Peter S. Svensson writes for Bleeding Cool when he has a working net connection.
John Layman, writer of Detective Comics and the best-selling Image title Chew, as well as the ongoing Mars Attacks comic by IDW, held court bright and early Saturday morning at WonderCon Anaheim. In it, he revealed the secret origin of Chew, with new revelations and secrets about the Chu family that may never be answered.
“I’m just going to talk, so talk back to me. Ask questions. I have things to give away if you ask me a question. Ask me a question I hate, and I won’t give you anything.” I will be transcribing the flow of his narrative, which wandered to and fro and meandered but was incredibly entertaining.
It was at this point that he noticed someone wearing a Chog T-Shirt, featuring the Chicken-Frog hybrid creatures from Chew, which are just now available from Graffiti Designs. Laymen emitted a distinct cry of glee at the sight.
He started what was mostly a long rambling history of himself, his career in comics, and how Chew was started specifically.
Layman had always loved comics, since he started reading Marvel’s Star Wars comics as a child, then moving on to Rom, then to Micronauts, and then reading Marvel comics in general, and then moved on to DC. He, like many young geeks, moved to San Diego because of the Comic Con there. He went for the first time in 1991, when he was working at a Newspaper in a Jimmy Olsen-style capacity, making copies and stock charts. He worked the “geek beat”, writing freelance articles about things like the Judge Dredd movie premiere, (the old one with Stallone) or the Spawn cartoon. So the first San Diego Comic con he went to was during his lunch break. He drove his car to the Gaslamp district, then wandered the con and saw the whole thing during lunch, and was able to get back to work without anyone noticing. The con was actually that small back then. True story. Working for the newspaper, he’d call up Wildstorm Studios, who were based in San Diego for the local color for geek related stories, met Jim Lee, and eventually he got asked to be an assistant editor. And he hated it.
“It was terrible, our boss was a dick, I took a cut in pay to work there, and then I quit.”
He went back to his job at the newspaper, wrote a comic book column for a year, then got asked to return to Wildstorm as a full editor, and despite the previous experience being really crappy, he agreed. There, he ended up editing Astro City, Authority, Planetary, Steampunk and assistant editing Danger Girl. He became a freelance writer, ended up writing video games, never doing anything for DC, some writing at Marvel, but his future in comics seemed bleak. At the same time, he was just falling into lucrative video game jobs. While living in Seattle he came up with this interesting idea for a Cannibal Bird Flu Cop story, but couldn’t sell it to any publishers. So he continued writing videogames such as Metroid Prime, Cabela’s Dangerous Hunters, the shit-talking dialog for World Series of Poker. American Chopper. The Marvel trading card game. He got some comic work such as Gambit, Marvel Zombies vs Army of Darkness, and Scarface. “If you’re a fan of Chew, you should all buy Scarface. I found my voice in Scarface. Totally freaking recommend it.” Scarface was done by IDW, who are all ex-Wildstorm employees with not a single jerk to be found, as Layman stated. “Usually every company has at least one. Not IDW.” He did a Godzilla mini with them, and just finished his 10 issue run on Mars Attacks.
Layman got hired by Cryptic Studios to work on the Marvel MMO. He couldn’t get a steady job writing a comic, but here he was lined up to co-write the game alongside Bendis. He’d have the office job and have to help adapt Bendis’ ideas for the game, but Layman figured it would jump start his career in comics, moved to San Jose to work at Cryptic, and then after a few months Microsoft pulls the plug on the project, and he ends up involving with writing a not-Marvel Superhero MMO, Champions (based on the classic tabletop RPG). He writes the game, gets paid a ton, and decides to use the money he’s making to fund this book idea of his that no one wants to buy. “I’ll own the rights. I’ll publish five issues, maybe it will make money, I’ll do five more years down the line, and do 25 issues by five different artists over 25 years?”
“If you don’t pay for an artist, you get what you pay for.”
He decided to give a Mars Attacks T-Shirt away to a fan.
“What size do you wear?”
“I’ve got a large.”
“I’ll go on a diet.”
“Who here read Bay City Jive?” A single hand was raised in the crowd. “The colorist.” sighed Layman. He went on to explain the premise of the series, Shaft meets Big Trouble in Little China. “It was fucking awesome!” He felt that it would be a big hit for him! “None of you ever heard of it, and I gave the rights to DC who have never reprinted it.”
