Writer John Layman and artist Rob Guillory's ongoing series "Chew" is a juggernaut. The Image Comics title follows FDA agent Tony Chu, a cibopath who receives psychic information from anything he eats, in a bizarre world where food is at the center of many conflicts, aliens are real and a strange alien fruit tastes like chicken. Launched amidst critical acclaim and strong sales, the book has only picked up steam as it recently reached the halfway point of its planned 60-issue run with legions of fans and a TV option.
The book's dedicated fanbase was on hand at the Chicago Comic & Entertainment Expo for an action-packed panel about all things "Chew" including the book's inception, ramping up for the second hald of the series, their favorite moments, and the status of Showtime's TV option.
"Let me just get this out of the way. The TV show is dead," Layman told the packed room to an immediate chorus of groans. After signing up veteran TV director Steven Hopkins to helm the pilot and bringing in "Jane Got a Gun" screenwriter Brian Duffield to take a crack at rewriting it, Showtime just couldn't seem to find a combination that worked.
"[Showtime] started say to try it as an hour series, then a half hour, then throw more sex in, throw in a mother character, let's take away the bird flu. So it just became really hard to do because on the page, it's funny when Rob draws Tony eating a corpse, but when its done in live-action, it just doesn't work the same," Layman explained. "Showtime was trying the best they could to get the tone right, but it just wasn't working. On top of all that, they picked up the series when 'Dexter' was big, but then they started getting recognition for 'Homeland' and it just didn't fit their overall game plan. We're just going to do the 60 issues on our own and by then we'll be unemployed and then do a Kickstarter to make an animation series, on our own terms."
"The dream goal is to have John script everything, I'll do all the concept artwork and have Duffield co-script the series," Guillory chimed in. "Brian wrote a script that was awesome and exactly what we wanted initially for the series and he's a really big fan of our work. He buys everything Poyo related and he's really awesome. He's the only one that got the script right and stayed true to the book.
"We've even got a few voice actors that are interested in the project as well. Does anybody know who Phil LaMarr is?" Guillory continued, eliciting cheers for the voice actor best known to comic book fans for his portrayal of Green Lantern John Stewart. "He's a big 'Chew' fan and we've been talking to him about lending his voice talents to the series. Another big reason why I've been pushing the animation angle is because you cant have Poyo in live-action."
Layman added, "You cant do Chogs or any other stuff like that."
"Yeah, you can't do any of that and it would be cool to have an animated series, along with having 2-3 minute Poyo shorts, which would be totally awesome," Guillory agreed. "All of this probably won't happen until around issue #60, when we can totally focus more on it."
After getting the most disappointing news out of the way, Layman decided to take things back to "Chew's" origins, which actually stemmed from the avian flu panic that nearly reached a fever pitch in the mid-2000s. "I just thought of the crazy notion that the government would go so far off the rails that they'd outlaw chicken," Layman began. "It seemed like a 'Saturday Night Live' sketch, it's a funny concept that gets unfunny by the third minute. So that, along with the idea about the cannibal cop, a food writer that wrote so accurately you could taste the food and a whole mess of other ideas. Then it just clicked, it all relates to food and so it became a food book... I never wanted to pitch it to Image, because I was scared they'd say no and they were my last refuge. Then it got to the point where no one was gonna do 'Chew' and if I wanted it to get done, I'd have to do it myself."
Layman was working in video games at the time, working on the Marvel MMO alongside Brian Michael Bendis, which he thought would be a nice in to working for Marvel. When that project was scrapped, the writer decided to take the money he had saved up and fund five issues of "Chew" on his own to prove to editors what he was capable of. He didn't have an artist at the time, but got in touch with Guillory via Brandon Jerwa, who was writing a Tokyopop book for the artist back in 2008.
"Meanwhile, I was dying on the independent scene," Guillory said. "I had done a bunch of stuff and I had this thing where I would do work for a publisher, sometimes get paid and other times not, but when it came time for the work to get published, the publisher would die."
A previous Layman title, "Puffed," was actually a major inspiration for Guillory based on the art by Dave Crosland, and helped him develop his comedic style on the page. The artist met with Layman at Comic-Con International 2008 after receiving an e-mail from him the night before the con. All he described was a police book, with a cannibal cop, which Layman said he kept vague because he didn't want to give away everything.
After doing some test pages following the con, Layman wasn't happy with the dark tone of the art Guillory had delivered, but there were some cartoony elements he did enjoy. "He knew that I had pitched it to [Vertigo] and was drawing it in that style, but I had always wanted to book to have a nicer feel," Layman recalled. "I know that there's some gross stuff in the book, but I still wanted people to laugh and have fun, when Tony's eating gross stuff. So when I asked him to draw that cartoony stuff, it turned out that that was his own personal style and he kept drawing stuff really dark because that's what he thought I wanted."
