I must confess, lately I’ve been a bit annoyed by Chew. Perhaps it’s just sour grapes, given that for two years in a row now Chew has defeated what I felt were superior books (Sweet Tooth in 2010 for Best New Comic and Scalped in 2011 for Best Continuing Series) at the Eisner awards. Perhaps it’s the fact that I’m tired of people speculating that every Image #1 that gets released (and there’s been a lot in recent months, it seems) could be “the next Chew“, after this series became a surprise hit upon its debut in 2009. Whatever the reason, I often find myself thinking that, aside from some moments of sporadic brilliance, Chew hasn’t quite been able to quite live up to the sheer excellence of “Taster’s Choice”, its first story arc, and isn’t as great as the hype would suggest.
So, I have all these grievances and grumbles about Chew in my head. That is, until I actually read an issue. Without fail, whenever I read a new issue of writer John Layman and artist Rob Guillory’s oddball conspiracy comedy-thriller, I’m reminded (and perhaps that’s the problem – the big gaps between issues makes me forget) that Chew is one of the most consistently entertaining titles on the stands, and that rarely is there an issue that doesn’t offer at least one laugh-out-loud moment. So really, begrudging it for beating Scalped at the Eisners is like begrudging No Country For Old Men for beating There Will Be Blood at the Oscars: my personal favorite in the category may have lost out, but the one that won was still very much a deserving award winner on its own merits.
For those unfamiliar with Chew, I might tell you that is a series set in a world where chicken has been made illegal, in the wake of a recent avian flu epidemic, and that our main character, Tony Chu, is a cibopath, someone who can eat something, and instantly tell you about the history of that thing – be it an apple, or a sausage, or a chunk out of a dead body. But the sprawling narrative has expanded so far beyond that premise, giving us a detailed, far-reaching, yet utterly bizarre mythology that is still being uncovered, that the initial synopsis no longer does the scope and complexity of the series justice.
Indeed, because of the farcical, comedic caper nature of the storylines, it’s easy to overlook just how much of a labyrinthine plot Chew has. It’s a credit to Layman’s skill as a writer that it all feels palpable, even simple, when in fact the plotting is deceptively intricate. This is what puts Chew well ahead of Morning Glories (that most common recipient of the “next Chew” buzz) in my book. Both are titles driven by mysteries and unanswered questions, but Chew doesn’t get so caught up in it that it forgets to make each issue a compelling, rewarding reading experience in its own right. I’ve never read an issue of Chew, even one that leaves lots of questions hanging and mysteries unresolved, and thought, “Hurry up and get on with it.” Because each issue has its own drama that makes it work as a standalone comic you can just pick up, read and enjoy, rather than simply being an exercise in getting to the next cliffhanger – a lesson Morning Glories could benefit from learning.
In the case of Chew #20, the “case-of-the-week” (playing against the backdrop of the larger mysteries that have emerged in this “Flambe” story arc) revolves around The Church of the Divinity of the Immaculate Ova (only in Chew), an egg-worshipping cult that Tony Chu and his cyborg partner John Colby are sent to investigate. It’s an entertaining enough diversion, but ultimately it ends up feeling like that: a diversion. Just something for Tony to do, while the real meat of the issue revolves around the bookend sequences at the start and end of the issue, featuring Tony’s enigmatic former mentor, Mason Savoy.
It is also in these sequences that Guillory really gets to cut loose, unloading with a barrage of lush double-page spreads that play on some familiar imagery from the opening issue. Guillory continues to steal the show with his quirky artwork on Chew. A lot of his character designs are just inately funny, so much so they could probably garner a chuckle even if Layman scripted them as doing nothing but silently reading the phonebook. And I love the little details and Easter eggs (Easter Immaculate Ovas?) that he throws in. For example, a few issues back we saw the cast of Fringe pop up in the background of one scene. And here, take a look at the visual gag he adds with the Kool-Aid the cult is passing around.
Overall, this is a pretty unremarkable issue of Chew, mainly setting the stage for more interesting things to come. But such is the nature of this series that even the less than stellar installments can still make for a fun read. Next year, Showtime will be producing a pilot for a Chew TV series. So, if you want to be one of the trendy kids who liked the series before it was cool, now’s the time to jump onboard.