Food and comics are two of my biggest interests, so I’m always looking for an excuse to combine the two together. It’s why I’m kicking myself for only recently discovering the Chew series created by John Layman. The series follows Tony Chu, a Food and Drugs Administration agent who solves crimes by getting psychic visions from the food he eats. His power puts him a variety of messed up situations that involve cannibalism, gun fights and murder all in an effort to uphold the law. Chew: Volume 1: Taster’s Choice introduces the character’s world and it’s one of the most original, entertaining stories I’ve ever read.
Chew is set in modern day America where an outbreak of Bird Flu has led to a ban on chicken and other products. This has led to a black market for food and illegal ‘chicken speakeasies’ being common around the country. The FDA are considered elite government agents who enforce the law and put a stop to any food-related crimes. Layman’s creativity is to be admired for taking such a simple concept and expanding it to include a plethora of relatable themes, such as fascism, censorship, opression and the nature of justice.
At the heart of the conflict is Asian-American cop Tony Chu. As a ‘cibopath,’ Chu is able to get a psychic impression of what’s happened to any object that he eats. For example, eating an apple would tell him where it was grown, what pesticides were used and if anyone had touched it. As a side effect, this stops Chu from being able to enjoy food because of the amount of information he absorbs. The only food that his power doesn’t work on his beets.
While investigating a chicken speakeasy with his partner, Chu discovers a serial killer is working in the building. Chu confronts the killer and demands he gives up the names of his victims. The murderer slashes his own throat, which forces Chu to bite into him so he can absorb the memories of where the victims were killed. When I read this scene for the first time I found it grotesquely hilarious. Chu is successful in bringing the killer to justice, but he’s fired from his job because of his actions.
The FDA become aware of Chu’s talents and take him on as an agent. He’s paired with another cibopath called Mason Savoy, who acts as a mentor and father figure to the young detective. Savoy is an awesome supporting character, being described as the offspring of “George Orwell and a grizzly bear.” Not only is Savoy well-spoken and erudite, he’s capable of taking out an entire room filled with Yakuza on his and Chu’s first assignment together.
Chu is tasked with investigating the disappearance of a health inspector and along the way he meets a journalist called Amelia Mintz. A ‘Saboscrivner,’ Mintz can write about food in such vivid detail that it causes anyone who reads her reviews to experience the same taste sensations. She’s grown bored with her job and started writing about disgusting food that’s caused readers to vomit. Chu is instantly attracted to her and it makes for hysterical reading. There’s a terrific scene where Amelia makes a group of terrorists vomit with her words and Chu believes it’s a match made in heaven.
Chu’s investigations lead him to discover that Savoy is responsible for killing the health inspector. Savoy reveals that he believes the government is lying about the Bird Flu epidemic and vowed to find the truth at any cost. This drives a wedge between them and sets up the conflict for future stories.
Layman’s writing is a joy, not only because of its originality, but because of the delight he takes in grossing out and making readers laugh at the same time. Chu is a relatable protagonist, an awkward, mundane hero who makes the most of his ability, despite how much he hates using it. He’s treated as a freak and outcast because of his power, but he continues to do as much good as he can.
The story is even better because of Rob Guillory’s quirky art style. There’s an exaggerated quality to his panels that contrast well with darker scenes. His versatility is excellent, as he can shift between bright and colourful action sequences, to quieter scenes where two people are talking in a room. Each expression is accounted for and you can tell what a character is thinking about.
Chew Volume 1: Taster’s Choice is a brilliant introduction to a world I’m looking forward to discovering more of. It’s the kind of story that has all the qualities of a fine main course: filling, exciting and easy to consume. Food lovers and comic fans will enjoy reading this graphic novel, so be sure to purchase it on Amazon.