I sat down with John Layman and Rob Guillory, the creators of CHEW at Alamo City Comic Con, as they close in on almost eight years writing and drawing the award-winning comic book series from Image Comics.
John Layman and Rob Guillory are the writer and artist behind the graphic novel CHEW from Image Comics, an Eisner and Harvey award-winning series that has received both critical and commercial success. Chew tells the story of Tony Chu, an F.D.A. agent with a unique “cibopathic” ability that enables him to receive psychic visions when he eats anything dead or alive. Set in a time where chicken has been deemed illegal because of a bird flu outbreak that killed millions, the story focuses on Tony and his fellow agents as they attempt to thwart the rising chicken black market. One of the most originally creative and hilarious comics I have ever read, I had the opportunity to sit down with both Layman and Guillory on the first day of the 2015 Alamo City Comic Con, and right after Layman had lunch in the green room with Hodor (I might add).
P: First question I want to ask the both of you, is this your first time in San Antonio?
Layman: Yeah, second time in Texas, first con ever in Texas.
Guillory: Yeah my first time and I live in Lafayette, Louisiana which is only six or seven hours from here, but yeah it’s my first time. I do the Austin show every now and again.
P: How did the two of you end up working together?
Layman: You know I pitched Chew to a bunch of companies who didn’t’ want it, and then I eventually went to Eric Stephenson at Image Comics, not even trying to pitch just like…hey I got this weird funny cannibal bird flu book, I’m looking for an artist…do you know of any. He said no but find an artist and we’ll do the book. So after pitching it forever, I got it sort of approved without actually pitching it. I had a budget and I just put the word out to my friends that I was looking for someone, and it took a long time because I knew what I wanted. I wanted kind of a happy style because it was gross subject matter and I didn’t want it to turn off people, like I wanted it to be fun, you know gross but still something you can giggle at, and eventually we just got introduced by a guy name Brandon Jerwa who I was doing a project with, he said you should check out this artist and talk to him. I told him I don’t know because they were doing a Tokyopop book and I really don’t want a Manga artist but I’ll talk to the guy and I looked at his website and I liked the stuff, and then we met in San Diego and I was like, here’s the book. He did a few pages and it all worked out.
P: Rob all the easter eggs in the book, do those ideas all come from you?
Guillory: Ninety-five percent of it is me just screwing around pretty much. The idea kind of came from Watchmen, they use to do a lot of that. I mean I don’t know how much of that was Alan Moore actually writing it in and how much of it was just Dave Gibbons like flushing out the world on his own. I always thought it was really cool, I mean I had read Watchmen a million times and I would consistently find new things. So like it was just a fun little extra thing that isn’t completely necessary to the story but it rewards readers who actually look for it.
P: Has there ever been an easter egg that you threw in that nobody ever caught that kind of surprised you?
Guillory: There was a lot that I’m pretty sure no one ever caught; there was one that I put in there in issue twenty-five where Amelia Mintz (the main character Tony Chu’s girlfriend) ends up going to a movie theater where there’s an auction going on inside and there’s two bouncers outside, big buff bros basically, and one of them has kanji on his arm. I actually googled the kanji for idiot, so he has a big tattoo of kanji that says idiot on his arm, I put it in there as kind of an end joke about people who get kanji and have no idea what it is, and that was like four years ago. No one ever caught it or said anything and I got this email two months ago from a guy who said I just saw that joke that was the funniest thing ever, so I was like oh wow one guy finally caught it like four years after the fact.
P: Rob talk about your biggest influences growing up and even today?
Guillory: I was a pretty big cartoon guy; I was probably more of a cartoon guy than I was a comic guy. So a lot of like Warner Brothers, Tom and Jerry type stuff, Chuck Jones, Tex Avery, but also a lot of classical guys, old school comic guys like Steve Ditko, indie guys like Jim Mahfood and Dave Crosland, it’s all over the map. Even some anime people like Akira Toriyama (Dragon Ball Z), it’s a lot of different influences all kind of put together.
Layman: I’d say Dave Sim. Hopefully not the divisive Dave Sim or the kind of…I don’t want to say crazy, but you know I grew up on Cerebus, and I think you can see some of the pacing and I love the Cerebus art and I love the pacing before he kind of got like all religious and it sort of had an agenda outside the story, but when Cerebus was good, I mean that was my childhood. I read a lot of Alan Moore, I was a child of Alan Moore, and you know Swamp Thing. It’s funny because I went to dinner with these young people and they’ve all read Watchmen, but you know after the fact and like I remember the year-long delay between ten and eleven, so yeah I grew up on Alan Moore and Dave Sim.
P: I follow you guys on Twitter…..
Layman: I’m really entertaining.
P: (laughing) Yes I was going to ask you about your Twitter handle…..
Layman: It changes; just whatever strikes my fancy, whatever is in the news…it’s just silly.
P: Straight out of Layman.
P: The whole ‘cybopathic’ idea, give me a little something on where that idea came from?
Layman: I don’t know where my ideas come from, like you talk to Ed Brubaker and he’s got like a funny interesting story for every idea that comes to him but……I don’t know? Chew had such a long germination period that it seemed like it was around forever because I had it for like seven years before I found Rob and it was like….my stupid bird flu cannibal book that nobody wanted and I’ve carried it for so long that I don’t know where it came from, which make for a really uninteresting story.
