Comics as a medium have always offered a wide variety of genres for readers. Though the industry has been dominated by superhero books since the 1940s, there have always been-–sometimes a limited number of–science fiction, romance, humor, horror, crime, and adventure comics. Marvel and DC have tended to exclusively publish superheroes, using imprints to publish non-cape books, while the other genres have been the lifeblood of the smaller presses–a generalization with exceptions (of course).
Image, while larger than most independents but smaller than Marvel and DC, has toed the line, offering readers a variety of capes and non-capes books. That’s not to single them out as “the” publisher of different genres, but to applaud their efforts to diversify their offerings. One of those diverse (and offbeat) titles is Chew, a book with a unique perspective and premise that features stunning art, dark comedy and high octane action. After a short hiatus, the book is back and just as depraved, funny and snarky as ever.
Chew is many things. Part buddy cop comedy, part social satire, and part urban adventure yarn. But it also has one of the more interesting set-ups and premises. Chicken is outlawed when a catastrophic outbreak of the bird flu that killed 23 million Americans. Thus the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is the most powerful law enforcement agency on the planet. Tony Chu is one of the FDA’s newest agents. A cibopath able to get a psychic sensation when he eats anything, Chu is custom built for food based crime.
Recently in Chew, mysterious and alien writing composed of fire has surrounded the planet. This is both confusing, yet oddly fitting. There is an impressive amount of narrative skill on display when a plot point seemingly out of left-field feels perfectly in tune. For issue 17, this point is in the background but still present – yet another sign of strong storytelling. Writer John Layman and artist Rob Guillory have the uncanny ability to blend one-off stories with long-form storytelling. It’s been a hallmark in the short history of Chew. The larger arcs play out over stories that don’t at first seem connected, but they do, as they layer the full story with unimaginable levels of complexity.
The universe they have created is rich, vibrant and engaging, making each issue a feast of sequential story. Guillory’s panels are the perfect complement to Layman’s script. Guillory is able to take the subtlest queue from a page of dialogue and maximize the comedic effect by adding elongated expressions and exaggerations to his pencil work. From page to page, his blend of the creepy and cartoony with overstated lines and proportions are the perfect complement to the story unfolding. It’s actually quite rare for an artist to so capture the essence of a particular title, especially to the point that you can’t image anyone else drawing it. But that’s the reality of Chew.
Another fascinating aspect of Chew is how the title has taken cues from its cousins at Marvel and DC, namely in the form of product placements. In this issue, Tony’s daughter Olive’s clothes are provided by Threadless.com and t-shirt designer Travis Pitts. Threadless.com is the site that produces shirts based on user submitted designs that are voted on by the site’s larger community–a rather innovative “Wikinomics” model.
Now, product placements in comics are nothing new. DC’s Rush City was a giant advertisement for the Pontiac Solstice; Marvel’s “New X-Men” for a time featured the Nike swoosh logo. Finding new revenue streams is all a part of business and at times is a gauge as to the maturity of the business. Long gone are the days of sea monkey and muscle man ads in the back of a book.
Now mass market products are integrated into the comic. Is this dangerous? Is this harmful? Quite possibly. But, at least in this case it’s the art of the t-shirt being showcased rather than how Cisco systems can make your computer run as fast as Nick Fury’s.
For all the accolades you could serve Chew, the biggest is that the series continues to surprise and impress. Its success at mixing genres in an industry dominated by a single genre is an example of comics returning to its pre-1940s roots and also evolving as a medium. Chew is by no means the end-all-be-all of non-cape comics, but rather one of many touchstones of what could make up the medium.
Layman and Guillory have created a series that is many things to many different people: it’s a comedic action satire yarn; it’s a standard-bearer of complex narrative structure; it’s an innovation for multi-revenue streams. But at the end of the fiscal year, and for all of us, it’s just plain good. And you don’t need butter, jam or syrup to make it appealing.