After settling on the style, Layman called Image publisher Eric Stephenson to see if they would be willing to put the book out and never heard anything. He tried calling Image partner and "The Walking Dead" writer Robert Kirkman, who told Layman he would take care of it, prompting an immediate phone call from Stephenson who asked, "Why did you call Kirkman?" The book was approved and began to take off from there.
"We each get 100 copies of every book, so I just started handing out copies to all kinds of random people like the Mailman, the ice cream man and anyone that would come along and possibly read it," Layman said. We sold out of the first, second and third printings, which showed us that the book was exceeding all expectations... Then the first trade came out and Kirkman told me to price it at $9.99 and I was like 'No, I haven't seen any money yet and this is the first point I'm supposed to see some.' He told me not to worry and that I'd make a good amount of money soon enough. He was absolutely right and he's been right about 'Chew' every step of the way."
The panel shifted gears and opened up the floor to questions from the audience, the first of which was about whether the "Chew" TV pilot would ever see the light of day.
"You came in late, didn't you?" Layman teased as the room erupted in laughter. "We own the rights, we could put it online but what's the point. It's 'Chew' without the bird flu and some added sex that there's no reason for it."
"There's so many other things to complain about on the internet, that there's really no need for it to be out there," Guillory said.
Asked about whether or not the creators ever disagree while collaborating on the series, Layman said it's been pretty minor but cited one incident that makes him laugh. "Rob turned in this page of a character with another food power, where whatever he eats, his head turns into and I told him, 'No, his head doesn't look enough like chicken wing to me.'"
"So the character is a Senator and he's at a rally," Guillory began before Layman cut him off.
"You're totally spoiling the next issue," the writer joked.
"I'm not spoiling it, it needs to be seen to be believed," responded Guillory. "So he's standing at a podium and its a huge shot of him with a burger for a head and he looks like Mayor McCheese." The crowd erupts with laughter as he continues.
"Every time he eats something, his head becomes this thing. So I drew it and gave it to him and he didn't like it," Guillory said. "It's usually little things like that we go back and forth on. We just eventually settled and just kept moving on.
"This chicken head redraw was the biggest problem we had to deal with. It's always been little things, like I didn't want to do the 'Pulp Fiction' cover, because I hate homages, but in hindsight, John was totally right and now I think it's one of the best covers of the book."
The next question was about the many background gags featured on the pages, which Layman was happy to give Guillory credit for, though Guillory didn't take all of it.
"[Layman] does a few of them though, like the Kirkman posters on the wall, that was all him and the Butters sculpture was him too. I save those things for last when I'm drawing the pages out," Guillory said." I usually spend 8-10 hours a day, working on drawings, so by the end of the day, I'm bored out of my mind and I just draw in things that I find funny at the moment. I'm a huge fan of 'Watchmen' and every time I read it, I find something different in it. So I thought that that was a really great way to get people to keep rereading the book."
"It is terrible sometimes because when I'm lettering, I have to cover up his work with word balloons and letters," Layman said.
With "Chew's" life expectancy set for 60 issues, one fan wanted to know if that was the end for the Layman-Guillory collaboration as well, or if there is another project planned following the end of Tony Chu's story.
"Oh yeah, we're already planning on it. Although, I also plan on not making comics for a bit, after 'Chew' is done," said Layman. "I tell Rob, 'I'll see ya in 6 months' and then take off for a few months to play 'World of Warcraft.'"
Another fan asked about the myriad food powers in the series, and whether there were any that didn't pass muster.
"There's one food power that hasn't gotten in, that I really want to be in the book," Guillory said. "It would be a person that can cook food, that makes people have deadly gas afterwards and it would be a sort of terrorist angle, where he'd make human bombs."
In reference to Layman's origin story for the book in which he said he planned to finance five issues of the series, a reader asked when the switch between Guillory's hiring as a work-for-hire artist to a true collaborator occurred.
"I never thought it was gonna go more than 5 issues, so to give up half of the ownership to a guy that I met at a bar at the San Diego Comic-Con, on something that I had worked on for 8 years, wasn't gonna happen," Layman explained. "But once we saw that it was a big hit, I saw how hard he was working on it and that he was in it for the long haul, it just became a true partnership. I mean we're both pretty honest guys and we never try to screw each other over. At this point, he's co-creator because the book just couldn't exist without him."
"From the very beginning, John just had so much more integrity than most of the people that I had worked with in comics," said Guillory. "He was really honest and just told me that if Stephenson didn't like the pages that we send them, he'd have to find someone else. So I thought that I just had to make myself essential, to where there was no way he could replace me. So after turning in all the pages, he told me, 'If Image turns us down, we'll go somewhere else," and I thought that it was really flattering."
Layman then talked about giving his artist very detailed scripts but allowing him the freedom to find better ways to tell the story. "Rob's had to deal with a bunch of writers that never gave him a detailed script, it was some scribbles on a cocktail napkin."
