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Image Month: John Layman Takes a Bite out of Image

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John Layman and Rob Guillorry’s Chew began in 2009 to almost instant success, including four printings and an additional reprinting in Image’s Image First line.  Starring the Cibopathic Tony Chu, an FDA Agent "blessed" with the ability to see the past in the food he eats, Chew quickly garnered both fan and critical acclaim across the entire comics industry.  In its first year of publication alone, Chew went on to receive not only an Eisner for Best New Series (2010), but also two Harvey Awards for Best New Series and Best New Talent (2010). 

John Layman, the creator and writer of Chew, took a step away from his busy writing and convention schedule to take a seat with Broken Frontier to talk about the history of Image Comics, his work in the industry, and of course Chew.  Grab your fork and knives and prepare yourself for the eccentric and comedic world of Chew.

BROKEN FRONTIER: This year marks the 20th anniversary of Image Comics. From the perspective of a reader and fan, how have you seen Image evolve over the past two decades?

JOHN LAYMAN: I think Image has gotten smarter, and better, without ever losing the core principals they initially stood for, namely creator rights. I think Image, at least as far as content, could have been a bit of a flash-in-the-pan. They were definitely a product of the more flashy, superficial 90s when they started, but they’ve grown and evolved and adapted to the market, (having some ups and downs, naturally) while never losing sight of it as a platform for creators, and creator-owned comics.

BF:  Were you into any Image books from the start?

LAYMAN: Not really. I picked up Spawn and Savage Dragon for a while. But the truth is I’ve never been much of a superhero guy. I think, at least in the beginning, I liked what Image represented more than the comics themselves.

BF:  Are there any series in particular in the company’s history that really appealed to you and helped form your own creative voice?

LAYMAN: Well, this is probably the “duh,” answer, but complete control and ownership. Who else offers that? Nobody! If you want creator-owned, and DON’T need a page rate, Image is absolutely the best deal. That isn’t debatable, isn’t even in question. It’s a fact.

BF:  Before you started writing comics, you were an editor for Wildstorm. How did you experience the transition from Image to DC? What were some of the key editorial decisions you made that helped shape the direction of the Wildstorm titles you edited?

LAYMAN: Well, as a WildStorm editor I was more of a shepherd and traffic cop more than an editor, even once DC bought us. Certainly I was not an editor in the same way Marvel and DC editors are. The best part of the job was all the scripts I got to read, from people like Warren Ellis, Kurt Busiek, Joe Casey, Joe Kelly, Mark Millar and many, many others. I like to think I learned from all of them.

BF:  Your first Image book wasn’t Chew; Puffed with Dave Crosland was. In what way was that book helpful or instrumental in getting Chew approved by the Image publishers?

LAYMAN:  I think not just Puffed, but everything I did prior to Chew, helped set the stage for it. You learn something with everything you do, and I took something, both as a “do this” and a “do not do this” from every project, culminating in Chew. Puffed was not perfect but, in general, the good far, FAR outweighed the bad. I think it helped Chew in that I already had a relationship with Image, and I already knew how things were done.

BF: Chew, hands down, has been one of the funniest and most well drawn books since its very first issue.  Tony Chu’s Cibopathic story is bizarre, and his world is open to almost any possibility.  What was the initial inspiration for Chew, and how has Tony’s world evolved since the outset?

LAYMAN:  I wish I had a clever answer for this, or some interesting story behind this. Alas, I have no idea, or recollection what the initial inspiration of Chew was.

BF:  It’s fair to say that in Rob Guillory, Chew landed the perfect artist for the bizarre and hilarious tone of the series.  How did you both come to work together and how much of Chew’s unique style can be attributed to Rob?

LAYMAN: We were introduced by a mutual friend, and the truth is, I just got really, really lucky with Rob. He’s a tremendously hard, dedicated worker. His versatility and sense of humor have no doubt freed me to make Chew more and more wildly outlandish, without ever worrying about whether we can pull it off.

