Phoenix Comicon 2011: Chew on This! John Layman & Rob Guillory
By Libbi Rich

I’ve mentioned my favorite comic of the past few years, Chew, a number of times.  Written by John Layman, and illustrated by Rob Guillory, Chew is great stuff: an engaging police mystery that is by turns funny, bizarre, intriguing, funny, touching, thought-provoking, funny, sick (in the good and bad meanings of the word), and, if I didn’t already mention it, really, really hilarious.  The art is innovative, evocative, rich and unique, just like the story.

Chew’s protagonist is Tony Chu, a Philadelphia detective who happens to be a cibopath … he gets a psychic impression from whatever he eats (except, inexplicably, beets).  For instance, a sip from a bowl of chicken soup reveals the chef murdering people and using their remains as the main ingredient.  It gets stranger, and more wonderful, from there.

If you haven’t already had the pleasure of experiencing Chew, I recommend getting a little familiarity with the subject by going back in time a bit to read this excellent pre-publication discussion in Comic Book Resources.

Since it’s debut in 2009, Chew has won numerous awards and accolades:  Notably, in 2010, Chew won the prestigious Eisner Award for Best New Series, as well as nabbing the Harvey for Best New Series and the Best New Talent Award for Guillory.  IGN named Chew “Best Indie Series” 0f 2009, and Chew was crowned Best New Series by MTV.

Just last week, at the 2011 San Diego Comic Con, Chew won the 2011 Eisner Award for Best Continuing SeriesChew is also nominated for the 2011 Harvey Award for Best Continuing Series (winners to be announced on August 20, 2011 at Baltimore Comic-Con).

Last, but certainly not least, Showtime is developing a live-action series based on Chew.  Stephen Hopkins (Californication, 24) is attached to direct and produce it.

Layman and Guillory took a few minutes to speak with DOOM!

DOOM:  I’m glad you did the big Chew panel before this interview.  Now I don’t have to ask the stupid questions.

John Layman:  I guess the things I really wanted to hit right off the bat (at the panel) are the “how to did you meet, and how did you get your idea” questions, because that’s what we’re asked all the time.  Or “who does the inside jokes?”  Those are the three questions we get all the time.

DOOM: I search every issue for those little surprises!  Rob, do you every put in any Easter eggs that are directed to John?

Rob Guillory: Absolutely. I’ve had him fighting babies and eating Eisners before. I don’t know if you’ve caught any of those.

Layman: I saw that.

DOOM:  Do you go looking for them?

Layman: When I letter, I’m lettering very low-res stuff, and a lot of it–you can’t read that. And then he gives me high-res stuff at the very end when production is saying, “we need an issue, we gotta go to print,” so I am pasting it up and into production as fast as possible and a lot of times I don’t see the inside jokes until after it prints. Sometimes, someone will write, “oh, I love the Green Mile gag,” and I’m like, “oh, wait, what?” And, “oh, shit, I didn’t even notice that.” I feel pathetic not seeing jokes in my own book, but it is also fun–it shows you how dense Chew is, because I will have read the book a thousand times before it goes to print and not see those things.

DOOM:  Rob, one of the things you said at the panel was that people kept telling you,“don’t draw this way,” and you see all of these guys doing fanart and copying the big guys’ styles, and I’m really glad you were able to find a writer who said to you, “draw this way.”

Guillory: Yeah, I am.

DOOM:  I just read the Chew scriptbook–which is great from a writers’ perspective–you write really long form, chatty scripts.

Layman: But even mine, you gotta keep in mind–I wasn’t writing for Rob. At that point, in some ways it was more detailed, because I didn’t know who was going to get what, so I had to… and now, I don’t have to write in any less detail, but I talk to Rob now.

DOOM:  Now do you, when you see all of this, do you feel that it makes it easier to you, or do you feel like it constrains you?

Guillory: I feel like he gives me exactly enough. It’s enough that I can get an idea of what he wants, but at the same time, I know enough about–early on, I kind of ingrained my sensibilities into the backbone of what Chew is–enough that I get it. I know exactly what he wants, I know what works, and I know how far I can take it in my own. So it’s perfect.

Layman: He’s got veto power. I will say, “oh, big panel here, small panel here, two panels equal size”–but that’s what I see in my head, and when Rob has a better idea, it always works out for the better. I’ve learned that you’re going to get your best stuff by collaborating, and I have worked with  [?] writers who just don’t get it, and some of them are gone now–because you don’t last if you don’t collaborate well. What I was saying–you’re so set on your own genius, and someone deviates from that, it’s no good.

DOOM:  Rob, You went to school to be an artist, you’ve always wanted to be an artist, when you were a kid–as soon as you picked up a pencil, you were drawing. If, for some reason, you could not produce art anymore, how would this affect you?

Guillory: I would go into writing instantly. That’s the only other avenue for me. If I couldn’t do it visually, I’d have to become a writer and try, somehow, to find an artist that got what I was trying to do.

DOOM:  Is it a create or die situation?

Guillory: Yeah, I kinda feel like this is pretty much what I was born to do, so if I wasn’t doing this, I don’t know what else I would be doing. I would probably working at Taco Bell or something.

DOOM:  And I’m going to ask you the same question, John. I’ve been dying to ask you this question, because you’ve been on this trajectory for a long time, and you have been so persevering–with Chew, particularly. If somehow, someway, you lost the ability to create stories, how would affect you.

