Chew, the new comic by John Layman and Rob Guillory from Image Comics, launched in June 2009. As well as critical acclaim, it became an unexpected commercial success.
In the modern American comics industry, it’s become hard for series that are not about a well-established superhero character to make much of an impact. So for an oddball crime series, by two relatively unknown creators, the temptation is there to write it off immediately as a project destined to be a cult success at best.
Such was the case when the new series Chew was initially announced. The writer, John Layman, had only a few prior projects, artist Rob Guillory was virtually unknown and the series was to come from Image, the ‘third place’ publisher in comics. But those who wrote the series off would find themselves eating their words when Chew became one of the big comic book successes of the year so far.
Chew, The Comic
The story of Chew centres around Tony Chu, a Philadelphia cop who is also a cibopath. This strange ability allows him to psychically know the history of any object which he eats. As the first few pages make clear, this means that when he eats fruit, he finds out all the details about its growth, or he can eat meat and get an unwanted insight into modern methods of slaughtering animals. Shortly later, in the process of a murder investigation, Chu finds a use for this ability that takes him down a rather dark path.
The series could be unrelentingly depressing, as the main character eats parts of homicide victims in his bid for justice, but its saved from that fate partly by a regular stream of black humour, but mostly by the art of Rob Guillory. The tone he’s chosen for Chew is pitch-perfect, an exaggerated style that conveys a sense of fun, but loses none of the more unpleasant moments, more helpful hints.
As well as its combination of police procedural and outright strangeness, Chew seems to be about food as a broader concept. In a later issue, Chu meets a food critic who is also a saboscrivner, meaning when she writes about food, the reader gets the actual sensation of eating the meal in question. These myriad ideas on a theme combine to make Chew not just a good comic, but one of the most original around.
Chew, The Release and Success Story
In the months leading up to the release of Chew, the creators tried to get the word out there, through personal blogs, message boards and interviews with comic book news sites. Right up until the week of release, though, buzz was good but not yet exceptional. But then the reviews started to pour in, and they were positive. Very positive, in fact.
Influential website IGN.COM commented in their review that “after only one issue, it might be [their] favourite book on the stands”, and the praise was no less forthcoming from other sites. COMIX411.COM declared it “refreshing, thought-provoking and entirely entertaining”, The Comic Addiction website called it “a true gem”, and there were many more. With this critical mass of positivity, and more grass roots publicity, the series sold out at high speed.
Like most comics, Chew was printed to order, and with expectations small, orders from comic shops were similarly conservative. So when readers saw the swamp of online praise, they went out to find their own copies, and the few that existed disappeared. The first issue was reprinted a month later, to coincide with the release of the second, only for both of those print runs to also dissolve away. Image Comics, enthused by this success, reprinted the whole first issue in the back of their biggest selling series, The Walking Dead, to try and expose the material to as many potential readers as possible.
The Future Menu
At the time of writing, in mid-August, a third printing of the first issue, along with a second printing of the second issue and the first printing of the third, have all sold out once again. eBay prices for the first editions of early issues have been alarmingly high.
So, with new printings of all issues on the way to coincide with the upcoming fourth, Chew is a comic well worth taste-testing. Both the writing and the art offer a unique flavour that’s rarely seen in comics, or possibly even anywhere.