If the title of the panel wasn't clue enough, writer John Layman set the tone for the conversation very early in his "Despair With Layman!" panel Saturday morning at WonderCon Anaheim. "I even have prizes for people... but if you ask me questions I hate, I'm not going to give you anything," he said before throwing the conversation out to the floor with "What should I talk about?"
The going concern for the panel soon morphed into the tale of Layman's career. "I was always in comics," recounting how he wanted to get into the practice of making funnybooks from back when he was a kid reading "Star Wars, "Rom" and "Micronauts" series. By 1991, he'd landed a job at a San Diego newspaper "in a Jimmy Olson capacity." When he wasn't edting copy or fetching coffee, Layman was able to write freelance articles about whatever comics-related culture he could convince the paper to cover, such as the "Spawn" animated series or the "Judge Dredd" movie.
As covering San Diego's Comic-Con became a regular part of his year – especially reporting on "the local angle" of business in the city area surrounding the convention – Layman soon came to know the people at Jim Lee's WildStorm studio. Eventually, they reached out and offered him an Assistant Editor gig. "It was terrible. It was a cut in pay. Our boss was a dick. It was miserable," he said, noting that he quit, went back to newspapers for a year before WildStorm called him back and offered for him to return as a full editor. He took the job to his chagrin, and went on to edit series like "The Authority," "Planetary" and others before he left again after DC Comics bought WildStorm.
"Things were so miserable in comics, but I kept getting offers to write video games," he said of how he continued on the path to writing his own stories. He wrote games ranging from "World Series of Poker" to "Metroid Prime." Meanwhile, he'd get intermittent work writing licensed comics or other small gigs at Marvel. Layman said his best work from this period is a series called "Bay City Jive." Not many have read the crime comedy mash-up as the writer signed over the rights to DC and the publisher has never shown interest in reprinting it.
"Right when I went freelance, what allowed me to write freelance was this Christian Apocalypse series called 'Left Behind,'" he said, explaining he was hired as an editor for a graphic novel adaptation of the terrible books. Layman decided to write the comic himself as the offer was only for back end royalties which no comics freelancer would sign up for. The graphic novel ended up being the second-highest selling comic of 2002, but it only sold to Christian bookstores. Still, the experience and the money it provided allowed Layman to do more of his own work, the first standout example of which was his Image comic "Puffed."
The writer recounted the origins of the one-shot story of a man trapped in a theme park dragon costume left for dead in the ghetto. Created with artist Dave Crossland, the story was a learning experience for Layman on how to best put together your own book. At the time, the writer had been hired by Cryptic Studios to work in their office turning Brian Michael Bendis' story into the final form of the proposed Marvel MMO. He and his wife moved to San Jose for the game job, but soon Marvel dropped out. Layman stuck with the gig as it became "Champions Online," allowing him to self-fund "Puffed's" creation.
"I learned early if you don't pay for an artist, you get what you paid for," he said of initially seeking out help and striking out. "Writing takes time, but art takes even more." Eventually, he was able to get a bunch of artists involved to deliver high quality work, even though he paid Frank Quitely for a cover with two cases of Twinkies.
"Puffed" was a comedy success at Image, and so Publisher-to-be Eric Stephenson prompted Layman to write a sequel. The resulting "Stay Puffed" took a character from the first story and sent him to the middle east, complete with a cover featuring Saddam Hussein. That led to a poor response from readers as the book was released in the early days of the Iraq War when patriotism was at an all-time high. "'Puffed' was great, but 'Stay Puffed' not so cool" was the most common response he'd hear, and Layman lamented losing a lot of money on the effort. Eventually, when opinions turned against the war and the Bush Administration, fans found the book in quarter bins too late.
Eventually, both "Puffed" and "Stay Puffed" were reprinted in a collection, but that was put out by IDW Publishing as then Image Publisher Eric Larsen wasn't into the project. "In most comic book companies there's at least one dick somewhere, but everyone at IDW is cool" he said of the company that helped establish himself as a writer. "I found my voice in comics with 'Scarface' [at IDW]," Layman said, explaining the movie adaptation was the place where, "I started talking to the audience and being really playful. There were no expectations. Nobody wanted a Scarface comic."
The pitch for "Chew," Layman's biggest success with artist Rob Guillory, was a story idea he had for years but was absolutely unable to sell to any publisher. "'Chew' took so long because everyone said no to it. It was like a six year germination period," the writer explained. He pitched the series mostly to DC's Vertigo imprint, saying, "Two people turned it down, and six people ignored me at Vertigo." Even after deciding to take matters into his own hands on the book, he still viewed the comic as being done in a more realistic style akin to "Y: The Last Man." But he now recognizes, "If Vertigo would have made it, it would have had a Vertigo style and lasted seven issues."
