Monday, July 28, 2014

Book-A-Day 2-14 #209: Chew, Vol. 1: Taster's Choice by Layman and Guillory

There's no particular reason why comics would have more outlandish premises than any other artform -- sure, it is cheap to do fantasy and science fiction in comics form, since you just need someone to draw it, but the written word is as cheap or cheaper. I suspect it has to do with the influence of superheroes: they're so outlandish and silly that they open up the entire medium to things that are outlandish in completely different ways.

Take Chew, for example. There's nothing in the first volume -- Chew Volume 1: Tasters Choice, one of the finest debuts of 2009 -- that couldn't be done easily on a TV show. But the premise wouldn't fly there: it's too weird for most media. But not for comics.

Writer John Layman works hard to sell his premise -- I'll get to it in a minute, scout's honor -- with a friendly, discursive style in his captions (they calm down after the first couple of issues, once the big work of world-building is done) and plenty of fizzy, occasionally self-referential dialogue. And artist Rob Guillory keeps this world looking a few shades more caricatured and grotesque than the real world, the kind of place where bizarre things would happen. Even the coloring -- by Guillory again; this is the kind of book by a tight small team doing all of it, and it's no surprise that books like that are most likely to be really good -- is a few clicks away from naturalistic, with great scene-setting washes and specific palettes for pages and places.

So Layman and Guillory sell it: they sell it well. If you can buy the idea, you can settle in, because they're ready to spin it out into a thousand utterly plausible consequences, and make it convincing -- as long as you accept that premise.

I've been saying "premise," but it's really two things. One: there are some people who are cibopathic; they get psychic resonances from the things they eat. Tony Chu, a detective with the Philadelphia PD, is one of them -- he thinks the only one. And Two, chicken has been outlawed as a food after a horrific worldwide outbreak of bird flu -- but it's clear, very early on, that effect and cause are not as closely linked, nor necessarily causally connected at all, as the world has been told.

So: Tony Chu solves crimes -- often in unpleasant ways. He can bite part of a murder victim and know who the murderer was. And he's kept this secret for years. But Chew is the story of what happens when he finds out he's not the only cibopath, when he's recruited into the FDA -- in this world, a massively powerful engine devoted to tracking down and eliminating chicken trafficking -- and when he meets the woman whose written descriptions of food are so mesmerizing that her readers have the exact sensation of eating those foods.

It is a romp with a serious core, a book with violence and humor and adventure and intrigue and secret government conspiracies and bad bosses and mysterious co-workers and hidden agendas and (maybe) true love and One Good Cop at its heart. It could have made a great TV show, in some other world. It did make a great comic, in ours. And I'll be looking for the later volumes pretty damn quick.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

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