Interview with John Layman of Chew

One of the perks of going as press to London Super Comic Con is having the opportunity to interview John Layman, who is a guest and panel host at LSCC this year.  Although Layman has written for DC and Marvel Comics and served as an editor at Wildstorm, he is probably best known for authoring the critically acclaimed series Chew for Image Comics.

I asked him about diversity in comics, his writing process, and where he gets all those food puns from:

How did the idea for Chew come about?

JL: Honestly, I have no idea, and I kinda hate that question, because I don’t have an interesting story behind it. Chew was something that I’d been developing for so long I have no recollection of how and why it came to be. It just seemed to be something I’d ALWAYS been working on, before enough people rejected it and I decided to make the book happen for myself.

One frequently praised aspect of Chew is its Asian-American leading man, Tony Chu. Did you originally intend to make him Asian-American – and if so, how did you decide that? – or was that decided as the plan for the series developed? What kind of reactions to this, both anticipated and unanticipated, have you and [Chew artist] Rob Guillory seen?

JL: My wife is Asian, and, in theory, our kid would be half Asian, though if you look at him he seems to have got all of my genes and none of hers. At the time I was developing Chew, though, before he was born, I thought there should be some characters out there that looked liked him in comics, that weren’t the clichéd kung fu fighter or mystic monk. So I put it out there, and of course it’s been well-received. Everybody in comics seems to be white – or a wildly disproportionate amount [of characters], anyway – but comics readership is vast and varied.

ChewAnother thing that makes this series stand out for me is its focus on food. All the storylines, powers, and names are all food-oriented. Is there a particular thematic significance of food that you and Rob Guillory wanted to bring out with this?

JL: Though it seems obvious now, I wasn’t focused on the universality of food, and had I been I might have had better luck pitching the book. At the time, though, I had a few ideas: the cannibal cop, the bird flu prohibition, the writer who writes food reviews you could taste. I realized all the ideas revolved around food, and suddenly, in terms of story ideas and possibilities, it became a very rich tapestry.

Chew is one of the most racially diverse comics I’ve ever read. Not only do you have Tony and his twin sister Toni, but there’s also their family and their interracial relationships – which in Tony’s case involves the still-rare Asian man/white woman pairing – and various supporting characters of color such as Caesar and Paneer, not to mention a bisexual male character who is still stereotypically “manly”. Did you set out to create a diverse cast, or did the series just evolve in that direction?

JL: I didn’t “set out”; like I said, I’m aware of how painfully lily-white comics is, all too often, and I try to make my creator-owned stuff look a lot more like real life. And a lot of that is Rob. I don’t necessarily specify race, at least not too often. I’ll say “nerdy scientist” and often the scientist will come back black or Asian or Indian or whatever.

I have to ask: how do you keep coming up with all those food-based names, puns, and powers, and how far afield do you have to look for those as the series continues? (I definitely didn’t expect to see someone called Raymond Kulolo, for instance; I didn’t think anyone outside Hawaii knew what kulolo was!)

JL: It’s a challenge, every issue, and for some issues it is easier than others. Actually, when Chu travels outside the US it gets easier to find foreign food names. Sometimes it feels like I have exhausted all the English names. (And I’m not sure anyone outside Hawaii DOES know what kulolo is!)

What is your writing process like, both in general and for Chew in particular?

JL: It’s pure torture, 90% misery and 10% elation, followed by exhaustion and a few days of video game playing to recharge for the next script. Right now I am playing Plants Vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare nonstop… while I should be writing the next Poyo special.

PoyoIn terms of the creative process, what are the differences between working on a creator-owned series and working on existing characters for large companies, such as Batman for DC?

JL: Well, you have an editor there, so you only have to worry about your deadline, not the rest of the time. And there is a lot more compromise, and rolling with the punches. I think as an ex-editor [for Wildstorm] I was especially ready for this, because you have to be ready to change and weave in order to match what is going on in other books. In the end, you just have to remember Batman is not yours. You are working for a company, and there are certain expectations that go along with that. But really, I think if you just respect the character and its audience, as well as being flexible, you’ll find it is a pleasant experience.

What is it like working with an artist like Rob Guillory, who uses lots of one-panel/throwaway gags and visual humor? Does his art style influence your scripting, or vice versa?

JL: I think Chew has gotten wackier as a result. I can ask for anything, as far as wackiness, but also as far as action and character acting, and Rob can pull it off. It’s allowed the book to be very diverse, which is good, because neither of us get bored, and the book never gets repetitious. Every issue is a new challenge and may be wildly different from the next from the next in content and tone.

Have you done UK comic conventions before, and if so, how do UK and US conventions differ? And what are you looking forward to the most about LSCC?

JL: Nope, never have, and outside of a day-long layover on my way back from India, I haven’t spent time in London in ages. So in addition to London, and the con (I love cons in general), the guest list has oodles of Layman-buddies who are going to be there, so I’m looking forward to catching up with a lot of old friends I haven’t seen in ages. Also: I have a Chew fan from the UK who has promised to bake me cookies. I’m also looking forward to that!

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Kelly Kanayama

Kelly Kanayama

Staff Writer Kelly was born and raised in Honolulu but now lives in Scotland. She has has an MA with Distinction in Creative Writing, and is currently pursuing a PhD (look! There it goes!) on transatlantic narratives in contemporary comics. As a half-Japanese, half-Filipina woman, she believes that white vinegar is the answer to most of life's problems.