It’s Dumb and Tickles Our Funny Bones: John Layman on the Home Stretch for ‘Chew’ [Interview]
For five years, Chew has been one of the most funniest, most surprising comic books on the stands. Rob Guillory and John Layman's series about a police officer who gets a psychic impression from anything he eats --- and the bizarre supporting cast that surrounds him --- has introduced readers to everything from government conspiracies to cybernetic killer roosters.
With the recent release of the 51st issue, Chew is closing in on its big issue #60 finale --- so ComicsAlliance took the opportunity to sit down with John Layman to discuss his plotting for the series, how he balances comedic highs with tragic lows, and how a rooster became the breakout star of the book.
CA: I'd like to start with the plotting of Chew. You've said before that Chew was always going to last 60 issues, so how have you planned out the series?
JL: I’ve known the ending from the beginning, and have always worked towards it. Very early on --- and to my great surprise --- it became apparent that Chew had the sales to sustain itself long term, so I was able to choose the ideal length. All of my favorite books are books with endings, and are approximately 60 issues. Preacher, Transmet, Y [The Last Man], Scalped… it seemed the ideal length to tell a “novel-length” story, so that's what I decided on for Chew.
CA: Each issue has a full one-in-done adventure, as well as wrapping up character bits and laying out seeds for future subplots to complete the "novel-length" story. How much of the series was completely planned out when the series began?
JL: I’ve known most of the “skeleton” of the book, and each individual issue and arc is me putting meat on the bones. That is, I know a lot of landmarks, usually what happens at the beginning and ending of each arc, and where most of the characters are at this and that point. But it still allows enough flexibility to explore things that interest me, and go in surprising directions.
Poyo is certainly the biggest [surprise]. He started as a McGuffin, and just took on a life of his own. He is the one character to end up playing a much bigger role than I ever intended, just because the audience loved him, and he was fun to write.
Toni the sister was another character that ended up playing a larger role than envisioned. Knowing her fate from the beginning, I tried to make her as lovable as possible, to maximize the gut-punch to the audience when she befalls her terrible fate. The problem was, she was so lovable, and so fun to write, I had a hard time letting go. Still do. She remains my very favorite of Chew's large ensemble cast.
CA:I'm always fascinated with how long-running comics teams collaborate, so what does the work breakdown look like between you two? How has it changed from issue #1?
JL: I certainly trust Rob now. I don’t need to see breakdowns. I don’t worry about whether he’s going to get it, and even if he does something I don’t completely agree with, I usually let it go, because at this point he’s got just as good a handle on the characters as I do, if not better.
After 50+ issues, we’ve really got it down to a science. I give Rob a script, he spends a couple weeks, thumbnailing and penciling, and then he enters the ink stage. I letter it as he goes, and when he is done inking, Rob does colors. I paste it up as he goes and do design pages, and upload to the Image servers just minutes after he turns in pages. The book is ready to go literally ten minutes after Rob colors the last page.
CA: From Poyo, the part-robotic killing machine rooster, to the dozens of food-based superpowers, there are a lot of details that give the world of Chew a distinct vibe. Do you have rules for what works and what doesn't in the world, or do you just follow your gut on what makes for a good story?
JL: It does have rules, but I’m not sure I’m comfortable, or even capable, of explaining them. That is, I know in my head what the rules are, even if they aren’t specific, and I think Chew follows it’s own internal logic --- a logic which gleefully and intentionally gets thrown out the window for the Poyo specials.
CA: How did those specials come about? Was the character popular enough that you and Rob wanted to have some fun on interludes?
JL: Really the inspiration was Stray Bullets, my all-time favorite comics, and a comic that everybody should read and read and read. Every so often in Stray Bullets David Lapham focuses on a character named Amy Racecar, for stories that are out-of-continuty, and completely bugf--- insane, free of all the rules and confines of the normal book. That was the idea behind Poyo. That, plus the character is shockingly popular, and his stories are just fun to write.
CA: Besides Stray Bullets, what are some other works, especially non-comics work, that influenced the writing of Chew?
JL: I’m not sure about influences. The stuff I tend to read is so unlike Chew that I don’t see any evidence of influence, which doesn’t preclude it being there --- just me seeing it.
I suppose the one influence that is definitely there is Cerebus, by Dave Sim. This was a comic I grew up on, and stuck with probably longer than I should have. But I think when Cerebus was in its prime, it’s some of the best comics out there, and I think you can see influences in Chew, especially in terms of pacing. Perhaps lettering as well.
CA: You mirror a lot of scenes and panel layouts with different characters and situations throughout Chew. There's bits of that when both John Colby and Tony Chu are respectively laid up in the hospital at different times, but I'm thinking specifically of this panel, which gets used dozens of times in the series:
How did these come up? Were these running jokes part of your long-term plans for the series, or was it something that came up organically between you and Rob?
JL: For something like Chew, a book that runs 60 issues and should ideally stand together as a whole, I think it’s important to have a visual vocabulary, and we’ve tried to do that with Chew, with the repeated imagery and compositions. I believe it helps with the timing and pacing of both jokes and stories, and sorta builds a visual architecture and visual continuity.
We’re obviously not the first to do it, but I’m curious if any other comics have done it to the extent that Chew does it. This was something I very deliberately have called for in my scripts. I’ve attempted it in other books I’ve worked on, but certainly not to the same effect I have with Chew, or with the same success.
