The Lafayette-based comic book artist reflects on the origins of the acclaimed comic as it nears conclusion.
Lafayette comic book artist Rob Guillory thought he understood Chew when he drew the first issues in 2009. He thought he was telling a straightforward crime story with a main character who was a “cibopath”—someone who received psychic impressions from whatever he ate. He used his unusual gift to fight food-related crime as part of the FDA in a world where chickens are illegal after a catastrophic bird flu epidemic.
When spelled out like that, it’s hard to see how he missed the tone that writer John Layman was going for in Chew, but we’re talking about comic books, and Marvel and DC have committed ideas at least that batty to print with a straight face in the past. The light bulb didn’t go on for Guillory until issue three.
"I didn't realize we were doing a comedy book," he says, laughing. That's not a sign of Guillory's density, though. Part of the success of Chew is that the world Layman envisioned could accommodate the improbable as easily as the mundane, and issues swing from pure adventure to action to the comedically absurd without any tonal glitches.
The Wizard World Comic Con returns to the Morial Convention Center this weekend, and Guillory and Layman will both be there. Layman will speak on a panel about how to write comics on Friday night, and Guilty will be on Artists Row on the trade show floor. This isn’t quite a victory lap for them, but they’ll be at the convention as Chew nears completion. They decided that the comic will only last for 60 issues, and issue 53 is out.
Conventionally, comics run ad infinitum and go through so many direction shifts that the character and his world border on incoherent if read as a complete run. From 2006 to 2013, writer Grant Morrison tried to reconcile all of the threads of Batman’s story including the television incarnation, and the results were dizzying.
For creator-owned comics, expiry dates are more common. Canadian comic artist Dave Sim was the first to do a comic (Cerebus) that would end by design at a given point—issue 300—and others have followed suit since. Chew didn’t start that way. Layman and Guillory originally contracted with Image Comics to do five issues and weren’t sure a comic with such an unusual premise would even get that far.
“Neither of us thought it was going to take off,” he says. At that point, independent comics that succeeded usually had a big name from Marvel or DC attached to it. Layman was a known quantity from that world but hardly a star, and Chew is Guillory’s first book. When the numbers showed that there was an audience for Chew, they revised their thinking.
“The dream was always to do a really big story,” he says. “We decided, Yeah, let’s do 60 issues. All of our favorite stories in comics are around 60 issues—Preacher, Transmetropolitan, and Y--The Last Man.”
The significance and possibilities of a comic with a potential beginning, middle and end didn’t immediately occur to Guillory, who was initially taken by the excitement of working with Layman on a popular, critically acclaimed book—one that would eventually win Harvey and Eisner awards for excellence in comic art.
Layman had milestones in mind from the start, and Guillory saw the wisdom in a clear, definite stopping point. “I don’t know how we could have kept it ongoing,” he says. “A story has to have an ending at some point; otherwise, we’d just be meandering and get more self-indulgent that we need to be.”
Guillory got the Chew gig specifically because of his light, cartoony touch. Cibopath Tony Chu is rail thin, while agent Mason Savoy is a small monolith. These characters were always that way, but some characters came into focus with time and a better understanding of the story and tone. "Chow Chu, the brother of the main character, Tony, was way more generic at the beginning," he says. "I didn't have a good handle on him. Around issue six or seven, he became who he was supposed to be."
Another character, Deshaun "D-Bear" Berry, began as a visually conventional character before developing an afro that was a third of his diminutive height. "The first time I drew him in issue one, I think John described him as 'Random Drug Dealer' and he didn't have any look. I decided to make him look like Kanye West," Guillory says. "He is like a short Kanye West. The first few times you see him, he doesn't have an afro. At some around issue 13, he comes back and I decided, I'm going to give him a gigantic afro because it seemed too obvious not to do."
Before Chew, Guillory didn’t think he had the patience for an ongoing, monthly comic book. As a young artist, he was more influenced by Looney Tunes and Hanna-Barbara animation than comic books. When he got into comic books, he was a Marvel guy and a fan of artists Steve Ditko and John Buscema. In high school, he got into anime. In college, he got into underground comics and artists whose work was influenced by graffiti and street art including Jim Mahfood (Grrl Scouts, Bad Ideas, Everybody LovesTank Girl).
“All of that kind of swirled together to make whatever it is I call my own art style,” Guillory says. “It’s all over the map.”
His characters look little like mainstream superheroes, who have abs so pronounced that they can be seen through their costumes—but it wasn’t always for a lack of trying. During his high school years, that was the look he was going for. He gave a friend two pages he did while in college—one a straight, superhero-like page and one quick, goofy and cartoony.
“I really wanted him to respond to the superhero thing, which was really self-important and taking itself too seriously,” Guillory recalls, laughing. “He didn’t care about that and talked about the goofy, cartoony thing. I didn’t understand that at all. That thing was way too easy to do and was just me goofing around. He said, No, that was way more interesting. The other thing is just awful.”
Guillory has issue 54 in the can and is working on 55. It will be out in February, then he’ll take a short break, do a one-shot with Poyo, the cyborg chicken in Chew, then get to work on the final five-issue story arc. The process of winding down the comic has been an interesting one, Guillory says.
“We’ve been slowly killing some of our main characters,” he says. “We’re doing that again in 55 and it’s a really, really major character, so it’s weird to get to a place where we won’t be working with these characters anymore after working with them for eight years.”
Guillory’s not sure what comes next, but he’s philosophical about the Chew experience.
“It’s not often the gravy train rolls up to your house,” he says. “This is the perfect gig for me. I enjoy it, I’m able to pay my bills with it, and I’m doing what I’d be doing anyway.”