So I thought about it but I wasn’t sure, well I had no idea what Layman was like. I am sure he would be pleasant enough to sign my comics and have a brief conversation. But an interview? Especially after my risqué opening gambit? I just wasn’t sure but I was going to do it.
“I once wrote a tweet about your Detective Comics book. The first issue I really enjoyed, but the second issue I didn’t like too much. And you retweeted my negative tweet and I felt terrible. I tweeted to apologise and that I didn’t want you to think I was a troll or anything like that, and in your reply, you were really nice about it. I was wondering, how did you go about dealing with negativity on Twitter, especially the instant reactions and how to handle the responses?”
With that question, the scene was set for another fantastic interview with a genuinely honest and amusing creator. This is how it began;
“It’s kind of my sense of humour and the thing I feel bad about is sometimes when you retweet something negative, people jump to the defence and they’ll say things like, “oh you’re a dick”, “Layman’s great”. I wasn’t doing it for that, I just do it because I think it’s funny. Now I’ve kind of stopped doing the retweeting because fans will attack a person who’s negative and that is not what I’m wishing for to happen.”
I felt terrible about tweeting so harshly and since then keep my disapraging comments to a minimum. As a blogger and a regular user of Twitter you have your own right to an opinion and be able to express that how you like. Even if your views may upset others, it’s the cost of honesty. There is of course a limit to how critical and offensive you should be, but those warning lights are readily left off on much of social media. I discussed with John the fact that I apologised, to which he replied;
“Yeah, but you also didn’t have to. I found it kind of funny.”
John Layman has a mild manner and a gentle temperament. His actions to amuse led to some unintentional harm and thus he stopped them. There are many a creator that retorts with malice and anger with little forethought, or leaves the social media setting altogether. It is a shame his sense of humour does not really convey in the Twittersphere as it does in real life. He sat patiently at his table hoping someone would buy the remaining limited Smorgasboard Edition of Chew, a long survivor of a giant convention in the United States. To be honest that person was very close to being me, but I know for a fact it would have gone to a very worthy home.
If you have never heard of John Layman then you have never heard of the comic Chew, if that is the case then you should make all tempts to correct this. It is a delightfully amusing book about a man that has a very unique ability: if he eats something he is able to physically see where it lived, died and how it came to be in his mouth. That is right, Tony Chu is a cibopath. You may find this all to gimmicky to maintain an ongoing comic, but Layman has developed an intricately weaving plot that even until the latest issue, has yet to be revealed. The other key to his success is the development of a supporting cast that have their own quirks and affable personalities. Before I continue to rave incessantly about that book, I should continue the interview which features another of his popular comics, one you may have heard of, Detective Comics.
“Yeah, you know it’s not my natural book, as in it wasn’t my goal in life to write Detective, but when they offered me a chance to write Batman I took it. I did a year and a half and then they offered me Eternal, and I was taken off detective because they were shaking up the Bat office. They were like, “Oh you know, we’ll put you on some other books, you know we’ll do some stuff”. I said that it’s been a great time but it’s not my goal to write super heroes or Batman indefinitely. I’ve had my run but Chew is my baby. So you know it was a great experience but I don’t want to do this for life, so I’m on to the next thing.”
Considering how famous Detective Comics is, he really did not dwell on it for long. The book continues to remain a solid sell and he took part in issue #27 which was part of the 75th anniversary of Batman. He alludes to the relative inconsistency of the DC offices but potentially to his own value at the company. I find it admirable that his focus is on his creator owned ideas, as opposed to writing the big heroes for the big companies. There are many writers and artists that balance an independent and mainstream career, some make headway for DC or Marvel initially and then gravitate to creator owned, and some use their own books to launch into the popular books. Layman demonstrates a degree of artistic integrity by stating that his most important work is Chew. As we went on to discuss this I asked the question about maintaining longevity in a comic and how he maintains the overriding plot:
“Well, so Chew always had the danger of becoming, I don’t know how this will translate, but a Saturday Night Live sketch, where it’s just the same joke over and over. And when Chew came out people were like “Oh it’s real clever but is he just going to eat a different body part every issue?” And I knew I had to keep it interesting, you know it’s like Seinfeld, as he himself is kind of boring but he’s the reactor to all the crazy people around him. So the key to make it interesting is the supporting cast, and now you know I’ve introduced such a diverse supporting cast, that there are issues that don’t even feature Tony Chu. An example is when his sister stepped up and I put him in a coma. The fact is you’ve got a book where the star isn’t in the issue but he’s always the heart of the book. He doesn’t necessarily have to be in every issue and I just knew you needed that for Chew to go for sixty issues.”
I remember when Brubaker killed off Captain America, the star of his well received comic and there was a general feeling of discontent. However the cast of Falcon, Widow, Fury and most importantly Bucky held the book together. He was still the core of the book but managed to give freedom to his supporting cast. Before you knew it you saw Bucky as Captain America and the book was still selling well. Chew took a simple gimmick and ran with it for as far as it could, but it also devoted time to his family and friends. Tony’s sister Toni, was such an affable character and the antithesis to her brother. She received instant adoration but was taken so viciously and unceremoniously, that the message to the reader was that no one was safe. This level of suspense and emphasis of the importance of other characters maintains our interest by our longing for retribution. My follow up question was of who is his favourite character:
“Colby, because he’s pure id, if he wants something he goes for it, and then Toni, because she was genuinely good and nice. Every sort of mission she went on, there was somebody needing her help. Everyone’s kind of selfish in his or her own way and she wasn’t, she was a genuinely good person and she was doomed from the minute I introduced her. So I tried to make her as loveable as possible, so it would really be a gut punch you know, when it happened.”
