Thursday, May 20, 2010

john layman & rob guillory, chew volume one

The world is thrilled by a big disaster. See the unpronouncable Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull, spurting out ash and stranding travellers all over Europe. And a pandemic—well, everyone gets into a frenzy about those, like last year’s swine flu, which threatened to take on Spanish flu proportions but essentially had a lesser fatality rate (though any fatality rate is terrible) than the normal flu. Before that, the panic was avian flu. But what would have happened in a world where avian flu was actually an international disaster? The comic Chew is here to tell you.

23 million Americans have died of bird flu. Chicken is, predictably, banned, but there is a flourishing black market for it. Detective Tony Chu is on the case, staking out such organisations with his partner. But Chu isn’t just your everyday cop (who is in the world of comics?) but is, in fact, Cibopathic. What is that? you ask, scrambling for your medical dictionary. Well, you won’t find it in there, so put it down and get back to reading this. Cibopaths can get impressions from what they eat on the history of where their food came from. Eating an apple will tell Cibopaths where the orchard was that it grew from and what pesticides were used. Eating a steak is accompanied by the unpleasant knowledge of how said steak got on the plate. The only food that Chu doesn’t react to is beets. And if anything will make me personally feel empathy for a character, it’s the knowledge they can only eat beetroot. Nightmarish stuff.

When a stakeout of an underground chicken restaurant turns into a much more dramatic discovery, Chu’s talent is discovered by higher powers: the Food and Drug Agency. He is recruited by the FDA as an agent with the special crimes division, and finds out he’s not the only Cibopath in the team. Also able to eat and detect is Mason Savoy, the size of a house, ridiculously tough, and, with his particular distinguished talking style whilst causing mayhem, aching to be played in my imaginary movie version by Vinnie Jones in a fatsuit. The team is rounded out by Mike Applebee, in charge of both men and a raging jerk. And together, they fight crime. And how do they do that? Well, to get a sense of their final moments (and earlier), occasionally they snack on bits of dead or dying people. Also a dog, at one point. It’s not pleasant.

It’s a novel way of crimefighting and will put you off your dinner if you’re thinking of eating anything with a possibly turbulent past. (I was eating popcorn while I read it and tried not to imagine that the kernels were in the saucepan crying out as I gleefully caused them to turn inside out.) The entire comic is great fun, the story arc for this volume, Taster’s Choice, involving yakuza, Arctic telescope stations, dismembered fingers, Russian girls in their underpants with machine guns, betrayal, possible aliens and even a little bit of love. Serious when need be, Guillory’s drawing style is angular, full of expression, and makes every scene exciting and—my favourite part—clear. In other comics, so much can be going on in a page that I spend far too long figuring out and even then being a bit confused, but this manages to have a sufficient amount of action and still be absolutely understandable. Action’s not entirely what this comic is about, however, with our Tony just trying to figure out what he’s doing in this new world, dominated with people cynical of the bird flu and out to tell the world no matter what the cost. And why he’s suddenly chomping down on the cremated remains of a Senator.

There to capture Tony’s heart is the lovely Amelia Mintz, who also has a word you’ll want to look up (but don’t bother): she’s a Saboscrivner. She can write about food so vividly that those who hear or read her words can taste the food she’s talking about just as clearly as if they were eating it. And for someone who can’t eat anything without collapsing into angst, she’s the woman of his dreams. Trouble is, he’s been sent by Applebee to do something about her, after she took to writing about less than pleasant restaurants and dragged the city’s population there with her.

It’s wonderfully rendered, with Rob Guillory’s excellent illustration perfectly matching John Layman’s rollicking storytelling. (I should be commended here for my overuse of the double-l in that last sentence.) The colour is sharp, the people of all shapes and sizes, the line between caricature and realism made blurry. It’s as enjoyable to look at as it is to read. As long as you have a relatively strong stomach for some gore.

This has been sitting for far too long on my shelf untouched by me, and while I’m partly angry at myself for waiting to get into something that’s this entertaining, I’m pleased that Volume Two, International Flavor, has just been released, collecting issues #6 to #10. I’m going to get my grubby paws on a copy as soon as I can.

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