P: So sticking with that whole Tony Chu (cybopathic) ability, if you had that ability and could take a bite out of any creators thumb, just to get the next big idea, who would that creator be?
Layman: You know I don’t think that way. It’s always weird you get these pill quotes where someone says I wish I would have thought of that idea! I don’t think that way, I am content with my own ideas, what few I have and I don’t want anyone else’s.
Guillory: You see I don’t know, there are ideas that have come out that I wish I would have thought of first. The one that immediately comes to mind is Josh Fialkov came up with The Bunker, have you ever read that Layman?
Guillory: It’s really good and the premise is brilliant. There is no one guy that I would just want all of his ideas, but ideas like that I wish I would have come with first, because it’s a really good one.
P: In the Chicken Tenders arc, killing off Poyo, how difficult was that for the both of you and what kind of responses did you get from fans?
Layman: People pretended to be mad; they were like Layman fuck you! How could you do that? But they weren’t really mad and honestly it wasn’t that hard. I mean Poyo exists sort of in its own reality anyways, you know we’ve shown him in hell, we’re going to do one more Poyo special where it’s Demon Chicken Poyo, so he’s dead but I mean, he’s about as not dead as a dead character can be you know if we can still use him. It was way harder to kill Toni the sister, because that’s…you’re killing a person and Poyo…..the joke could only go so far and it was time….and you know….he’ll be back.
Guillory: Same thing it wasn’t really hard at all (laughing). If anything it was more of just a milestone to say oh wow….this is really ending because we just killed our most popular character, but it wasn’t hard…it wasn’t hard at all.
P: Looking back at the series now that it’s coming close to an end, talk about your overall thoughts on the series, favorite arcs, and favorite moments?
Layman: I still think kind of the most emotionally impactful issue for me is thirty where we kill Toni. I still like choke up and my wife cried when she read it. My favorite issue and I don’t know why is issue thirty-six where it’s Toni the sister helping her other sister who you never meet again, and I don’t know why I love that issue but I do. The funniest arc to me is where he’s kidnapped by the baseball players. I don’t know what my favorite arc is I just know what my least favorite arc are which is probably two and seven, I don’t hate them I just don’t like them as much as the others. Usually my favorite arc is the one that is most recently done.
Guillory: My favorite issue period is issue twenty-one where Tony’s got the kilt and he’s a meter maid. For some reason that is to me…I don’t know if it’s the funniest issue, but to me it’s the most…I don’t know…it’s my favorite issue of the entire series. It’s the only issue where we don’t really jump around, there’s no jump cuts it’s all Tony. It’s a pure Tony issue and it’s completely ridiculous. Arc five might be my favorite also, Major League Chew and Toni’s death was easily the most emotionally draining issue we ever did, and I was glad when we finally did it and got it over with because we had been talking about it since 2009, and it wasn’t actually as bad as I expected it to be, but it was still pretty horrible.
P: Rob, what was your favorite cover to draw?
Guillory: I think the issue forty-two cover with Tony and the animals and he’s really happy, there’s a happy bear and the tree is happy and all that. I mean that’s about as Disneyesque of a Chew cover that we could have made, that’s probably my favorite.
P: Can you talk about the Chew animated series? I remember reading that it was back on.
Layman: Well it’s never been off it’s just moved very very very slow. The last thing that happened you know we got Steven Yeun and Felicia Day recording like a year ago and then nothing happened and nothing happened and then suddenly they called me and were like be in New York on Thursday (today is Tuesday), David Tennant is going to record as Savoy. So I went to New York and listened to David Tennant you know be awesome, and I mean I’m sure stuff is going on behind the scenes slowly in Hollywood meetings and negotiations and all that. It’s not dead it just moves slow and nothing happens until something does happen. So we’re waiting for the next thing to happen.
P: How involved are the both of you in the series?
Layman: I mean….they communicate with us when something happens, they tell us when it gets further along, you know hopefully to the art stage when they start animating, that’s when Rob gets involved and we want to keep it you know very accurate visually, but we’re not there yet.
P: This panel that you guys are doing this weekend here at Alamo City Comic Con, will you guys be talking about creator-owned comics?
Layman: I have no idea what the subject is, I’m a pretty good public speaker and I don’t get nervous at panels so I’ll just bullshit and go wherever the panel wants to go.
P: So what’s next for the both of you?
Layman: Little things, you know five issue throw an idea at the wall and see if it sticks and then you know move on. Sixty issues is just monumental and I just want to explore different ideas and have a little more fun, different genres, you know do a kids story. I’m doing an AfterShock book and we haven’t named the…..the big artist hasn’t been announced publicly yet. That should be pretty awesome and very different. AfterShock is a new publisher. Rob and I would like to do something like, well he says Marvel and I say Marvel or DC, like go to them like Jeff Smith did after Bone how he did Shazam and see if we could basically play with a big two toy. Hopefully after a sixty issue run that won awards and sold a bunch of stuff, they’d pick us up and let us do a trade that hopefully would sell for years and bring us a new audience.
Guillory: Same thing, never anything this big ever again. I mean sixty issues is just gigantic. By the time we’re done with it will be eight years that we worked on this one project. So yeah same thing, five issue arcs here and there, do some Marvel stuff, you know hopefully hook up with Layman and do some more creator-owned stuff.
Layman: Also Rob’s very young and I’m very old, so I’m probably going to die soon so I don’t have to worry about that…that much.