Chew, the award-winning comic book by John Layman and Rob Guillory is one of the biggest surprise hits of the american comics industry. German publisher Cross Cult is now releasing a German edition of the series. Comicgate editor Thomas Koegel talked via Instant Messenger with both author John Layman and artist Rob Guillory. We kick things off with our interview with John Layman.
CG: Assuming this is a regular, typical workday for you: What have you been doing right now before I came bothering you?
JL: I’ve actually been lettering Chew #17, lettering my upcoming IDW Godzilla series, and writing cover descriptions for Geof Darrow for the rest of the Godzilla issues. Procrastinating from actually writing …
CG: Are you planning your workdays in advance?
JL: I got so far ahead on Chew I started talking on other work. For most of 2010 I just got ahead on Chew… so I am doing stuff for Marvel, IDW, and Dark Horse, and I figure once I finally finish all that I will spend another six months getting safely ahead of Rob. I’m still ahead, I would just like to be further.
CG: The German edition of Chew, Vol. 1, came out a few weeks ago. Have you seen it yet? It looks a little different from the original collection.
JL: Yes, it is lovely. I love compact format.
CG: You don’t think there is too much loss in terms of the artwork?
JL: Well, I don’t know … since I have other versions, I guess I was just excited to see something new and different. I guess because I have access to the bigger format, I hadn’t given it a lot of thought.
CG: Cross Cult started this smaller format some years ago with Hellboy and they made a trademark out of it. Actually, I like the compact format quite well, as long as the art is not too detailed (e.g. like from Geoff Darrow).
JL: Well, some of Rob’s small print jokes might be lost, but they are in English anyway!
CG: Are there any other foreign editions of Chew yet?
JL: Yes, the German edition is the fourth. Italian, Spanish and French in print. And they all have got Vol 2 or will soon.
CG: Congrats for breaking into Europe!
JL: Yes! It is a pretty big thrill. We did an Italian tour last year, and it looks like we may do France in the summer.
CG: Oh nice, maybe we will see you some time in Germany, too …
JL: That would be fantastic, I have never been, and have always wanted to.
CG: Let’s get right to the beginning of the series. How did you come up with the weird premise of Chew and how did it develop into a comic book series?
JL: Well, I think it was a bunch of smaller, bad ideas at first. Not bad, but ideas that could not really sustain a series. The idea about a bird flu and chicken prohibition, the idea of a food reviewer who could write so accurately you could taste her food, even the cannibal cop — all decent ideas, but probably these would not be enough to sustain a series. Then I realized they were all connected by food, and so I took all these different ideas and combined it into a food-related comic — and suddenly it became a very rich universe.
But nobody wanted to published it — I tried for years to find a publisher, and finally I decided I would finance it myself. So I took some money I made writing a video game and looked for about a year before I found Rob Guillory, who was introduced through a friend. And then Image picked it up and it became a surprise hit — surprise to everybody, including myself.
CG: Was it always intended to be a long, 60-issue run (before you knew that it would be successful) or did it start as a shorter series?
JL: No, I thought it would go five issues and maybe be profitable after several years. And then I would do five more, and then five more … Rob was only initially contracted to do five issues, because I did not think it would do well. I thought it would be, at best, a small cult hit.
CG: Was there any special incident, a big media push or something, that lead to the surprising success?
JL: No. Not at all. Well, there was a swine flu outbreak, right about time the book came out, that had attracted some attention. Funny thing was, I came up with some of the ideas years before, when the US was in a panic over bird flu, but Chew took so long to get off the ground everybody had forgotten it, and the premise seemed so ridiculous. And then suddenly there was a swine flu outbreak and it got timely again. But there was nothing really … people were just looking for something new, and the success came as a surprise to everyone. People started talking about it online, and it just took off. It sold out, we did a reprint, it sold out, we did another … we ended up printing it four times, and then finally as a flip book with The Walking Dead, and every time it sold out. And nobody could figure it out, least of all myself.
CG: Did you know that we had a food scandal here in Germany (eggs poisoned with dioxin) right around the release of the German edition?
JL: Yes, i did hear that–crazy timing. Unfortunately, it seems like this sort of stuff is more and more prevalent, all around the world.
CG: When you go to a restaurant or, more generally, eat something–can you help but thinking about what Tony would sense at this moment?
JL: I did at first — not so much after a year and a half of the book coming out — but there was a significant „food awareness“ when the book started. I even tried vegetarianism for a while, but I like chicken and pork and fish too much. Not beef so much. I can mostly live without it.
CG: Have you read Jonathan Safran Foer’s book, Eating Animals?
JL: I dont believe so. I was very influence by Fast Food Nation, by Eric Schlosser.
CG: Chew is a pretty wild ride. It touches a lot of genres, it’s funny and creepy and thrilling at the same time, and full of crazy ideas. Is there anything you didn’t put into Chew because it would be too crazy or silly or horrific?