The events he refers to occur in issue thirty and, as I alluded to above, was quite upsetting and devastating. The other essential part of the success of Chew is Layman’s creative partner, Rob Guillory who has delivered the art on every single issue so far. Personally this is of fundamental importance as the tone can radically alter with other artists on board. With a book like Chew, there has to be a fluid and cohesive relationship between writer and artist because it is such a unique and niche a concept. Guillory brings the perfect level of humour and seriousness when necessary, and his laugh out loud moments are as intense as his earnest and melancholy moments. This was the subject of the next set of questions as I asked how they found one another:
“Everyone rejected Chew for years and it became kind of an open joke, that I was doing this weird cannibal bird-flu book that nobody wanted. Finally I said fuck it, I’m going to finance it and I’m going to make this book happen. No one’s going to buy it, no one’s going to care, but at least I’ll have done my thing. So I had a budget and I’ve learned that you get what you pay for. If you get an artist who works for free, if he’s any good, he’s going to bail the first time he gets a real job. I started looking and I knew I wanted someone kind of fun and happy, because Chew, when I describe it, sounds gross but I wanted it to be where you could giggle and laugh. I wanted people to have a good time because that’s what I want to read. I put the word out through all my comic friends, “Hey I’m looking for an artist, this is my book, I’ve got a budget, it’s a paying gig, do you know anybody?” Eventually this guy, Brandon Jerwa, introduced me, “Oh you should check out Rob, you know we’re doing this manga book for Tokyopop.” I said that I don’t really want a manga artist. “No, this guy’s really diverse, check out his style.” So we just met in San Diego in 2008 or 2007 and I told him the story, I gave him a few sample pages and he was the right guy”.
Their partnership is wonderful to read and very tight knitted. I asked how they developed their relationship and was it naturally well fitting or did it take time to cohese?
“So then I hired Rob for five issues because he was kind of untested and you don’t know if he’s going to be a flake or, you know a lot of artists are crazy. Rob is a page a day guy, super reliable, draws what you ask. He’s the best artist you could ask for, especially for this project and we’re really in sync.”
The creative process is always interesting to me because there is ample evidence of then it works and when it doesn’t. Many creators do not inhabit the same space physically and communicate digitally. It is a wonder to me how well an idea can be related through two people who have rarely met. As the interview drew to a close I had to make a mention of the amount of fan creations. The chogs are a strange frog/bird amalgamation that has gained immense popularity as a toy. The killer chicken Poyo has also been plastered on many a poster and tee shirt. I asked John if he was surprised at the creativeness and popularity of the Chew phenomenon:
“Oh I am still shocked at the success of it all. On the one hand I don’t understand it but now it kinda makes sense. I never pitched it as a food book but I sort of realise now that food is universal and Chew has done really well, and really well internationally. We are translated into like eight languages now and it’s a hit in different countries. Everyone can relate to the gross meal or the eating something gross or the family meal. It’s like the human experience revolves around food in a way that I had never intentioned. I didn’t set out that way but now it’s like after all the success it was so obvious, you know, everyone eats.”
It is always a great story to hear about a small idea that expands and grows into something else altogether. It’s interesting to hear that the food niche market, which is almost completely absent in comics, was unintentionally tapped by Layman. As the interview drew to a close the focus moved onto the future of Chew, especially because we are entering its latter stages. Given it is a sixty issue comics we have less than a third of the book left but there are so many questions. Many themes need to culminate but as the comic progresses there are more and more hints to the final outcome. It is testament to Layman and Guillory that the middle section of the book has been so engaging given that in long runs, readers can so easily fall off a comic, because it does not give you what you want: answers. The reward comes with stamina and this is where we are heading.
“There’s no filler issues because a vertical book has to stay on schedule and so when the artist falls off and they get a fill in artist and sometimes it’s an issue that doesn’t ultimately matter, and some issues matter more than others. But because it’s all Rob and I, we’re always at least taking a baby step to the end. I wrote one issue coming up in the next arc and it’s going to be a cataclysmic end game in a way you haven’t seen since issue 30. It’s weird because the book’s going to move at its own pace and then you know every once in a while we shock it. That’s coming up again.”
I am not going to pretend but his final comments did make me giddy with excitement. When you meet the writers and artists of books you love, you do not know what to expect. Some are not particularly engaging or interested but on the whole they are friendly. Given the depths to which I analyse books I always enjoy meeting the people behind the books. John was a very friendly man and our conversation continued a while longer as we discussed con culture in the United Kingdom compared the United States. He relayed some informative information on which cons are better for fans and also for creators. I am privileged to be afforded the time for my burning questions to be answered and John was a joy to speak to. The interview was obviously focused upon Chew because that is what I adore the most but I also had the impression it is what he wanted to talk about too. I am very pleased the comic has been so successful and is due to be made into a cartoon series. From the troubled beginnings, a simple idea has developed into an adored piece of work and I look forward to its continued success.