Image Comics, Chew #1-5, 22 or 24 pages each, $ 2.99 each
Chew, a monthly comic-book series by writer John Layman and artist Rob Guillory, goes where it hurts: It sets out to capture the everyday horror that befalls us when we pause to think about what our food is made of, where it comes from, who prepared it.
The cook at your favorite restaurant cuts his finger and bleeds all over the carrots, but throws them into the soup, anyway. The guy at the grocery store doesn't like you and spits in your coffee every morning. If you complain about the cheese on your burger, you'll get a new one, of course, but not before the young gentleman behind the counter saw fit to tune it with a snotty green whopper of a booger.
It's grueling to think about—now imagine if you could actually taste it. Because that's what F.D.A. Special Agent Tony Chu does. Tony is a so-called "cibopath," which means that his taste buds tell him everything about whatever he's eating: If it's an apple, Tony knows when and where and by whom it was harvested and which pesticides were used. If it's a piece of bacon, Tony knows how the pig was killed, who did it and what the poor creature felt when it happened.
The only food that somehow blocks Tony's ability are beets. As you might imagine, Tony eats a lot of beets.
In his job, though, that's a luxury he doesn't always have. The first storyline, a five-parter titled "Taster's Choice," has Tony and his partner investigating the disappearance of a food inspector. In the course of the investigation, which takes Tony from greasy chicken speakeasies in Philadelphia to an Arctic research station, the hero is required to bite off and chew things—or something worse than things—that are more unsavory—a lot more unsavory—than beets.
"Chicken speakeasies"? Right. That's the other half of the premise: In Tony's world, poultry has been banned in the United States, in the wake of what the government claims was a bird-flu epidemic. As a consequence, selling, possessing or eating poultry is now a crime, and the Food and Drug Administration (F.D.A.), which enforces the new prohibition, is now the most powerful authority on the continent. Suffice it to say, there's a flourishing black market for poultry.
Simply put, the set-up sounds ludicrously absurd, and I expected good black comedy at best when I first heard about it.
Once you get down to the page, though, it turns out that Chew is much more than that, and that's just one of Mr. Layman and Mr. Guillory's major achievements with the series. Sure, it's funny in a very clever and dark way—the timing of the humor is perfect, in fact, and Chew is the only comic-book series I can remember that's had me laugh out loud twice or more over the course of each issue. It is a remarkably, hilariously funny book—its smart and twisted, yet heartfelt brand of humor broadly reminds me of the old Lucasfilm adventure games, like Maniac Mansion or Zak McKracken.
But beyond that, there's genuine depth to the characters and their world. Right from the first scene he's in, Tony himself, a calm, no-nonsense guy who's not looking for trouble but is ready to face it when it can't be avoided, stands revealed as an intriguing and authentic character that you want to know more about. As the story progresses and he's confronted with snot-nosed witnesses, a new partner, a boss who hates his guts, a brother who openly rebels against the prohibition and steals poultry or the woman of his life—a columnist who writes about food so vividly that her readers can actually taste it—new layers of Tony's personality keep emerging.
Tony's world is one of mystery and international conspiracies, and it's very carefully made; there are subtle things in the first few issues that you won't necessarily recognize as important, but which become relevant and pay off towards the end of the storyline—or in the next storyline, the first two parts of which are out as I'm writing this. Despite the long-term planning and the division into story arcs, though, each issue of Chew also works on its own terms, introduces and wraps up its own plots and themes.
And, refreshingly, Mr. Layman doesn't string us along or take short cuts: He figures out how to make the most of a particular twist or conflict, builds to it with a remarkable sense of pacing, fearlessly and confidently delivers a pay-off that makes the most of them and then moves on to the next one; there's no shortage of ideas here, and the author knows it.
The trick in selling a silly premise, meanwhile, is not to sell it too hard. Mr. Layman has recognized that: He dumps his characters in this unlikely world of cibopaths and chicken prohibition and lets them tacitly accept its absurdity in the way they react to it, which ultimately makes you wonder: Is poultry prohibition really any more absurd than alcohol prohibition? Consider the nonsensical, utterly cosmetic and useless safety regulations at airports or the media's reaction to the swine-flu epidemic. Nothing's as unlikely as it may seem.
What initially drew me to the book, besides my curiosity about the off-the-beaten-path set-up, was the art by newcomer Rob Guillory. First up, it's just plain beautiful and fun to look at, in a way that's reminiscent of the classic Walt Disney cartoons and animated films. But once you get to the page level, Mr. Guillory demonstrates that he can do more than draw pretty pictures. The page layouts, panel-to-panel storytelling and coloring, the characters' body language and facial expressions, the way the artist stages scenes and arranges details are the kind of stuff you expect from an accomplished master, not from an "up and coming" talent.
Mr. Guillory deals with nine- and twelve-panel grids as effectively as he does with double-page splashes, and he's as good at portraying two characters in conversation as with big, fast-paced, insane action sequences. Who else could get a double-page splash out of a guy eating a spoonful of soup and make it look not just interesting, but downright spectacular? This is some damn impressive work.
John Layman and Rob Guillory have caught lightning in a bottle here, on every level. Chew is the most delightful, innovative and well-made new comic book of 2009, and its unexpected commercial success couldn't have happened to a more deserving series.