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Words and Pictures: Chew

Chew, Vol 1-4: Taster’s Choice, International Flavour, Just Desserts, Flambé

written by John Layman, art by Rob Guillory, published by Image

Chew is science fictional craziness unlike anything else you can read in comics at the moment (as far as I know). It’s also, in its own idiosyncratic and deceptive way, one of the most ambitious and accomplished comics you could ever hope to read.

Fun is a big deal. For the reader, it might come from many sources: the energetic excitement of a kinetic adventure story, the interaction of immensely likeable characters, wherever. Sometimes from comedy, of which I confess I’m not the most instinctive or biggest fan but I tend to think the most satisfying species is comedy built not on gags but on humour earned through setting, character, events. Chew‘s got exactly that kind of humour.

That’s not the only kind of fun I’m talking about here, though. I don’t think the reader is the only one enjoying themselves. Chew gives the very strong impression that its writer – John Layman – and artist – Rob Guillory – had big fat smiles on their faces when they were putting it together. (Which is one reason it puts a smile on mine, of course. Creators having fun = reader having fun, at least so long as the whole thing’s not too self-indulgent or obtuse).

So. Chew. A science fiction comedy-drama with quite a bit of fun, a whole lot of odd and a hint of horror flowing through it.

Tony Chu is a Chinese-American agent of the Food and Drug Administration. The FDA is the most powerful law enforcement agency in the country, because it polices the ban on all chicken products instituted following a global outbreak of bird flu. Tony Chu is also a cibopath. A cibopath is someone who gets psychic impressions about the history of anything he eats. If he eats an apple, he can tell where it grew, what chemicals it was sprayed with, when it was harvested.

Inevitably, given that set-up, Tony is required to take bites out of all manner of disgusting things, including murder victims, in order to solve crimes. And his aren’t the only food-related powers. Amelia Mintz, Tony’s love interest, is a saboscrivner, who can write so vividly about food that her readers actually taste it; there’s a voresophic, who’s the smartest man alive, but only when he’s eating, and others.

In part, this is pretty pure speculative fiction. It changes two things about the world – a chicken ban, and food-related powers – and sprints giddily off towards the horizon in search of consequences. There’s more to it than that, though. Around their eccentric premise, Layman and Guillory have constructed an elaborate confection that takes in not just ‘cops, crooks, cooks, cannibals and clairvoyants’, as it says in the back cover blurb, but also vampires, families, love, cults, conspiracies, space fruit and a good few other things.

Tony Chu and his supporting cast of engaging oddballs deal with a succession of weird crimes and mysteries. Chicken-related misdeeds are a recurrent theme, but there’s plenty of other stuff, taking Chu from an Arctic observatory to Pacific islands to a pseudo-China/North Korea. Thanks to some adept writing, along the way you (well I, anyway) come to feel invested in the central characters. This isn’t just comedy at all, it’s also about very appealing characters investigating genuinely intriguing, often gruesome and violent, mysteries.

I haven’t got the space to discuss Poyo, the world’s greatest fighting rooster, or fricken, the disconcerting chicken substitute, or the vast flaming symbols that encircle the Earth, or Tony Chu’s funny cyborg partner, or the whole conspiracy theory sub-plot about the chicken/bird flu thing being a government deception, or … you get the gist.

Click for larger versionChew is a festival of ideas, many of which appear to be throw-aways on their first appearance but which all seem to eventually connect to one another, many tying in to the mega-plot Layman is developing (I’m not entirely sure yet what that mega-plot is, which is why I’m not describing it, but it’s probably got something to do with that conspiracy thing). It’s rare to read a comic in which every detail, no matter how small, is so obviously deliberate. Not one single thing, in either script or art, appears to be accidental. That makes Chew an unusually rewarding read, to an extent that belies its comedic surface.

I can’t immediately think of many fictions in any medium that fling quite such a blizzard of apparently offhand, small ideas – about setting, character, plot and narrative – at the wall in such a relatively compressed story, and certainly none that get so many of them to stick and join up in satisfying ways. It’s a pretty remarkable achievement.

The creators of Chew might be having fun, but they’re very serious about using the comics medium in clever ways. Layman and Guillory play games with time, scattering not just flashbacks but also flashforwards around. They even throw in a kind of time lapse sequence.

They also push the visuals in interesting directions. In one scene Mason Savoy – villain of sorts, and another cibopath – eats our hero’s ear, and has visions of his family. These are presented as dozens of tiny panels showing the faces of Chu’s relatives, seemingly randomly mixed up in a dense grid; except that, gradually one of those faces comes to dominate, until the whole grid is filled with the repeated image of a girl whom neither the reader nor Savoy immediately recognises. This is the creators’ very neat way of revealing to the antagonist – and simultaneously foreshadowing and seeding a later explicit reveal to the reader – that Tony Chu has a daughter. It might seem a small thing, but to me it’s clever, clever writing.

The art in general is worth further comment. Many US comics are all about pseudo-realistic illustration. Chew is not. It’s unashamedly about cartooning – characters are gangly-legged, exaggerated interpretations of the real – but always expressive, interesting and kinetic. It’s irrefutable evidence that comic art that eschews realism can be immensely effective.

Although the second volume of the four released so far didn’t work quite as well for me as the others, Chew as a whole is remarkably consistent in its pacing, tone, entertainment value and inventiveness.

Fun. It’s a precious, under-valued thing. I recommend it unreservedly (and also Chew, if you’re so inclined).

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