The premise is just so… odd.
“Chew” is unlike any comic I’ve ever read, and at first I wasn’t sure that was a good thing. See, it had a couple of things going against it when I first heard about it: 1 – the premise, which I’ll get to in just a minute here, and 2 – it’s published by Image Comics. I’m the product of an Irish Catholic mother, so I know how to hold a grudge, and I still largely credit Image with everything that went wrong with comics in the 90s. Because of this, certain expectations formed in my mind and my knee-jerk reaction was to want nothing to do with “Chew.” And then when I considered the general premise of the title – a law enforcement agent who gains insight into cases and clues by eating foods, or sometimes things other than “food,” that are connected to whatever the case is, all I could really do is raise an eyebrow and ask, “Really?” This didn’t sound like a book I would enjoy at all, but to my astonishment, and to my delight, I couldn’t have been more wrong about this wonderful title.
This comic is all about Tony Chu – a “cibopath” who possesses the ability to glean information from whatever he eats, a talent that comes in handy with his work as a Philadelphia vice cop, and later the FDA. Whenever he eats something, be it food or otherwise, he is overcome with information and mental images of everything and anything connected to what he’s eating – who prepared it, everyone who had handled it, where it came from, so on and so forth. This is, of course, an involuntary response which is triggered whenever he eats something, so eating can sometimes be a traumatic experience for him. The only food that offers him a reprieve is the beet. So in his off hours, Tony eats a lot of beets.
In the world Tony inhabits, the FDA is is a vitally important organization in terms of keeping the peace. Poultry is outlawed and contraband due to a bad case of bird flu that killed millions of people, and as a result, those who transport and prepare chicken are outlaws who Tony and his colleagues then have to contend with, among other things.
Tony also enjoys tenuous relationships with his colleagues, a burgeoning romance with his dream girl, who just happens to be a food critic, and his own struggle to enjoy a normal life while managing his “gift.”
The series is written by John Layman and illustrated by Rob Guillory, both of whom work in a style I was previously unaccustomed to. Call me cynical, but with comics, I’ve learned to look upon anything that veers too far from the beaten path as suspect, but in this case it’s actually a refreshing change. Guillory’s artwork and general character design took some getting used to because from a particular vantage point it seems to have more in common with modern character animation than typical comic book artwork, which further distances it from most anything else on the comic shelves today. The cartoon-ish quality of this artwork helps make some of the subject matter in the book a little easier to digest because at times this book can be pretty darn dark, but Guillory never lets the tone sink too far into the depths by balancing the tone of the story with artwork that is almost “light-hearted” in comparison. I never thought I’d laugh as a character ate some of the flat-out gross stuff Tony eats in order to do his job. It’s unreal.
What makes this such a fun read is that it can be funny, exciting, gross, and beautiful all withing the same issue. heck, sometimes all within all the same page. It’s an imaginative take on the somewhat tired cop/detective genre thanks to skillful writing and artwork that never bores. It’s not often that I’m happy to be proven wrong, but “Chew” kicked all of my expectations square in the face, and I’m actually happy about that. This is a book that I can wholeheartedly recommend to anyone, whether they read comics or not. It’s a fun read waaaaayyyyy off the beaten path.