Image At 25: How ‘Chew’ Proved How Much Fun Comics Can Be
There's a point for every monthly comics fan when it really sinks in that there's a whole world of comics beyond the Big Two, and that point looks different for everyone. As someone literally born months after Image was, and thus missed out on the '90s boom and bust, for me it was Chew.
Written by John Layman and drawn by Rob Guillory, Chew ended last November at 60 issues. When it began in 2009, I was in high school, and newly in love with monthly comics.
I didn't have the money to buy Chew monthly, so it became the first series I trade-waited on. I actually got the first volume for free in a Buy-Four-Get-One-Free at my local Borders a couple years before it closed down!
Reading that first collection was a blast. Chew is about a world where an avian flu outbreak killed millions and led to a US-led prohibition on all chicken, and the Food and Drug Administration gaining police powers, and right from the start it knows exactly what kind of comic it is.
Lead character Tony Chu is a by-the-book cop with cibopathy, the ability to gain psychic impressions of whatever he eats, who becomes an FDA Special Agent and uncovers a vast conspiracy involving an apparent vampire; strange, fiery writing in the sky; and eventually, aliens. It's an action story. And good lord, is there a lot of action.
With a "no-limits-but-what-we-make" philosophy, Layman and Guillory heaped one crazy, riveting scene on after another. From Tony having to eat a dead dog at the end of the first arc; to the many, bloody beatdowns Tony and others hand out; to all the double-page spreads showing the ridiculously awesome fights of Poyo, a cybernetic rooster full of rage, hate and millions of dollars of weaponry; this series was so confident in itself that I got swept up in it every time.
It's also really, really funny. Every time I read this series, I notice new gags I didn't pick up on the first time, and that's in large part thanks to Guillory. This was his big break into comics, and he's constantly topping himself page after page.
In 2009, Guillory's skill at combining cartoonishness with high action, coupled with Layman's perfectly structured, compulsively readable writing, hooked me. It also showed me that it's not enough for comics to have a compelling story. You need to keep readers on the hook. And with Chew's mix of done-in-one crime stories and grander plot developments, it did just that.
Chew was meticulous in the best sense. Each arc was full of just enough recap info to get people up to speed, and a story that works on its own and as part of the series' larger whole. In this age when trade-waiting or digital sales might be publishers' best hope of reaching many readers, they could learn a lot could from Layman and Guillory in how to keep readers coming back for more.
Plus, when all else failed, there was always a homicidal rooster.