John Layman has stopped eating.
We’re sitting on the porch of a coffee house in downtown Gilbert, Arizona, a week before the final issue of Chew arrives in comics shops. When I arrive, Layman is already there, looking incredibly fit. He’s stopped eating carbohydrates, he tells me, and is working out a lot. He’s dropped a bunch of weight in the past few months, and he’s doing great. As I type this, I’m sitting at my computer looking down at my big gut. DAMN YOU, LAYMAN!!!!!
The first issue of Chew came out in June 2009. Layman and Rob Guillory, his artistic collaborator, had been talking about it since 2008, and they turned out to be a perfect match. Guillory writes in the back of issue #60 that before Chew he was scraping by in comics, so it’s good that he found a story that enabled him to become a bigger name, as he is a wonderful artist and is terrific on the series. Layman was not a big name in comics, either – prior to Chew, his biggest writing gig was probably a 12-issue Gambit series in 2004-2005, and if you recognized his name and you didn’t know he wrote comics, you may have remembered that he was a WildStorm editor during that imprint’s Golden Age, working on titles you might have heard of like Planetary and Astro City. I asked him once what he did as a WildStorm editor, and he told me that he acted as a traffic cop, basically moving things along and making sure the books came out on time. And yes, he appreciates the irony of that statement (although he wasn’t editing Planetary when it started sliding in the scheduling).
I bought Chew #1 because it sounded neat, not because I knew Layman’s or Guillory’s work. I liked it immediately, because it was so very weird – the story of an agent for the Food and Drug Administration in a world where chicken is banned is interesting enough, but Tony Chu also had a strange power – he could track the history of everything he ate, which made him avoid all food (except, strangely and inexplicably, beets). This made him an excellent agent, and it also meant that to solve some crimes, he could take a bite out of a murder victim and see who the killer was. So, yes, Tony is a “cannibal cop.” It’s a comedy!
Chew was good from the start, and eventually it became great, and it’s been my favorite comic for several years now. It’s never really had a letdown, as Layman figured out a way early on the keep things moving – every arc would have a story, true, but each issue would have either a “case of the week” – Tony and his partner, usually John Colby – solving a food-based crime (Layman had a Latin/Greek dictionary close at hand and came up with dozens of food-based superpowers for his characters) or we would get a few pages showing “stills” from cases that weren’t featured in the book – Guillory usually split those pages into two large panels and showed fantastic moments from them, while Layman gave them ridiculous names. So while each arc was five issues, each issue was packed with action that may or may not have to do with the overall arc. In this way, Layman moved the story along but kept each issue vibrant. And he wasn’t afraid to get brutal, either – the most traumatic event in the book came halfway through it, in issue #30, and even though other terrible events occurred, that one still might sting the most, because it was somewhat unexpected. Layman wrote the book fearlessly, and that’s one of the reasons why it was so good.
I met Layman briefly in San Diego soon after the first issue came out, but I didn’t get to know him until the next year, 2010. He moved to Gilbert and was signing comics at the old Atomic Comics at the Chandler Fashion Center (it’s been five years since Atomic closed down, and it’s still weird to me that it’s gone). I suggested that we should get together sometime for lunch, and he said sure, and that was that. We go out to lunch every few months, and we’ve become friends. We’re fairly similar – we’re about the same age, we’re both politically liberal (he’s a bit more strident than I am, but not much), and we both have families that we can talk about. Of course, we both love comics, and while I read a lot more than he does (since he actually, you know, works for a living), we still talk comics a lot. We’ve been in a hot wing phase, an Irish pub phase, and a chicken ‘n’ waffles phase. He’s given me some cool stuff over the years (including a copy of Chew #60 this past week), which is keen. He’s also told me quite a lot about his experiences in the industry, most of which I can’t repeat because he asked me not to. Even this week, he told me some cool stuff that I can’t tell you about. Just, you know:
Chew #60 isn’t the best issue of the series, but it’s close, and it’s really the perfect ending for the book. It has a fancy trifold cover, plus an alternate cover that is a homage to the cover of issue #1. It costs $5.99, and it has 38 pages of story, and it feels longer because none of the pages – even the ones with no text – are wasted. Guillory, as always, drops a bunch of fun text into the panels, and there are a few pages that, if you’re a long-time reader of the series, will break your heart. Layman structures it like many of the other Chew issues – there’s a case of the week, there are flashbacks to other cases that we’ll never see, and there’s a larger plot going on behind it all. We see the effects of recent issues and how humanity has coped with them, and Guillory gets to indulge in some mayhem and ultra-violence for old time’s sake. Not only is the art hilarious, but the story is, too … right until the point where it isn’t. There are callbacks to earlier issues, Layman actually does use the panel he showed in an issue many years ago (he’s had the entire thing plotted out since it began, so it’s not surprising he sticks with the panel, but it’s still neat that he “flashed-forward” to show it to us), and there’s a final round of food-based insanity. It’s amazing. (I’m also not showing the cover in case it’s too spoilery. I don’t know if it is, but I’ll just link to it instead so you can skip it if you want to.)
