Eye on Comics

Comics criticism and commentary from Don MacPherson

Over the Lips and Past the Gums…

Posted by Don MacPherson on May 23rd, 2009

Chew #1 coverChew #2 coverChew #s 1 & 2
Writer/Letters: John Layman
Artist/Colors/Cover artist: Rob Guillory
Publisher: Image Comics
Price: $2.99 US each

If one were to look at John Layman’s recent works (Puffed, Tek Jansen, Army of Darkness/Xena), it would be easy to view him as something of an oddball comics writer (aren’t they all?! Haw! [rimshot]). Well, this latest effort isn’t going to change that impression one bit, and that’s a good thing. Layman brings a twisted perspective to storytelling that’s definitely unlike the majority of crime or genre fiction. Chew blends a dark, compelling crime-fiction atmosphere, biting political satire and over-the-top, absurdist humor to arrive at an entertaining and surprisingly compelling bit of storytelling that almost defies description. Rob Guillory’s exaggerated artwork mirrors the unusual tone of the script and plot perfectly. While his figures are far from familiar or grounded in appearance, they reflect the distorted, disturbing nature of the premise and plot points nicely.

Tony Chu is a cop who’s been relegated to a frustrating and odd duty; he and his partner were responsible for surveillance on speakeasies, but not the kind of speakeasies American saw during Prohibition. No, today, chicken and other fowl are outlawed thanks to hysteria over bird flu, and that’s led to an underground market for fried chicken and other now-taboo foods. But that’s not the weirdest thing about Tony Chu’s life. No, he has a special, unusual and actually rather disgusting talent. He’s a cibopath, psychically able to detect and learn the history of anything he eats. That talent brings him to the attention of the Food and Drug Administration, which has work in store for Chu that’s far more exciting, important and dangerous than anything he could have imagined.

Guillory is quite a find, and the weird, extreme, angular look of his artwork suits the weirdness of how writer John Layman’s mind works. That Layman has opted to work with someone with such a style comes as no surprised, since we’ve seen him team with others with similarly over-the-top styles (Dave Crosland, I’m looking at you) in the past. Guillory’s work is a bit reminiscent of that of Sonny (Wonderful Wizard of Oz) Liew. Guillory opts to depict the hero of the book as somewhat meek in appearance; he’s short and thin and doesn’t really exude power. That makes the scenes in which he asserts himself all the more effective. The character designs are really more like caricatures, but that’s in keeping with the satirical tone of Layman’s script. The artist also uses color to great effect, not only for the “cibopathic” flashes but when it comes to infrared effects as well.

The swine-flu scare gripped the entire world and sadly claimed many lives. From a purely cultural perspective, though, the timing couldn’t have been better for Chew. The now-all-but-forgotten bird-flu scare plays an integral role to the political and social backdrop that serves as an important catalyst and context for this story, so the swine-flu story, though generally different in terms of how it played out, serves as a timely reminder of pandemic fears. The notion of chicken being outlawed seems like a ludicrous idea when you first hear, but the more one thinks about it, it’s just the sort of political overreaction that easily could have arisen. Layman sells the concept perfectly with the use of the term “speakeasy” in a key scene in the first issue.

Overall, Layman plays the plot points, premise and players up for laughs. There’s a darker side to the story, an undercurrent that instills the appropriate tension and drama, but overall, this is a great satire of political whims, the cliches of the crime genre and action flicks. The writer pokes fun at political and pop culture with abandon, and he certainly pulls no punches.

Despite the weirder and goofier side of the book, ultimately, there’s a thought-provoking message to be found in this comic as well. Layman points out that we really don’t consider what we stuff in our gullets everyday. The flashes of the disgusting, horrific crimes that Chu has when he eats in this story are symbolic of the disgusting things the food industry does to process what ends up in our snacks and meals every day. Don’t get me wrong — Layman isn’t saying anything like “meat is murder” here, but he reminds us that we should be aware that we don’t see what happens to that burger, candy bar or soft drink before they pass our lips. 8/10

One Response to “Over the Lips and Past the Gums…”

  1. Aaron Thall Says:

    Oh man… I JUST ATE! (goes to vomit)