An Interview with Chew Artist Rob Guillory
BY MARC-OLIVER FRISCH
When Chew debuted in 2009, artist Rob Guillory was a blank slate for most comics fans, although his résumé already included work for publishers like Random House or Dark Horse Comics. Guillory’s early publications include a charity project that also counts Stan Lee among its contributors, as well as a short comic published in the first volume of Image’s Popgun series.
For Chew, Guillory has received the Harvey Award for “Best New Talent” in 2010.
Note: The interview was conducted in late 2010. A translated and edited version will appear in the German Chew – Bulle mit Biss! 3: Eiskalt serviert, out in December 2011—in a translation by yours truly, as always.
MARC-OLIVER FRISCH: Rob, how did Chew first pop up on your radar, and what made it interesting to you?
ROB GUILLORY: Chew was first pitched to me by John Layman in July 2008. John had been keeping the idea on a shelf for years, and once he’d finally decided to go through with it, he contacted mutual friend Brandon Jerwa for an artist referral. Layman contacted me soon after, and we met the following day at San Diego Comic-Con. Coincidentally, I was already a fan of John’s work, especially a little book called Puffed! that he did years ago.
The initial pitch was so completely original that it actually took me a second to really wrap my brain around it, but I loved the fact that there was nothing like it on the market. I looked at Chew as a chance to do something completely new, which is a rare thing in a comics industry where ideas are constantly recycled. I loved the idea of creating our own mythology without being held back by editorial reins. I also loved the fact that this book would succeed or fail based solely on the quality of our work, instead of some gimmick or franchise character.
In the back of issue #1, you and John agree with Robert Kirkman, who is encouraging people to create their own stuff rather than work for hire for the big companies. But you also acknowledge that it’s a risk and there’s no guarantee for success. Now, looking back, what do you think are the key factors that made Chew a hit?
Kirkman was instrumental in telling a lot of creators what we already knew: that doing projects that we care about, though risky, is ultimately more fulfilling than just being the millionth guy to draw or write Spider-Man. It inspired Layman to take the leap, and thankfully it bore fruit.
Looking back, there was no set formula that led to Chew’s success. At least, not one I can tell anyone how to replicate. We just had the courage to take a big risk in telling an original story that was unlike anything else in the market. It just so happened that a large segment of readers (who went on to embrace Chew) were bored with the status quo of comics and were ready for something new.
Timing was everything for us. Chew came out in a time where the mainstream publishers were relying on retcons, gimmicks and a “Next Big Thing” attitude that turned off a lot of fans. Publishers were bombarding readers with “bold, new eras” that promised exciting new possibilities, but instead delivered slightly updated versions of what had been done before. They were focused on “events,” instead of simple, solid stories that mattered, which was our focus.
We set out to produce a good comic book, that we would buy for ourselves. And I think the fact that our motives were pure and centered around entertaining fans, giving them their money’s worth every issue, resonated with fans. We invested into making the work everything it could be, and in turn, the fans invested in us as creators.
Writers can work on a handful of books simultaneously, but artists arguably have to put all their eggs in one basket for each given book. With Chew being monthly except for one-month breaks between arcs, you must have been working on it full-time for months before you ever knew it was going to be successful—particularly since you also do the coloring. How did you justify that degree of commitment, and the risks that come with it, to yourself?
Yeah, I worked on Chew for nearly a year before the first issue saw print. But during that time, I was only working on the first five issues, because that’s all Layman originally contracted me to do. Layman was really the guy that took the biggest risk, because he was paying for my art out of his own pocket. Not a lot of writers would do that, and that speaks volumes for John’s integrity. He made sure that I could dedicate myself to Chew, without the stress of having to juggle a full-time job. And really, being a complete unknown as I was, I feel I had nothing to lose by doing Chew. At the very least, I would have five issues done that I could use to find other work. It really was a perfect situation, and a rare one.
The plan was, if the book flopped, we would end on Chew #5. And in the beginning, Chew was my main source of income, and I knew exactly how much I needed to live each month. Luckily, I don’t need very much to live. So I stretched the income as far as I could, doing about three or four pages a week. By the time I began working on Chew #5, the book was already a certified hit, and it became clear that we would be going beyond five issues. Since then, I’ve kicked up my production quite a bit to meet an almost-monthly schedule.
When I was reading Chew #1 for the first time, I liked it but was skeptical. Then I got to the double-page spread of Tony eating a spoonful of soup—and I was hooked. Could you walk us through the process of that page, from idea to execution?
Well, on that spread, I worked in layers, separating the foreground image (Tony eating soup) from the background (the grid of his visions). I penciled and inked the foreground like I would any other page, but I drew around 25 separate squares for the vision, using a looser, rougher style to emphasize that the vision was far more emotional and primal than anything.
From there, I constructed a grid in Photoshop, then dropped the images into the grid, repeating or zooming in on each as I felt needed. The point of it was to drive home the point that Tony was experiencing all of these repeated instances of horror simultaneously, all in meticulous detail. And to tie in the issue’s first page (the killer chef making the soup), I dropped in a few images of the soup’s preparation. It made for a nice full-circle moment that tied everything together. Lastly, I imposed the foreground and background images on top of one another via Photoshop. Not at all a difficult image to construct, but I find that the simplest methods tend to be the most effective.
I know that John doesn’t necessarily write issues in the order of publication. Since you mention the connection with the first page, do you draw the pages of a given issue in sequence from page 1 through page 22?