And as letterer of the book, I do the same thing. I use the same sound effect for certain things; Tony or Olive biting, doors knocking, phones ringing, people snoring, people chewing, cooks chopping. Not because I’m lazy — it takes longer to dig up the sound effects because I am disorganized, than it would be to create new ones — but because I am striving for a consistent look that works across the issues.
CA: So, you've got a few major organizations that pop up in Chew. The FDA and NASA, obviously, but there's also the USDA, which is comprised primarily of buxom women and cyborg animals that usually get killed in large numbers. The FDA and NASA angles make sense, since they're natural escalations of what those organizations would be in a world like Chew's, but what was the impetus for the USDA?
JL: The various agencies in Chew all have their little shticks, and that’s mostly for laughs more than anything else. We introduced the USDA early on just to have a “rival agency.”
And, as you said, they are busty women with cybernetic animals. The FDA have people with food powers, NASA people party hard with alcohol and psychadelics, Navy guys look like the the Navy guys from the Village People video and have cybernetic seals, and we’ve even introduced DEFRA, which is the British equivalent of the FDA, prissy guys with handlebar mustaches in tweed suits with robotic weapons in the bowler hats. No reason for any of it, except it’s dumb and tickles our funny bones.
CA: Chew has a very slapstick comedic styling, but I'm not sure if I would call it a comedy. Toni's death, Violet's relationship with her father; there's plenty of emotional heft to the stories. How do you balance the humor with the gut-punches?
JL: It’s a fine balance, and I think it comes from caring about the characters, and making the readers care about the characters. Chew, besides being a goofy cops procedural, is a very character-based story. Often I hear complaints about how the "story isn’t moving fast enough" because we slow down to focus on this or that character.
But to me, the character is the story. If I wanted to just address chicken/bird flu and alien fire writing conspiracy stuff, Chew could be over in 25 issues. But I’m more interested in the arcs and evolution of characters, and seeing them develop so you understand and appreciate the decisions they’ve made.
CA: The last few years of comics have had a focus on diversity, obviously with regards to creator diversity first and foremost, but character diversity as well. Tony Chu's Asian-American, and John Colby's sexuality is never specified, but he's definitely not straight. How important was it in making Chew that the main cast not be made up of heterosexual, cis-gendered white guys?
JL: I’ve always thought it’s important to present the world as it is, not the lily-white, male dominated world we’ve seen in comics for so long. We’ve trying to present Chew with a diverse cast, but without hammering the point or making it preachy.
That is, you’re not going to get any “After School Specials” where we outright say, “You are Asian — or black or gay or whatever — and you are just as competent and capable and worthy as anybody else… we accept you.” Instead, I think we’ve at least tried to present a world with a multi-colored, multi-faceted, non-cliched world and cast, without trying to make a big deal out of it.
CA: And with that, when you have these running jokes like Colby sleeping with his bosses, regardless of gender, how do you put the focus of the joke on the characters and the situation, rather than "punching down"? How do you walk the line between following your comedic muse and just having awareness of other people's feelings?
JL: Well, I hope Chew isn’t punching in any direction, up or down. I don’t have an axe to grind with this book, and it’s primary objective is to entertain, not serve any sort of agenda. If somebody comes away from Chew thinking we’re setting out to make fun of them because they are in a particular group, I apologize. That is certainly not my intention. But this can be tough, because a humor book presents characters --- all characters --- as absurd and comical. I’d hope that by now people can see that nobody is a specific target, while at the same time everybody is --- but without malice or judgement.
CA: You're coming to the end of the longest project you and Rob have worked on, together or separately.
JL: Oh, yeah, easily the longest for both of us. Before Chew, Rob hadn’t really done anything. I’d done twelve issues of Gambit, and during the run of Chew I did twenty or so issues of Detective [Comics] --- counting annuals and specials and whatnot --- but nothing really compares to Chew, which will clock in at 64 issues, counting three Poyo specials --- a final to come this spring --- and Chew/Revival. I have no plans to tackle anything this ambitious again.
CA: With Chew coming to an end, any word on the TV show? I remember reading about it reaching the pilot stage a couple of years ago, but was it canned because "The Chew" came out in the interim?
We were in development for a while as a live action thing at Showtime, and then they passed on it. After that we became an animated cartoon. And ... it’s still alive. Last thing that happened was David Tennent recorded as Savoy in June. But things in Hollywood move ridiculously slow, and if anything has happened since, it’s news to me. I sorta just shrug and wait to see if anything happens, without holding my breath. After all, Preacher is finally a show 16 years or so after it’s final issue. So I haven’t given up, but if anybody asks about it, I don’t really have anything to report. And I try not to sigh too wearily.
My focus is and always will be the comics, and we have a lot of things to be excited about --- even beyond the fact we are reaching our 60-issue end point, which is pretty epic in and of itself. Things like toys from Skelton Crew, a game from IDW, editions in eleven languages. That Hollywood stuff would be nice, but it’s not really the brass ring I’m going for. And if it doesn’t happen, I won’t be too devastated.
CA: What's next for you and Rob once Chew ends? You were doing work for Marvel and DC recently, but do you have another creator-owned work you're prepping for?
JL: Nothing as big or ambitious as Chew. Rob has stuff going at Marvel, but my Big Two work has dried up for the moment. I’m doing a mini for Aftershock, and a Mars Attacks mini with Andy Kuhn for IDW, and I have a lot of smaller things percolating. But if I never do anything significant, for the rest of what little remains of my life, and am just remembered as the Chew guy, that’s perfectly fine by me.