BF:  Almost a year back, Chew took a bold chance and “flash-forwarded” to issue #27, which gave readers the chance to see where Chew was heading in the upcoming months.  Chew #27 proved to be one of the funniest and most entertaining issues yet (thanks in part to the delicious looking Chogs). How did the time-traveling idea originate?

LAYMAN: First off, I often write out of sequence, and the issue was done, and I was eager to get it into the hands of readers. Secondly, sister Toni Chu is the opposite of brother Tony. Where Tony eats something and sees the past, Toni eats something and sees the future. I thought it would be funny, when focusing on the character who sees the future, to jump ahead and actually show readers the future. Plus, it was just a really fun gimmick, and, as a writer, it was an interesting challenge, giving me something to seamlessly work toward.

BF:  What was Image’s reaction to such a daring move? And from your readers?

LAYMAN:  Image was perfectly fine with it. I never got any static for it, from Image or the readers. Got chewed out by a couple of retailers, though. Image was perfectly supportive of it as something totally suited for the weird world of Chew.

BF:  Poyo’s return to Chew was the most unexpected and thrilling cliffhanger Chew #25 could have possibly ended on.  What kinds of changes will readers see now that the brutal rooster has returned as a mechanized foul?

LAYMAN: Well, for one, it’s opened the door to do our Chew: Secret Agent Poyo one-shot coming out in July. Poyo is one of everybody’s absolute favorite characters, so I knew it would be well-received when he returned, and got teamed up with the OTHER major fan-favorite character of the book, the low-standard cyborg cyber-stud John Colby.

BF:  Now that Chew is inching closer and closer to the proper place of issue #27, several story pieces begin to fall in place, mainly that Tony’s daughter Olive is still on the loose with her father’s mortal enemy, Mason Savoy.  Will Olive’s story continue to be a secondary thread, or will her and Mason’s journey move to the forefront of Chew?

LAYMAN: I think both and neither. Chew has such a large supporting cast that a continual rotation between the person taking the center stage is to be expected. I mean, the book will always primarily focus on Tony Chu, but both Olive and Mason have their own stories and arcs, as do the majority of other characters in the book. We’ll be returning to all of them… eventually.

BF: A quick frame flashed Chew forward to issue #60. Do you have an idea at this point of how long Tony’s story will truly turn out to be?

LAYMAN: Issue #60 is the last issue. It was conceived with an end-point and we’ve been working with as a 60-issue “novel” for some time now. That is firm and will not change.

BF:  Little has been said on the Chew TV series in development at Showtime. At some point, you mentioned you would be producing in some capacity, and perhaps join the writing team. So, have you become more involved with the production process?

LAYMAN: Not yet. Things are moving forward very slowly. That being said, they continue to move forward. I’m told this is normal for these things. At least until something happens and it finally moves at lightening speed.

BF:  Can you comment on the casting process? If not, who would you pick to portray Tony Chu?

LAYMAN: Ken Leung, Miles from Lost, is our ideal Tony Chu. We’re too early in the development to be seriously thinking about casting, but we send Ken and his manager Chew every time an issue comes out. We’re hoping when it IS casting time, we can at least attempt to play matchmaker, and see if the stars align, in terms of interest and money and schedules and whatnot.

BF:  Lastly, many readers are sure to know of the great Twitter Trend, #LaymanVsScorpions.  How fares your epic battle against those menacing arachnids?

LAYMAN:  I’m not sure. I live in an area of Gilbert, Arizona plagued with poisonous bark scorpions. They glow under black light so I go outside every night with a ultraviolet flashlight and rubber hammer and kill as many as I can. We had a neighbor that didn’t really care that the scorpions seem to nest in his yard, and a new neighbor with a baby has moved in, and we’re coordinating exterminator visits and doing proactive things like filling in our cinder block walls with silicone sealant. It’s too early to tell until the very hot summer months, but I’m hoping we get the scorpion population under control, at least compared to how it’s been in years past.

Make sure to check out Chew #26 when hits shelves May 16, 2012.   

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