Yep, I draw every issue in sequence. Just makes sense to me. Chew #1 was the only exception, because I did four random test pages just to pitch Image Comics. Working in sequence just helps ensure that everything stays consistent and linear. John writes issues out of sequence, just for fun, but I couldn’t imagine working that way.
There are all kinds of background details in your art, like the clerk giving Tony and John the finger at the start of issue #1, or the insane mess at the telescope in #4. Are those elements scripted?
About 90 percent of the “Easter Eggs” aren’t scripted. Originally, I started dropping them into the art just as a way to further create a fully realized world in Chew. Dave Gibbons did that a lot in Watchmen, using posters, signs, etc., to flesh out Alan Moore’s scripts. I drew from that, except focusing on the comedic and the silly.
Chew’s a funny book, existing in a ridiculous world, and the point of the background details is to deepen the level of comedy, as well as the depth of the readers’ enjoyment. Again, a book like Watchmen is highly re-readable. I’ve read it dozens of times, always catching new things, and I wanted to do that with Chew. Also, I wanted to make it so the reader has to slow down and “digest” the art, instead of rushing through it.
I really wanted to make the reader feel like they’re getting their money’s worth and much more. Entertaining the reader is our first priority.
Generally, how detailed are the scripts for Chew? Are they full scripts with a lot of specific “stage directions,” or are they more in the vein of the famous “Marvel” method, with rough information on what’s to happen in a given issue or page?
John somehow manages to find the perfect balance between the two. His scripts are generally about 40 pages long, packed with details, but in a more conversational tone. John speaks directly to me in the scripts, and more often than not, his direction is, “This is my idea of how this should look. Of course, you’re the artist, and if you have a better way of doing it, then go for it.” And that’s very freeing as an artist. And there are many times that I do change things from how they were written, but only when I think I can add to its effect.
And as a side note, I’ve worked with both methods: The hyper-detailed stage-direction method and the loose “Stan Lee” method. Both are not for me. Too much detail is like putting a shackle on an artist. Too little detail just seems lazy and relies on the artist a bit too much to find the story. John’s the hardest-working writer I know, and his scripts are always the perfect balance.
Some of the things you’re drawing in Chew are pretty revolting—rotten burgers, people taking bites out of decaying dogs and, in general, it seems you can never trust anything anyone ever eats in the series, just from the way the “act” of eating is portrayed. Did you ever get sick imagining or drawing a particular scene?
It’s funny that you say that, because I’ve had a real love/hate relationship with food, and I probably draw on some of my negative food experiences as inspiration for Tony Chu.
In real life, I do have some trust issues with food because I’m pretty familiar with the negative feelings that can come with food, like nausea or depression. But generally, I’m pretty good at separating myself from the things that get eaten in Chew.
Really, the only time a scene has made me “take a walk” was the extreme close-up of Tony getting vomited on in Chew #3. Drawing the bits and chunks within the puke definitely made me a bit squeamish.
Would you say you and John are setting out to portray the very idea of eating as a vile and disgusting concept in Chew?
I wouldn’t say that it’s an agenda of ours, or even something we’re conscious of. We both love to eat, and we love good food. But eating can be a vicious, primal thing, and nothing reveals that more than the first time you realize that the chicken leg you’re eating used to be attached to a living animal. I de-boned a chicken for the first time earlier this year, and it made me pretty sick to my stomach.
Was that research…?
Ha. No, though it ended up sort of being research. I was just helping my wife make a gumbo, and ended up being totally disgusted in the process.
One frequent storytelling mantra has it that it’s more effective to leave all-too-graphic details to the imagination, rather than to show them on camera. Has there ever been a point where you and John disagreed over how to deal with a particularly gruesome scene? Is there a line you won’t cross with your art?
Not really. We tend to keep any scenes of Tony biting into something off-screen anyway. The only thing we’ve ever disagreed on was in issue #6, where there’s a large pile of feces that is the focus of the panel and the joke. John thought that we should make it more obscure and implied for fear of totally turning off the readers, but I thought we should just put it front and center because it would push the joke over the top completely. So I did, and no one really mentioned it at all.
I definitely have lines that I won’t cross, and fortunately for me, John’s very sensitive about respecting them. I never really want to do anything sexually perverse, offensive or politically-fueled just for the sake of doing them. I’m a pretty PG guy and fairly conservative, despite all the blood and guts I tend to draw. Dark is good, but too much darkness depresses me. I’m a comedic artist, and bringing joy to the reader is my first priority. I want to be the artistic equivalent of a stand-up comedian.
John has said that Chew will run for about 60 issues. Are you planning to stay on for the entire series?
Absolutely. The plan is to do something completely consistent and cohesive, à la Transmetropolitan or Preacher. Chew is my baby, too, so I couldn't imagine letting someone else take the reins of it.
You've suggested on Twitter that there are some projects of your own that you want to realize at some point. What should we expect?
More comedic, original, fun stuff. I've really found my voice in humor, so I'm going to keep exploring that. I love aspects of every genre, which is one of the reasons Chew is so up my alley. I have a sci-fi thing that I'll definitely be doing after Chew, if not earlier, but it's too early to reveal it. Plus, I'm fairly certain that John and I will be developing more projects. We work really well together, so it'd be a blast to keep doing it.
So, what if Marvel editor Tom Brevoort calls tomorrow and says, “Rob, we want you to be the millionth guy to draw Spider-Man. Here's a five-year exclusive contract with all kinds of perks.” Tempting at all?
Ha. Doubt it'll ever happen, but you never know. I'd do a one-shot. Two conditions: Layman writes it, and we get to do whatever we want.