Layman: I lose that every month. I go for walks…

DOOM:  But you’ve tried the block tricks, you’ve done everything–and, for some reason, you just can’t do it anymore.

Layman: I don’t know. Nothing would matter at that point. There’s nothing else I’ve ever wanted to do–there were certain points, before Chew–I had three heartbreaks at one time. Marvel Zombies vs. Army of Darkness had some ugliness behind it. Scarface, I was super proud of it, and it flopped. And there was one other book at the same time that didn’t do well, and all the work stopped and I moved into video games. It was much better pay, but it just wasn’t the same satisfaction. I knew I was always going to be in comics or I wasn’t going to be happy.

DOOM:  And are you happy?

Layman: I guess I’m as happy as I get, which, sometimes–I look and I’m like, “wow, things are pretty good.”

DOOM:  John, you portray yourself as a pretty hard-partying guy.

Layman: Yeah, that’s all an act.

DOOM:  In stories you tell, or others tell about you, you smoke dope, you’re drinking all the time–there’s the old “John drinking” pictures thing–and that’s persona?

Layman: It is based on truth, and once you get me drinking–once I’ve got a few beers in me, I’m like, “let’s do coke!” And I will–but I admit that most Friday nights are me playing Warcraft and going to bed with the wife at 10:30. There is the point–at San Diego Con–the bar is open and I am double and triple fisting, anything you hand me, I will do. I tend to be very much of a degenerate when I get the opportunity, but I don’t have much of an addictive personality–which has always saved me. Like in college, I had roommates who were cokeheads and coke dealers, and I would do as much coke as you could hand me, but if you wanted me to start paying–I’d rather buy comic books. I guess comics trump degeneracy, ultimately.

DOOM:  Rob, You’re new in the scene, is there’s a public image that you’re trying to build–aside from the art. I know that, in music–frontmen in particular build stage personae.

Layman: The internet’s full of that. I know a lot of comic book creators and they are not as they present themselves on the internet.

Guillory: For me, I don’t think there’s a persona–what I put forth is me. I mean, it’s just who I am. Ideally, who I want to be–and I’ve never said it publicly–I want to be this generation’s Will Eisner. I’m just getting started, but I’ve yet to come anywhere near my full potential–and I’ll be 29 this week–so I have a long way to go. But that’s the only thing I put forth–I want to be the best that there is, and Chew’s kinda like that thing when it’s done, I’ll be in my mid 30s, and I’ll have this sixty-issue thing like behind me.

DOOM: How do you feel about your nomination for Artist of the Year?

Guillory: It’s pretty freaky. It feels like a bit of a practical joke, because I was told by so many people that I wasn’t good enough to be this whatever in comics, to have this status in comics–so to win that would be such a kick in the pants to those people, that I think I would be very happy with that. The vindictive part of me really wants to win it for those purposes, but the other side of me is like, just to be nominated for that is pretty amazing.

DOOM:  And how do you feel, John, considering that you’re up for your second?

Layman: I feel different than Rob, ‘cause I’m considerably older, and all I ever wanted–I grew up on Cerebus, and there were times when I was reading twenty comics a month, and there were times that I would go to the comic store and just read Cerebus. And Cerebus went wildly off-the-rails and it doesn’t mean what it should have meant to me, now, but it was a creator-owned thing that was going to be this guy’s thing. And this is what I’ve always wanted to do, my own little Cerebus–my own little world, my own little story. I don’t need to 300 issues, I don’t need an aardvark–but for me, when this thing ends, I’ll be at Death’s doorstep because I’m so old. If this is the only thing I do, and never anything else–I’m cool with that. This is all I’ve ever wanted to do–we’re doing this, we’re going to get to the end.

DOOM:  I need to discuss the 60 issue thing–because you know I interviewed Robert Kirkman at Amazing Arizona, and I know you have a great relationship with him, and part of that relationship is ribbing each other, a lot. I asked Kirkman about his going forever thing compared to your, “I’m doing Chew for sixty issues, and that’s it.” The quote is: “Oh damn, that’s lame.” So give me a response.

Layman: I can’t write to go forward forever, I would get bored and I think there’s a point where things become pointless, and I have to write with an ending in mind–otherwise, I feel there’s no purpose. There’s no ribbing for Kirkman on this, if he can do it, but man he’s building up the body count and when he kills Rick–it’s not going to be The Walking Dead to me. And really, Walking Dead is Rick’s story, and man, you’ve done a hell of a job on Rick’s family. When the bodies are dropping and when we get to the end–then it’s the end. I don’t want to go forever because it’s my Cerebus, it’s a novel. And novels have an end.

DOOM:  And so, unfortunately, do interviews.  But before we close this chapter, one final question for each of you.  If you woke up tomorrow, and it was the Zombie Apocalypse, what would you do?

Layman: Go back to bed, and let the first zombie I see bite me. I got no fight in me for zombie apocalypses.

Guillory: Steal a station wagon. Load up the family. And start killin’.

Libbi Rich (40 Posts)

Middle-aged punk princess; pop culture hound; geekgirl; liberal activist and general shit-stirrer; reader of nanopunk/cyberpunk/comics/ anything-I-can-get-my-hands-on; wife and mom.