Writer: John Layman
Artist: Rob Guillory
(Get it at Amazon)
This book is ruining my reputation.
People occasionally ask me for recommendations. Is Northlanders really just completely fucking awesome? What about kids’ books? What should they be reading? Which comics have flown under their radar?
And, well, lately, the answer to the last two questions has been “…can I sell you on a book that revolves around people consuming human flesh in the name of justice? What about eating dogs? Licking up cremains? Is that OK with you? Because you really should read it, it’s great… why are you looking at me like that.”
You see my problem.
Yeah, the entire premise of Chew centers on a guy who receives psychic impressions from almost everything he eats. Complicating matters, he’s a cop… which means he’s a fantastic detective, as long as he’s eating the evidence. Since we’re all familiar with movies like Speed and Crank, where a clever premise leads to constant escalation of the stakes, we know where this is going from the first page of issue one. This guy is going to eat a lot of things that most people don’t consider “food,” and we’re going to watch every minute of it.
Fortunately, John Layman and Rob Guillory are exactly the creators you want guiding you through this sort of scenario. Layman keeps the gross-outs coming at a fast clip, but never loses his grasp on what is, actually, a mighty tricky piece of worldbuilding. In the Chewniverse, chicken is a controlled substance, thanks to a mysterious outbreak of bird flu that led to mass chicken slaughter in the United States. Tony Chu is a cop, charged with hunting down chicken runners, busting chicken speakeasies, and generally enforcing the new Prohibition… an assignment that rapidly goes bad, revealing his psychic talent and forcing him into an unwanted job with the FDA. At the Federal level, the stakes on chicken running are much higher, and the overall thrust of Tony’s work becomes a lot more sinister. Is there really a chicken conspiracy? Why does the FDA have such an interest in controlling food culture? How does Tony’s brother, blacklisted former TV chef Chow Chu, fit into the FDA’s plans?
Layman keeps all of these balls and more in the air, building a complete milieu for Tony and his supporting cast while keeping the humor level high. Sure, it’s black humor– Tony’s partner, Mason, is described in the backmatter as “a cross between Orson Welles and a grizzly bear” and has the amoral attitude to match– but it’s solidly in the vein of Scud the Disposable Assassin, good times for everyone who can stand a little repulsive action. As a pointed satire of both modern food culture and the modern police procedural and its constant emphasis on the gory details (I’m looking at you, CSI: Miami), Layman’s engaging, detail-packed writing succeeds on every level.
Rob Guillory’s art pairs brilliantly with Layman’s scripts, providing plenty of gross-out moments to go with the disturbing comedy. Chew‘s art never gets any brighter than the spattered blood that’s a recurring motif, but that suits the universe– as much as it’s played for laughs, there’s nothing inherently cheerful about a world where food is a black-market commodity controlled by organized crime. The only point of light for Tony is his romantic obsession, food critic and fellow food psychic Amelia Mintz; Guillory renders her in pastels and surrounds her with a faint radiance, playing up Tony’s perception of her beauty.
Of course, Amelia’s also an FDA target of interest, having become so jaded by her abilities that she’s taken to tormenting the populace at large with vomitous psychic warfare. Everyone in Chew, in the time-honored Coen Brothers tradition, is some kind of an asshole; being the love interest offers Amelia no exceptions. Her candy-coated exterior conceals someone who’s really just as venal and petty as… well, as Tony himself, inflexibly bound to the law as he is.
And, well, that’s the real dark joy of Chew. When no one’s motives are pure and no one can be trusted, we’re freed up to enjoy the sight of them drenched in puke, chewing on decomposed fingers, or otherwise being punished for their raw assholery. Layman and Guillory give the readers more than enough schadenfreude to temper any queasiness over the subject matter.
Besides, there’s a science brothel in the last issue of the collection. You know you always wanted to see what the inside of a science brothel looks like, even if you have to watch a few people eat rotting dog to get there.