Chew, Volume 1
Created by: John Layman, Rob Guillory
Published by: Image
ISBN: 1607061597 (Amazon)
Comedy in nearly any medium is notoriously difficult to pull off, but conveying humour effectively in the peculiar medium of comics seems doubly so. Any glance at your newspaper’s comics page or editorial cartoons ought to bring enough evidence to bear on that score—if you still get a newspaper. Certainly there are successes, books and strips that routinely have even readers with well-developed senses of humour smiling regularly—and maybe even actually laughing occasionally. Perry Bible Fellowship comes to mind. Or Mignola’s Screw-On Head. A lot of the other stuff either only succeeds partially or, more often and sadly enough, not at all.
Chew, on the upside, is actually funny and does exhibit the occasional moment of pure joy. Moments like this:
It’s possible that this is the best thing ever committed to the comics panel.
On the other hand, Chew does not find itself in the company of other envoys of the humourous like Screw-On Head, Far Arden, or The Goon. It doesn’t rank with books like Street Angel or Atomic Robo either. And it’s not even as consistent in its joys as situational comedies like Yotsuba& or the works of Mitsuru Adachi. Over the last couple weeks since I read it, I’ve been trying to pin down exactly where the book goes wrong. And I’m still not even sure if I understand.
Chew isn’t straight comedy. Its goal isn’t to deliver only laughs. As of volume 1, the book does have a story to tell and it unfolds in a kind of episodic adventure-comedy format. Kind of like if Indiana Jones released as a 21st-century HBO series that crossed adventure, extra-natural food powers, and lots of jokes. Entertaining as far as it goes but—to flip the channel for a moment—not exactly Must-See TV.
There are two points at which the series truly shines: invention and art.
For the one, the extra-normal powers people in Chew's world are great ideas. They all relate to food. Protagonist Tony Chu (chew, get it? get it?) is cibopathic, meaning he can reading the entire history of anything he eats, be it hummus or human. Love-interest Amelia, a saboscrivner, has the power to write about food in such a way as to make her readers actually taste what she writes. Apparently, as the series progresses, more and more powers along these lines are introduced, and honestly, I find that fascinating.
Actually, because I found the humour so variant, I think a book exploring all the things Chew does (and especially the powers) but focusing more on story and the whole drama of it all would have been a much more interesting work.
The other piece that interested me was Rob Guillory’s art. It’s always interesting and occasionally breathtaking. Again, I refer you to this:
Guillory’s human form is where I think his illustrative powers best find their avenue. His forms are dynamic and cartoonish and, usually, not the least bit handsome. Amelia the love interest, for example, is this dumpy little thing with hips wide enough to give easy birth to birthing hips. Tony Chu is this squirrely little smudge of a man. And there was this slutty Russian girl in a fur bikini at the South Pole who was really just horrifying to look at—and even so, I imagine she was a knock-out in Tony Chew’s world. And strange as it seems for me to be praising-slash-encouraging this, Guillory’s handle on the grotesque makes him an ideal artist for a book that saddles itself on absurdity and rides that horse into its own sunset.
And here we come back to the book’s bugbear. Or at least its bugbear in my own opinion. As well as being notoriously difficult to pull off, comedy is notoriously subject to its audience. Maybe Chew is ridiculously perfect in its delivery and its timing but I was just not in a place to appreciate it. Maybe its blend of story and humour will be exactly what most readers who approach it will want. I can’t really judge these things. I know some people adore the book and I can’t really begrudge them their tastes.
That I wasn’t really taken with the book is something I feel a little bit bad about. It’s doing interesting things and quite possibly gets better in later volumes. All I know is that I can’t say whether or not I’ll be there to find out these things. I won’t write the series off, but I’m not exactly comfortable enough with it to write it on either.
Good Ok Bad features reviews of comics, graphic novels, manga, et cetera using a rare and auspicious three-star rating system. Point systems are notoriously fiddly, so here it's been pared down to three simple possibilities:
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I am Seth T. Hahne and these are my reviews.
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