[Guest review by Tom Speelman]
I’ve always said that the best Marvel stories were written in the ‘60s and ‘70s, during the age of Steve Ditko, Jack Kirby, and Stan Lee. Why? Because those stories are the definition of sequential art and comic storytelling: they’re loud, in your face, pulsing with action, and bursting with over-the-top plots and characters. It’s fun to read and easy to get swept up in.
Chew: Taster's Choice is a perfect example of that. But if the House of Ideas is its parent, then the modern-day police comedy-drama (Law & Order, CSI, Monk) is its sibling. With both of those spheres to draw from, the series winds up a strange mix, but a very pleasant one.
It’s prepared for us by writer John Layman, who, funnily enough, has some writing credits for Marvel, and artist Rob Guillory, who, as far as I can find, has no other major comic credits [I think he has children's book illustration credits -- ed.]. That simply astounds me because Guillory knows what he’s doing, drawing dynamic action & laugh-out-loud gags with ease. His tight pencils and mastery of digital coloring pretty much make this an easy sell.
The series’ concept is breathtakingly original. Years ago, a massive global pandemic of bird flu occurred, resulting in the U.S. government banning chicken. Naturally, it’s not something that’s been accepted well, and the idea of anti-government sentiment is a pretty strong underlying theme in this book (and also a very timely one). There are a whole lot of crimes committed involving chicken (chicken speakeasies, black market “chickyn,” etc.), and in the course of dealing with these crimes, the FDA has gained police powers and has become a new extension of the law.
The plot revolves around Tony Chu, a detective who is cibopathic, meaning he gets psychic impressions off of whatever he eats (except beets for some reason). In the first chapter, Tony and his partner John attempt to bust a serial killer working in a chicken speakeasy they’ve been staking out, and it doesn’t go well, ending with his partner near death and Tony having to bite the dead killer’s face off in order to find information about his victims. This little act almost gets Tony fired, but instead brings him to the attention of the FDA, who hire him to work alongside another cibopath named Mason Savoy.
Pretty quickly, Mason and Tony develop the classic mentor-mentee relationship, and they balance each other great, mostly in their dialogue. Tony tends to speak in short sentences, every bit the classic cop; Mason, on the other hand, bursts into monologues about as often as Macbeth. I think it’s that quality that makes him, far and away, my favorite character. Some of his lines are just fantastic, and reading them always makes me think of the late voice actor Tony Jay (Frollo in Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame).
The two spend most of the book investigating the murder of a New York health inspector, which makes this a simple (yet well-done) whodunit for the most part. I say “most” because it’s suddenly interrupted by a chapter involving vampire-worshippers, perverted scientists, and aliens.
And that’s where the old-school Marvel vibe kicks in, because it’s an effortless transition. Layman takes us from gritty detective drama to far-out supernatural thriller and it doesn’t feel any different at all. It’s the sort of shtick writers like Dan Jurgens and Roger Stern used in their Superman work in the ‘90s, and Layman follows that path well.
More than that, it’s obvious that he has the whole grand scheme of the series worked out already. In addition to the vampire worshippers and aliens, there is Tony’s brother Chow, a disgraced TV chef (who reminds me of Ken Jeong of The Hangover fame); Amelia Mintz, a food critic who writes so vividly people can taste it; a pro-chicken terrorist group called E.G.G.; and a man hidden in the shadows in an office full of frogs.
Will any of these people show up again? Well, having already read Volume 2 of Chew, I can confidently say yes. Will I say what they do? No, you’re gonna have to wait 'til my next review for that!
(Contains full covers, sketchbook, and creator bios.)