Luckily, Layman was turned on to artist Guillory when comic writer Brandon Jerwa introduced him to the penciler after they worked together on a killed Tokyopop project. "I wasn't thinking of something as flashy as the art now is for 'Chew,'" the writer explained. But he enjoyed Guillory's online portfolio and let the wild talents of the artist out after an early test run where he tried to emulate a more realistic style. Once the pair got on the same page, though, Layman drunkenly told Guillory the end of "Chew" – which he's had planned since he dreamt up the book – and now the artist is one of three people to have heard that story point.
The book landed at Image because Eric Stephenson offered to publish it if Layman could find an artist. This surprised the writer as he was calling Stephenson for advice on how to find someone to draw the book. He said the idea of a chicken flu concept for the book was timely when he started on the pitch, but it's also stayed oddly prescient as that scare was followed by swine flu. Layman even said a German milk scare led to some serendipitous mainstream press promotion there which built his readership in the country.
"Tony Chu is based on a guy named Tony that worked with my wife. He was very angry," laughed Layman when asked about what of his real life was worked into the book.
The proposed "Chew" TV series came up, and Layman noted, "Showtime turned us down after sitting on it forever... and not paying me yet." He added, "They announced it, then it took nine months to finalize the deal." After a string sets of writers ended with a script by Brian Duffield that the writer likes, the network said they would not make it for sure. "When we originally bought 'Chew,' we were 'Dexter.' Now we're 'Homeland'" was basically the explanation that was given to him.
Now, there is both a half hour script and a full hour script that could be shot as a TV show if Layman and his planned director can get another network interested in picking it up. But if the show doesn't come together, the writer isn't sweating it. He has other potential plans. "If it doesn't happen by 'Chew' #60, we'll just make it a cartoon," he said, noting this option also allowed heavier creative involvement from Guillory.
Coming up in the series, "Chew" #36 is the reverse of #27's flash forward, flashing back to actually be #28 1/2 – a lost story about Toni Chu. "#34 has a ton of crazy action" Layman said of a story involving the killer secret agent chicken Poyo. More one-shots with the character are on the way, including "Deep Space Poyo" and "Son of Poyo." There's also the possibility of "Barbarian Poyo." Also coming up in the series is a story of Sage Chu and her food power -- all the family's siblings have a food power of some sort. Don't expect all of Tony's family to become major players in the book. "Most of his family wants nothing to do with him."
Also on the way is the series' third Tarantino tribute cover in the form of a "Destroy Savoy" cover based off "Kill Bill."
Layman gave an immediate "Yes" to the idea that after "Chew" #60 is released, he could return to the world even though the series will be over.
Questions from the audience revealed certain things the writer doesn't like to talk about. "The question I hate is 'Where did you get your ideas?' I don't know," he joked. Asked about the titular theme of the panel, Layman said, "I despair often, which is mostly when deadlines are due."
Asked if he researches different crime or sci-fi ideas to help with his stories, he said no. "The only thing I research in 'Chew' is root words," he said of creating names like Cibopath to help define the different food powers.
As for the possibility of a "Chew" video game, Layman said he'd love to do a "Poyo" side-scroller in the vein of the "Usagi Yojimbo" mobile game that's now on the market. As for "Chew's" digital life, he said digital sales are a third of the print sales on new issues, even though Layman never wants to read comics on an iPad.
When inquired if being an editor first helped him develop as a writer, he explained, "I think I'm more realistic. I think my Batman shit is not a problem because I was an editor. You want changes? Cool. I know you have seven Batman books to get out." He added that learning how to do production tasks like lettering helped him know how to put out a book in a timely fashion. Layman also said he became great at stealing good scripting ideas from the likes of Joe Casey and Alan Moore when he'd read their drafts coming in to WildStorm.
His current run on "Detective Comics" for DC came up with the writer explaining his reasoning for taking the job was, "I'm [probably] never going to work for DC, and I'm never going to write Batman again."
Layman wrapped the proceedings announcing Image would publish a "Smorgasbord Edition" of "Chew" -- a massive hardcover like an Absolute Edition-- reprinting the first 20 issues for $100. It's an "all the works" presentation of the book expected to be available at this year's Comic-Con International.