hell, because it already trips me up, coming up with new ones. As far as Applebee, though, I tend to think of him as based on a horrible chain restaurant more than a healthy fruit.
Meanwhile, Colby seems less that enthused about his new position. How connected will he stay to Tony as they remain apart on the job?
Destiny is pulling these two apart. They’ll be partners again someday, but it won’t be a while.
In issue #22, we pick up Olive's kidnapping at Savoy's hands in a big way. I wanted to start with Caesar's role in all this. To date, our man has been very true to Mason, but he also seems a lot more sympathetic to Tony. Is there a chance his allegiance may ultimately break as this story goes along – particularly since he's taking all the crap cases these days?
There will be a few allegiances that switched in the next ten to 20 issues. Some will be more devastating than others.
Olive, of course, is writing the rulebook herself. The real intriguing element to her part in this new story is how her power seems to rely on smell more so than taste. That's a pretty significant change than most of the folks we've seen so far. What can we take from that? Is there a chance that there are powers inherent in the other senses as well, or will the taste buds and the olfactory reign supreme?
There are more powers to be introduced, but "Chew’s" focus will always be FOOD-based powers more than sense-based powers. "Chew" #24 will introduce a Xoxoscalpere – "able to sculpt chocolate – and only chocolate – with such accuracy and verisimilitude that anything he crafts can exactly mimic its real-life counterpart."
Finally, we've got Tony, Amelia's ex-boyfriend Dan and the real mystery of this story involving a dead baseball team. We saw Dan creeping around Amelia in the last arc, so I assume you've been planning on this for a while. What's the draw to a sports-themed story in Tony's world, and why is now the time for these particular chickens to come home to roost?
Actually, Dan’s had very brief appearances in #13, #14 and #19. One of the benefits to having "Chew" mapped out as specifically as I have is that I’ve planted certain character at early points that you won’t realize upon first reading. In fact, between Rob’s many Easter Eggs and the various planted seeds, I hope that every time people reread "Chew" they find something new, and that they reread it fairly regularly in order to do that very thing.
As to what Dan is up to, and the "Major League Chew" storyline as a whole, that bring from one of those "what if" scenarios when thinking up Tony’s powers. I’ve never written a sports themed story, and I’m not a fan of any sports, so I think this is probably as close as I will ever get.
"Chew" #22, written by John Layman and illustrated by Rob Guillory, is currently on sale, and issue #23 hits comic shops on January 18. Stay tuned for more CHEW ON THIS later this month! And make sure to send us your questions!