Guillory brought up the "Marvel Method" of writing comics, wherein Stan Lee gave his artist the general idea of what happened in an issue and let his artists run with it since he wrote so many books each month. "There are a bunch of people out there that call themselves writers and they just do this," Guillory said, noting a creator-owned project he worked on with an artist he wouldn't name. "It was literally him just giving me a basic description on what was happening. So I became a co-creator on that, because I was doing so much, but he never paid me at all for the work. That book will eventually come out at some point, because its a major work, that formed me as an artist and I own all of the artwork.
"I've worked with a bunch of different kind of creators, some guys that are control freaks and others that are just really lazy and John is the perfect balance in the middle," Guillory continued. "He'll give me scripts that are super detailed, but then he'll give me the room to do what ever I want. if the script says it's a 5-panel page, but I can condense it and make it a 4-panel page, I can do that."
Asked about becoming attached to his characters, Layman said the funeral in "Chew" #30 messed him up to the point that he was drinking for a week.
"I wrote that issue out of sequence to try to deal with what was going on in it. I don't want to ruin anything, but I wanted to make this character as lovable as possible, because I wanted you to feel it. There's so much violence sometimes at Marvel and DC, that is so gratuitous, that it really has no effect on the audience and I wanted this to be big and monumental."
As for any characters readers shouldn't get overly attached to, Layman said just "four people are safe and one of them is Mike Applebee, so you can get as attached to him as you want."
Another reader wanted to know about Tony Chu's journey. When the series began his status as a cibopath seemed unique, but now the world of "Chew" seems to have dwarfed him.
"Tony was never unique. I had the challenge to combine a weird power with a weird world set up and a huge cast, to which I had to roll out slow," Layman told the fan. "You don't really get to know Tony a whole lot, because Tony is very reserved. It hasn't been until his relationship with Amelia and his family, that you get to learn way more about him and all of that was very much intentional."
The character of Olive often wears Threadless shirts and a fan wanted to know if there was a reason.
"We have a lot of comic friends that we want to help promote through the book and we wanted to advertise for Threadless," Layman said. "The reason why we did it though was to get free T-shirts out of the deal.
"At first, Threadless wanted to pay us, but we told them that all we wanted was to be able to pick out the shirts that we wanted. I think that's also the reason why we stopped doing it, because we got all of the shirts we wanted," Layman said to a chuckling crowd. "But in future issues, she'll be wearing comic book t-shirts of ours, because she's a comic book fan. I mean, she's got Kirkman posters on her wall and isn't he dreamy"
Since Tony's powers don't work with beets, one fan wanted to know if that particular inhibition of his powers stemmed from issues Layman or Guillory have with the root. "I've got no problem with them," Layman said succinctly.
The next fan wanted to know if there was any hope for a Poyo action figure, and Layman responded in the affirmative.
"Yeah, yeah. Skelton Crew Studio, who've done the
'Locke and Key' mock ups and the 'Mouse Guard' Black Axe, made us Chogs, which you can buy from them and they're going to do 'Chew' badges, like Tony's FDA badge, a John Colby USDA badge and a Toni NASA badge. From there, we'll figure out how to do a plush or a Poyo figure.
"I've already done a mock up for a Poyo figure, so we'll see it when it happens," Guillory said.
The next fan asked if the book would ever reveal where everyone's food powers come from.
"I don't really like origin stories that much and I feel like if I ever did, it would take away from what makes it good," Layman explained. "That's the problem that some stories have is that it always turns out to be some science mumbo jumbo that makes it less interesting than when you didn't know what was going on."
While the book will end with #60, a reader asked if there could be any potential spinoff series starring other characters from the world.
"I've thought about doing things like that and thinking about doing an Agent Colby one-shot or something else in the same vein," Layman said. "In the book though, characters do get into the spotlight and get their own spotlight in a story arc. Like this latest story is essentially a Colby story arc, you just don't get to see it right away. If I was to do that, it would be hard because Rob doesn't have time, I would be taking him off of 'Chew' to do a side story, so why not just do those issues in the actual book itself."
"I think that's what one of the major strengths of the book, is that any one of the supporting characters can come out of nowhere and take over the book," said Guillory. "That's what Toni was doing for issues #21 through #30 was, it was a Toni story."
"Yeah, I mean we took Tony out and put his sister in for a bit in the main story," Layman agreed.
"It would be nice to do some crazy one-shot's for the series," Guillory said, "but we'll see."
"The next Poyo one-shot might be Deep Space Poyo or Warrior Chicken Poyo, should be coming out around issue #43 or #44," the writer said.
The final question was about whether or not Layman or Guillory were foodies.
"I'm not but my wife is," said Layman. "She can sit around with her friends and talk about saffron and vanilla powder, in the same way that we can sit around and say stuff like," affecting his best geek voice, "Oh yeah, Hulk can beat up Batman."
"Foodies are sort of nerds like us, that geek out about all kinds of stuff and that's part of the way that 'Chew' came to be," Guillory said. "Thanks a lot, everybody!"