A lot of the appeal in the Chew comic lies in the characters and the humor.
Once in a while, a comic comes along unlike anything you’ve seen before. With its exuberant art, wild characters, and bizarre plot, the Chew comic is one of those. It’s some of the most amazing world building in comics.
A Strange Food Related Super Power
Written by John Layman and illustrated by Rob Guillory, Chew follows the adventures of Tony Chu. Tony is a government agent with a very unusual power – he gains the memories of anything he eats. If that’s a tomato, he’ll remember sun warming its skin, the water soaking into its roots, the moment it was plucked from the vine. If it’s a steak, then he’ll remember the cow’s life, including the horror and pain of its final trip to the slaughter house. And then there’s the time his investigation hinges on a used diaper…
The role of food in this science fiction comic goes beyond just Chu’s power. A massive bird flu epidemic has pushed chicken eating underground. There are illegal chicken restaurants, poultry substitutes, and dozens of other signs of food-related weirdness. Tony Chu and the growing number of other people with food-related powers play a vital role in their world.
A lot of the appeal of Chew lies in the characters and the humor. As the exaggerated, angular designs make clear from the first page, this is an offbeat story with a lot of funny elements. There are characters you love and characters you love to hate, but what there aren’t any of are boring characters.
Yet the thing that really makes Chew unique is its world building.
Repercussions of Chew’s Weird World
The food-related madness is more than just a sprinkling of novelty across the setting. It’s the fundamental twist to the world on which Layman and Guillory build. They’ve really thought it through.
You can see this in the endless range of different powers that show up. People who can list the ingredients of anything they taste. Who can make deadly weapons out of food. Who can make descriptions of food so vivid that they delight or sicken depending upon what’s described.
The illegality of chicken also shows up in a lot of different ways. Like any sort of prohibition, from America’s attempts to ban alcohol in the 1920s through to the modern war on drugs, it creates resistance and opportunism. There are criminal gangs and speakeasies selling illicit chicken. There are smugglers. There are protest movements. There are entire divisions of the government dedicated to enforcing a hugely unpopular law.
The repercussions stack up. The FDA is far more powerful in this world than ours. International incidents can arise over food. Terrorists strike out against the chicken ban, while famous chefs use their wealth to evade it. There are cults and conspiracies, even meta-powers used to manipulate the existing food powers.
Small, absurd changes can have huge consequences, and Chew explores that to the full.
Character and World Building in the Chew Comic
The best world building ties the world and characters closely together. The characters are reflections of their world and their existence tells readers something about that world. In Tolkien’s Middle Earth or Lucas’s galaxy far, far away, every character we meet enriches the setting.
This is something that Chew does brilliantly. From Tony’s roguish partner to his sister working at NASA to the criminals he arrests, everyone brings a new facet to the world and illuminates a different corner of it.
The characters give us a reason to peer into every corner of Chew’s world. As investigators, Tony Chu and his colleagues have cause to go almost anywhere. They run up against all the complications that food-related powers can create, from illegal dining clubs to taco-based murders. They run into the moral dilemmas this world creates. After all, how harshly do you punish someone who just wants to eat chicken?
The supporting cast show the different ways that people are shaped by and react to this world. A vampiric villain leads to an exploration of super-powered crime. A celebrity chef takes us into the cultural consequences of a world where food is even more important than in our own. Law enforcement officials show the inter-agency conflicts that arise from dealing with weird crimes as well as the different ways that officials respond, from the rigidly lawful to the deeply corrupt.
No-one is exactly who they would be in a world like ours. Because this isn’t a world like ours.
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Vivid Details in the Chew Comic
Grand sweeping vision and exploring the consequences give a science fiction world its shape. But what brings it to life are the details. Chew is rich with those.
Layman’s writing is important in this. Passing snippets of dialogue, single panel flashbacks, and brief references to solved cases add people, organizations, and incidents to the world, from a suit made of bacon to an exploding cow.
But it’s Guillory’s art that really brings this alive. Some panels are relatively sparse, letting the characters and their actions stand out. Others are full of background details. Adverts for imaginary products. Signs for ridiculous shops. A crowd of villains in which a suited mobster eating a banana sandwich sits next a neo-Nazi with a hair swastika.
Even a full-page image of two characters lying in bed is made marvelous by the scattered details of their lives, from mismatched socks to unexpectedly titled magazines. This is a world in which you can buy “Buff Einstein Weekly”, for those with a thing for muscled geniuses. Such little details, off on tangents from the main thrust of the story, imply a whole world beyond what we see.
A Complete and Wild World
The Chew comic has finished its run of monthly issues. This is good news for anyone coming to it now, as you can collect and read the entire story of Tony Chu’s adventures, delving deep into his crazy and fascinating world.
It’s a place with a cyborg chicken, jelly-wearing criminals, and a menace from outer space. It’s weird and wonderful and an awful lot of fun. It’s a great story and some really great world building.
Featured Images: courtesy of Image Comics