I’m not sure how people will react to the ending. Layman asked me what I thought of it, and I told him it was tragic and brutal and clever, and it is. I was taken aback by the abruptness of the ending, but then I thought about it and realized it couldn’t really end another way unless Layman wanted to end the series with issue #59. He could have done that, I suppose, but this issue makes that issue even more tragic, when we think about what happened and the effect it had on Tony. It’s brutal because we can imagine every possibility that comes after the last page, and very few of them lead somewhere good. And it’s clever because of how Guillory draws a panel a few pages earlier, which can change our entire perception of what Tony does, if we so choose. He is doing something very personal to him, and he’s not considering the consequences, but we can, and just the way Guillory draws the panel a few pages earlier opens up a lot of possibilities. It’s stunning. And of course, Layman putting Tony in the position that he is comes from years of putting the work in – over the 60 issues (plus the three Poyo specials, but those were mostly just excuses for craziness), we’ve come to know this character so well, so while the ending might be a shock, it’s not necessarily a surprise.
Layman finished the script to issue #60 in July, and since then he’s been on a sabbatical. He has some commitments to books that he started before Chew ended, but he hasn’t taken on any new work. He told me he just needed a break for a while, but that doesn’t mean he’s been idle (for one, he’s been working out, as I noted above). Chew has been optioned twice, once for a live-action television show that fell through, and once for a cartoon with Steven Yeun as Tony. That’s not a lot of work on Layman’s end, but he’s still involved. He has good relationships with several editors at different companies, so he’s wondering what to do next. Guillory lives in Louisiana, so I’m obviously not as close to him, so I’m not sure what he’s doing next, but I hope it’s something great. Chew opened some doors for Layman – he got the gig writing Detective because of it – and there’s no reason to think they’re closing now that it’s over. An interesting point about Chew is that Layman regrets, a bit, doing 60 numbered issues – he has mentioned that consumers’ obsession with #1 issues means that a book like Chew tends to lose luster as its issue count gets higher, and he thinks that he’d do a bunch of mini-series now, each with a new #1, if he launched the book today (not unlike Hellboy comics, I suppose). I see his point, from a sales perspective, but I disagree with him from an aesthetic perspective. The fact that I have Chew #1-60 means something to me, and it would be nice to think it means something to others. It’s annoying to think that there are people who would respond to new #1 issues, but Marvel has proven that they do. Layman is interesting to talk to because he often thinks in terms of sales, while I ignore sales completely. He doesn’t only think in sales terms, but he keeps it in mind, and like comics retailers, it’s fascinating to listen to him because it’s a part of comics I tend not think about.
I don’t have any idea if Chew will leave a legacy like some great comics series of the past. It finishes right when I can consider it as a “Top Run Of All Time” for Brian’s quadrennial list at CBR (I don’t vote for runs that aren’t finished, so this final issue comes at a good time), so I can think about its place right now. It was great for the creators, certainly, but I guess we’ll see if it will have staying power. It was, and remains, very unlike pretty much any comic I’ve ever read – yes, the police procedural aspect was familiar, and the alien part was a bit familiar, but the way Layman and Guillory told the story was utterly unique. Layman’s scripts crackled with comic energy, and he shifted to drama on a dime, dragging our emotions all over the spectrum. Guillory’s terrific art could handle everything Layman threw at him, from Poyo’s epic adventures to visits to Hell, from every food-based character you could think of to the way Tony “reads” the food he eats, from the use of “softer” pencils to the many, many cameos of Robert Kirkman Photoshopped into the art. It was insane but also realistic – Tony’s family drama was painfully hilarious because it felt so true, yet Layman told it in such a bizarre way, while Tony’s romance with Amelia was at the heart of the book, and Layman was smart enough to not over-dramatize it, which made it feel more down to earth and real. Even the other major love story – between John and Mike Applebee, Tony’s boss at the FDA – is handled really well, as it begins as something cynical and evolves weirdly but beautifully over the course of the series, which is another reason why the final issue is so powerful. Even the way Layman deals with Poyo, as ridiculous a character as Poyo is (a cyborg warrior chicken that scares literally every bad guy on Earth and many not from Earth), was gut-wrenching. So a comic that shouldn’t, really, have worked has become one of my favorites. As I noted, I don’t know if it will be brought up when great comics are discussed, but in my eyes, it should.
So that’s it for Chew. If you’ve never bought an issue, you really should give it a try. There are trades of the five-issue arcs, bigger trades of ten issues each, and giant, over-sized hardcovers of 20 issues each (which I own, even though I have the single issues, because they’re awesome). If you’ve been buying the single issues, #60 is a superb culmination of the series, up there with Doom Patrol #63, Hitman #60, Starman #80, Swamp Thing #171, The Spectre #62, and Scalped #60 as great final issues of great runs (which is harder to do than it sounds). If you’ve been reading it in trade, try to avoid spoilers until the final trade comes out, because it’s really good to read without knowing what’s coming (even though Layman has been really good at foreshadowing or downright telling us what’s going to happen in the series and still making it feel like a punch in the gut). I don’t know if you’ll like it as much as I do, but you can’t accuse Layman of resting on his laurels for the final issue.
I’ll probably see Layman again in a few months (unless, of course, he hates what I wrote here, in which case I just wrecked our friendship!!!!), and I’m sure I’ll hear more about some of the cool stuff he’s working on and we’ll shoot the shit about non-comics stuff and we’ll have a good time. Chew was a cool series, and it also helped me find a new friend. Yes, it’s all about me, as usual. That’s the way it is!
(And, hey, if you want to start buying Chew, I’ve provided a handy link for you. That’s just how nice I am!)