It’s a brave new world when the protagonist of a comic is akin to Hannibal Lecter. Cannibalism is a nefarious term associated with the savage and depraved. Leave it to John Layman and Rob Guillory to redefine the rules with their ever-popular and Eisner Award-winning comic series, Chew, published by Image Comics. Chew takes place in a reality where fowl meat is banned after a bird flu epidemic annihilated 23 million Americans. The protagonist is Tony Chu, an FDA Agent who inhales his way to the truth; food consumption grants him supernatural projections of whatever he devours. His partner is John Colby, a man turned cyborg who’s a bit of a loose cannon (I’ll delve into that later).
Chew #31 begins with the aftermath of a funeral. Tony, accompanied by his family and John, has just buried his fraternal twin sister, Antonelle “Toni” Chu. Layman does a great job of cluing newcomers in on the significance of these heroic siblings. Tony is cibopathic; he downloads the comprehensive history of whatever he bites. Toni, the yin to his yang, was cibovoyant; she could glimpse the future of whatever she ate. You have to respect Layman’s design of their powers. It’s not as simple as telepathy. This is a world centered around food, some acceptable and others illegal. Therefore, it makes sense that these powers involve chomping down to gain insight.
Sadly, no amount of data can rationalize matters of the heart. Tony’s grief is like a cloud two layers thick; he lost his wife, Min, to brain cancer and his sister to a cibopathic vampire hungry for more abilities (He’s taking a page out of Sylar’s playbook of Heroes fame). Rather than dwell on it, Tony buries himself in a new case where people are being incinerated. This leads to some comical imagery and captions, displaying the fluidity of Guillory’s caricatures with Layman’s cutlines. One frame features a mall Santa set ablaze with two distraught boys in his lap. Dubbed, “Santa Searing,” the St. Nicholas impostor seems to scream in agony while the children cry and are terrified. Layman embeds alliteration in his subtitles, too; he brands one panel, “Comic Convention Combustion.” The phrase is painfully accurate as a chubby cosplayer begins to ignite near a booth of stupefied comic creators.
Munching on a charbroiled arm, Tony discovers the culprit, Thin-Ex Industries, a company attempting to create a hybrid beverage, a diet and energy drink. Much to the corporation’s chagrin, it causes those who drink it to literally “feel the burn.” Further inspective ingestion reveals a cult of egg worshippers are behind everything. They believe those who eat chicken will bring global destruction. The whole idea is ludicrous that it’s laughable. Clearly, this was Layman’s intent, though. His plot and context are sharp, but his words do get vulgar. The language is for mature audiences only.
The f-bomb is used numerous times by Tony’s family and his partner John. You get the feeling Layman is going for a gritty backdrop. It’s a secular overtone he’s striving for; he wants to make things more realistic. For me, this deviates from escapism, the primary objective of most comics. While a target audience may approve of this less fictional approach, I do not. To me, comics are a release from life’s circumstances. You can enter a universe where men can fly, spin webs, and retract adamantium claws among other feats (with the exception of Tony’s power, there really isn’t much fantasy at work). Superheroes capture our respect with their abilities and moral compass.
Superman is a god among men, but he stays grounded in the principles his adoptive parents instilled in him. Spider-Man could crush someone’s throat, but he too is forever governed by his familial bonds. Cussing is a feasible way of emphasizing a hero’s mentality during a crisis, but isn’t required in excess. I believe Layman is using it to distinguish Tony’s detached persona with John’s cavalier approach (John is the wilder of the pair, even going so far as to sleep with their boss, Mason Savoy, to give them more leeway). In all fairness, Tony does not swear and he is the hero of this series.
Chew #31 was a decent read for me. I respect Layman’s originality in premise and context. I can also say I’ve never seen a cannibal portrayed as the good guy until I read this. It’s always refreshing to have a twist that makes you do a double-take. I also love Layman’s inclusion of poetic devices such as alliteration; his captions flow with Guillory’s art like peanut butter and jelly. The only turn off was the cussing. It doesn’t go well with the ethics of being a hero.