JL: Well, there is a logic to it. And there are a few rules, even if they only exist in my head. Because this is 60 issues with a definite ending, I’m not looking for fill-in stories … everything sorta „counts,“ and is leading to an ending. And Rob is onboard for the duration, so we would not do a fill-in artist with a fill-in story … we’d just skip a month, so it is more of a maxi-series novel. So, there won’t be a time travel story, or certain wacky things that don’t fit into the overall, overarching plot (I hope I am making sense).
CG: Rob Guillory’s slightly quirky style is a perfect match for Chew, I think. You said that he was introduced to you by a friend?
JL: Yes, Brandon Jerwa and Rob were working on a Tokyopop book, but it got scuttled. Brandon told me what a great work ethic, and how Rob had a very versatile style. I wanted somebody cartoony and fun, to offset the horrific elements of the book, otherwise it would just become ugly. And I wanted a book that was fun and funny, even as it is a bit icky.
CG: How do you two interact? Do you meet „live“ or ist all just online?
JL: He is on AIM, so we talk several times a day. And now, after a few years of doing this, we have met up at lots of conventions and signings. Rob is the quiet, professional, straight-edged friendly one — I am the hard-drinking, overly opinionated jackass. 🙂
CG: What I really love about Chew are the cool and original ideas in the way the story is told, especially the page layouts. For example the double page spread in issue #1 when Tony is eating the soup. Are these kind of things all your ideas, how much comes from Rob?
JL: Well, I am pretty detail-oriented in my scripts, and I suggest layouts much of the time. On the other hand, I am not a control freak, so I am open to listening to Rob if he has a better idea.
CG: I have found your script to issue #1 online, but I haven’t had the time to read it. Maybe I should give it a look …
JL: Yeah, that was written prior to knowing Rob. Now I write more for him. It is very conversational.
CG: The story of Chew does often go back and forth in time. You will take that to an extreme by releasing issue #27 about one year ahead. How did that come about?
JL: Well, I wrote the issue, just because it was so clear in my head and I wanted to get it on paper. And once I did, I thought „why sit on it for a year?“ It would be fun to do out of sequence, and a good reward for the monthly readers (we don’t plan on collecting it until the 6th TPB, issues 26-30). So it keeps people rewarded for buying it monthly … which of course pays our monthly rent.
CG: Did you hear any reaction from retailers about that move?
JL: Not yet … of course, Image would hear it before I would. We’re thinking, by the time actual #27 rolls around, we can reprint it, which is free money for Rob and I, but he will also have a hole in his schedule … we’re debating doing a Poyo one-shot.
CG: Next question might be a little silly, but I’m really interested in that …
JL: Fire away!
CG: You have been working as an editor at Wildstorm for long time. In the making of Chew, there’s no editor involved. Why did Planetary or Astro City need an editor and Chew doesn’t?
JL: Well, to be honest, Planetary and Astro City did not. I was more of a proofreader and a traffic cop, standing out of Warren’s and Kurt’s way and just trying to make their vision as accurate as possible. Here, my wife proofreads, and Rob is such a pro he does not really need me to play traffic cop.
CG: Ah, I see …
JL: I did not edit those excellent books so much as I … facilitated.
CG: I’ve read that there are talks about a TV adaptation of Chew … Can you give us some information on that?
JL: Yes, Circle of Confusion, who put together and is producing The Walking Dead, is doing the same for Chew. There is no deal, per se, but Circle of Confusion is putting together a director (Stephen Hopkins of 24) and a writing team and getting a script, and THEN they will take it to networks, and say „We’re the guys that made Walking Dead happen, and a huge hit, and here’s our next TV show… want to buy it?“ and, hopefully, somebody will.
CG: I’ll keep my fingers crossed.
JL: Yeah … it’s a nice bonus, I’m just happy the comic has done so well.
CG: So, you said before that you’re also doing stuff for IDW, Marvel and Dark Horse. Can you tell me something about these projects?
JL: Doing Spider-Man, Deadpool and Hulk annuals this year, as a 3-part „Identity Wars“ story, about the characters meeting their alternate versions in a reverse parallel dimension. I’m doing a Godzilla series for IDW with Geof darrow on covers and Alberto Ponticelli doing fantastic art, and then an Aliens story for Dark Horse with Sam Kieth. So, keeping plenty busy …
CG: Was any of these your idea or have you been approached by the publishers?
JL: Chew has opened a lot of doors for me. I was turning stuff down left and right, and all of these were projects so awesome I could not say no to them.
CG: Alright, thank you very much for your time and giving me the opportunity!
JL: Sure, Thomas … I appreciate the press, especially international press!
Images: © Cross Cult, John Layman, Rob Guillory, Marvel Comics