Chew is one of those books that’s easy to recommend but difficult to explain. It’s easy to recommend because there’s so much good to talk about; it’s hilarious, multi-layered, unique, charming and inventive. Most importantly, it shows tremendous promise in every issue, especially in the first five collected here. So what’s it all about? Well, it’s a black comedy foodie-inspired police procedural featuring gastro-psychic powers entangled in a vast conspiracy involving outlawed chicken and maybe aliens and a vampire. And that’s just the first TPB.
The book follows the life of Tony Chu, Philadelphia vice detective and titular homophone. From the beginning of the book we quickly realize that the world of Chew is different from our own. They bear striking similarities and at first glance may appear one and the same, but there are some very important differences between the two. The biggest is the fact that chicken is illegal in Chew’s world, having been outlawed after a mysterious bird flu wiped out massive amounts of the population. Because of this new restrictive law, anyone who may have a hunger for poultry has to procure their fix through illicit and extralegal means. This has not only affected the palette of the populace, but also the role of the police force as they’ve had to begin enforcing a new form of prohibition. It’s because of this that we find Tony Chu staking-out a potential chicken speak-easy.
Now, the fact that we’re watching two cops waiting to pounce on someone buying some chicken seems weird enough, but as the first issue progresses we realize that outlawed poultry might not be the weirdest thing about this book. You see, it turns out that Tony is a cibopath. It’s an odd talent, known to manifest in only 3 people worldwide, and allows Tony to get a psychic impression of whatever he eats. If it’s an apple he may get an impression of it being picked. If it’s meat, things get a little uglier. And if the meat happens to belong to something a little more human? Well, it’s a talent that can prove invaluable to a detective working Tony’s cases.
The cases Tony works will probably be the main draw for readers, especially as he quickly gets inducted into the FDA. It seems certain sections of the FDA have become very powerful since the chicken ban, creating resentment and a conspiratorial air as it’s agents are viewed as culinary men in black. These are the agents who’ll deal with the peculiar cases, involving general weirdness and trips to the seedier sections of Chew’s world. The man who recruits Tony is Mason Savoy, a large man who also happens to be one of the only other cibopaths in the world. Together they’ll investigate conspiracies, murders, other people with food-related powers and just maybe an alien world.
Overall it’s an odd set-up, but Tony and Savoy’s gift is perfect for their job and can act as the driving force behind the special cases they’ll encounter. Chew is one of many new books that have a comedic feel and a foodie-bent. It’s odd to consider this a burgeoning sub-genre of comics, but when Anthony Bourdain is getting in on the game then you know that slapstick catering has arrived alongside superheroes and zombies. It may also be a bit odd to call this a food-centric book considering all of the gross-out humour and horrible things that Tony may chomp down on, but it’s what makes the book so hilarious. The gross-out moments combine with dark humour, a little physical comedy and a generally absurd vibe to create a book that’s both funny and charming. You may groan at some moments and cringe at the prospect of others, but you’ll be smiling the whole time and happy to have discovered this gem.
This really is a book with genuine laugh out loud moments, while Layman’s plots exemplify inventiveness and his scripting and dialogue remains smooth throughout. Guillory is the perfect artist for Layman’s scripts, with a style that has cartoonish aspects to it. His characters have features that are slightly exaggerated, giving them all distinct designs and letting him break into straight caricature for comedic effect. Much of the humour in the book is visual and the creators manage to cram a lot into each page, including funny little easter eggs as well as clues to the unfolding mystery. The book can also include some fun action sequences, only made funnier as Tony watches Savoy tear through gangs of thugs using ninja stars and his John Goodman-esque physique.
One of the major strengths of Chew is its cast of characters, both in quality and quantity. Each has a surprising depth to their individual characterizations and it’s surprising just how smoothly the team of Layman and Guillory can introduce them to us. By the end of volume 1, the book’s cast has already begun to flesh out and this is only the beginning of the story. As each volume progresses, you can almost see each book bursting at the seams with new characters waiting to be introduced and new insight for familiar faces. The world they’ve created is a little crazy and the plot’s mysterious and complex, but at no time does the book get confusing or overwhelming. Things are introduced to us slowly and naturally, by the time you’ve finished a volume you’ll look back to where the book began and wonder how things could have progressed so quickly. It really does seem like the time and issues fly by while you’re reading the book.
Each issue has a lot to digest, packing a lot of story into the trades even though they only collect five issues at a time (and a Omnivore edition doubling that). Subplots, mysteries and conspiracies abound, making the book very multi-layered. It’s amazing to see how deep the creators layer the hints and mysteries considering that this is ostensibly a comedy book. They provide a more structured and faceted plot than most of their contemporaries in any comic genre. It’s also easy to see why Chew’s garnered such acclaim, as it’s a series that hits the ground running and shows tremendous promise from the very beginning. After the first few issues the world already feels fleshed out and the cast is not only established but growing. By the end of the first TPB though, all of this gets turned around. We’ve only just begun to accept Tony’s job and world, before the tables get turned and we’re left with even bigger mysteries. Luckily the series is already up to five volumes, but once you’re through those TPBs you’ll be anticipating each new issue.