Welcome back to the Matt Signal, one and all! I hope everyone had a great Christmas/Yule/insert winter holiday here, and that you're ready for a new comic recommendation. This week's pick is tied into one of my favorite parts of the Christmas holiday: food. I love all the wonderful Christmas foods. and I love stuffing my face with them. And when I think about food and comics, the title that immediately pops into my head is Chew, published by Image Comics and created by John Layman and Rob Guillory.
Tony Chu has a special ability: he's a cibopath. This means that when he eats something, he can see its entire history (except, for reasons unknown, beets). Tony uses his ability quietly to help in his career in the Philadelphia PD until he's discovered and winds up getting fired, and then hired into the big leagues. No, not the FBI or CIA; it's the FDA, the Food and Drug Administration. You see, in the world of Chew, the bird flu got out of control and was a major epidemic. Poultry was outlawed, and the FDA became a major branch of law enforcement.
Chew embraces the absurdity of it's particularly odd world, a world of food superpowers, Chogs (genetically created frog/chicken hybrids), and where buying chicken and buying heroin earn you similar penalties. For all the darkness, and trust me, there's plenty of darkness, it is a singularly funny comic. At times the humor runs into the macabre, and you might be a little uncomfortable laughing at it, but you're still going to be laughing pretty hard. Tony's large family, his partner and coworkers, and many of the criminals he encounters are strange and quirky, and these personalities lead to all sort of comedy, but never to the point that is makes them unrealistic
The cast of Chew
Tony is one of those unfortunate hardluck heroes who things never seem to work out for. Every time things seem to be going his way, they turn out wrong. Oh, great, he's got a job at the FDA! Oh, his new boss hates him and gives him the worst duty he can. He and his new partner are working well together! Oops, he turned out to be a murderer and he bit off Tony's ear. He gets fired from the FDA, and becomes a meter maid, but everyone at the parking authority likes him! Argh, a group of meatheads beat him with baseball bats, kidnap him, and start feeding him dead baseball players so that they can write tell-all books about the players' sex lives! It's not an easy life, being Tony Chu.
While there are issues of Chew that are traditional crime stories, even if they do often involve crime involving illicit poultry, there is a complex mythology at work. At the end of an early issue, we see a planet in distant space explode. There's no real context at the time, but as the series progresses, something is happening on Earth that might tie in. Strange alien writing appears in the sky, just like on the destroyed planet. Bizarre otherworldly poultry tasting plants begin to pop up. And there are more and more people with a variety of food related powers. Coupled with the still mysterious bird flu outbreak, something that some firmly believe was not natural, you never know what is going to happen in any issue of Chew, and never know what is going to be an important part of the overarcing plotline.
Tony is not the only cibopath in the series. His first partner at the FDA, Mason Savoy, is one as well. Mason is cultured, intelligent, and not everything he seems. He has been investigating the bird flu, and he is one of the chief voices that say it was more than just a chicken related illness. As Mason has no problem working outside the law and killing to get answers, he becomes something of an antihero after his investigations are discovered and he leaves the FDA. Mason is ruthless, yes, but he seems to feel the ends justify the means, and that he is working towards a greater truth. There is also The Vampire, a mysterious Eastern European cibopath who has filed his canine teeth to points and puts on the air of a traditional, Draculaesque vampire while using his powers. He is the series most recurring villain, and the exact endgame of his plans remain unknown, although it has something to do with eating and taking in the powers of others. And then there's Tony's daughter, Olive, who might be the most powerful of them all, but we're still learning exactly what she's capable of.
And what a variety of food powers pop up over the course of the series! The sheer ingenuity displayed by Layman in coming up with different food based powers is another of the series's charms. There's saboscrivner Amelia Mintz, Tony's love interest, who can write about food so well that you feel like you're eating it. There's Toni Chu, Tony's twin sister, who is cibovoyant, able to see the future of any living thing she bites.There's a voresoph, who is the smartest man in the world, as long as he is eating. And my favorite, Hershel Brown the xocoscalpere, who can carve chocolate, and only chocolate, so well that he produces perfect, functioning replicas. And there are more. I wish that other comics and comic companies put so much thought into the abilities of their new characters.
Not only are there superpowered people in the Chew world, but the technology available means there are also a couple cyborgs. John Colby, Tony's Philadelphia PD partner, gets cybernetic replacement parts and works with Tony again after Savoy flees the FDA. But the other cyborg, the series's breakout star, is... POYO! Poyo is the world's deadliest rooster, champion cockfighter, and all around badass. You don't &^%# with Poyo. After sustaining injuries, the USDA rebuilt Poyo (who had spent his time in the afterlife beating up the devil), and made him their top animal agent, eventually partnering with Colby, making them a team of asskicking cyborgs. Poyo got a spinoff one shot, and any time he appears, you know you're in for some brutal action.
I've talked about a lot of characters, and frankly, I've barely scratched the surface. All of these characters fit together in the same way all the instruments of an orchestra do; they look like a random collection, but when put together just right, it's a symphony. The rest of Tony's family are a collection of bizarre and angry people, most notably Tony's bitter brother Chow, a famous poultry chef who is out of work thanks to the chicken ban, and who Tony has told in no uncertain terms that he will be locked up if Tony catches him breaking the law again. Caesar Valenzano, another FDA agent, has some secrets form Tony that tie him to other members of the cast and reminds me of a character in a favorite movie of mine curious about what a quarter pounder in France might be called. And Mike Applebee, Ton'y FDA boss, is the kind of boss that you look at and are grateful that you have any other boss in the world.
One of the things that I find interesting about Chew is that, despite all the humor, it can be a very serious comic that rarely takes violence lightly; the only time it ever seems to is some of the over the top sequences with Poyo, which take on an almost cartoonish feeling since we're dealing with a superdeadly chicken. Tony suffers a lot of abuse, and he pays for it. He spends issues in a coma, and others recovering from the abuse he takes. Characters who get hurt stay hurt, with scars and the results of the violence clear, and blood is used liberally but realistically. This gives the book a sense of real danger, where characters can suffer and die and you know it's not going to be pretty when they do.
Artist Rob Guillory has a very distinctive style, and one that perfectly suits Chew. His art isn't completely realistic, with characters body's and expressions being a little beyond what you would see in most work from, say, mainstream superhero comics, but he never moves into the realm of the surreal. He presents excellent facial expressions and character scenes are great under his pen. His action scenes are equally excellent, with great continuity from panel to panel, making the scenes easy to follow, even when massive chaos is ensuing (I'm looking at you, Poyo).
A couple additional fun Chew facts. Most character names have some pun or tie to food and eating; Tony Chu, Amelia Mintz, Olive Chu. They do get more esoteric than that, so its fun to pick up the references. Also, if you're a cat person, you might find it fun that the letters pages at the back of each issue (yes, letters pages! I love that Image still has letters pages in so many of their books) have pictures readers have sent in with their cats and issues of Chew. I've been meaning to get a picture of my cat with my trades. I might have to put that up here one way or the other.
Chew is a comic that really defies category. It's has something for everyone, and can leave you scratching your head, doubled over with laughter, or with a tear in your eye. It's a mystery with science fiction elements, or maybe a science fiction story with humor. Or maybe it's the ultimate culinary mystery. But what it is, at its most basic, is great comics, and well worth checking out.
There are six Chew trades available, collecting up through issue #30, the halfway point of the series. Issue #31 is due out in late January.