“I didn’t drink coffee until I went freelance. I wrote Puffed on a coffee binge for four days. Has anyone read Puffed?” A few more people raised their hands. Layman explained that it was his first creator-owned title, done through Image when Jim Valentino was in charge. Then when he wanted to collect it as a trade, Erik Larsen was not in charge and said “I don’t like this shit.” and didn’t approve it. Within an hour of hearing that, Layman got IDW to agree to print the collected edition. He had covers by Quitely, Wood, Cassaday… and told the story of how he convinced Frank Quitely to do the cover despite not being able to afford his normal rate. See, Frank Quitely’s kids had become quite fond of Twinkies, and weren’t able to get them in Scotland. So he got a very elaborate cover in exchange for two cases of Twinkies.
He was asked if his stint as an editor affected his writing. “I’m more realistic. My Batman shit is not a problem, I was an editor, I understand you have seven Bat books, got to be sympathetic to keep continuity. I understand the deadlines.” He went on to explain that as an editor, he read a ton of scripts. Joe Casey, Warren Ellis, and while he never worked with Alan Moore he got to read his scripts when they came into the Wildstorm offices, and even bad writers have good ideas here and there. “There’s one guy whose not that good, but I stole a scripting technique from him.” admitted Layman.
Chew has chicken as a central plot point because while it was in germination for six years, Bird Flu was big when it was starting out. When it came out years later, because everyone said no to it, Swine Flu had just hit the news. Chew actually became popular in Germany because it came out there just as a major food scandal hit, and the major news magazine reporting on it also covered Chew at the same time. “We’re huge in Germany, there’s one food scandal after another.”
Puffed was the result of his coffee binge, about a mascot at a theme park who can’t get out of his costume by himself, who is beaten up by the janitor and dumped in the hood and can’t get anyone to unzip him. It did well. So he did a sequel, Stay Puffed, about the psycho janitor going to Iraq in the early days of the war. “We had the dragon’s arm around Saddam Hussein. No one fucking bought it. We lost a ton of money. I lost a ton of money. Later public opinion of the war changed, and I’d hear people say ‘I found Stay Puffed in the quarter bin, it was funny!'”
He learned an important lesson on a later project, when he hired an artist who said he’d do the book for free, and found that not only did the guy’s art not work out at all for him, but the guy had left his job to do the comic so it became rather awkward and well, he doesn’t talk about that project. “You have to pay your artist. Writing takes time, but art takes even more.” he explained.
When trying to find an artist for Chew, initially Layman was looking for someone more like Pia Guerra. His initial idea for the art was nowhere near as flashy as Chew became. He was recommended Rob Guillory, who had just done a Tokyopop book that had been killed. Layman was worried about him being too manga-influenced, but was convinced to give Guillory a shot. It was San Diego Comic Con 2008, and Layman sent Guillory the first three scripts for Chew, saying that he would pay for five issues worth of art. He’d additionally get paid on the back end split 50/50, there was a $15,000 budget for the project. He was hammered at 2AM, and ended up telling someone who at the time was a total stranger the ending to Chew, something he had only told three people. (Layman then checked with one other colleague in the room, and indeed he had not told that guy, so yes, three is accurate.) He paid several hundred dollars for five pages to start with, and Guillory began drawing.
He had pitched Chew to Vertigo forever. He’d wanted to do the book so long, it had become a running gag in the industry. Ed Brubaker said “Don’t do your stupid Bird Flu book that’s going to flop.” Avatar laughed at it. IDW laughed at it. “I don’t know about Dark Horse,” admitted Layman, who went on to explain that while he hadn’t been trying to get the series approved from Image, it just sort of happened when he called up Eric Stephenson who he had known from doing Puffed at Image, and asked if he had any idea who would be a good artist. Stephenson reminded Layman that finding him an artist wasn’t his job, but that if he found one that didn’t suck, Image would publish the book.
Tony Chu is loosely based on an old co-worker of Layman’s wife, coincidentally also named Tony.
Most of the notes in the background are Rob’s, but not all of them. There’s an ocean scene in upcoming issue 33, and so Layman asked to put Nemo and Dory and Spongebob in it, and Spongebob made it into the finished project. The Kirkman pin-up posters, those were Layman inserting them in Photostop. But just about everything else is Rob, who after issue 3 or 4 realized that people liked the easter eggs and now really concentrates on them. One of the best parts about Chew is the rereadability of the title to find all of the hidden stuff. Guillory has his own internal logic about the movie posters shown. Rob also makes every single label of alcohol “Layman 1962” much to Layman’s dismay. “I was not born in 1962!” joked Layman.
“Showtime turned us down. They haven’t paid me yet, fuckers!” The network didn’t like the pilot, or mainly that between the time that the pilot had been approved and reviewed, Showtime went from having Dexter as their main lynchpin to Homeland, and despite having commissioned a halfhour and hour longer scripts for the pilot, let the rights lapse and return to Layman. He’s still shopping it around to another network, but isn’t concerned if the show doesn’t materialize. “We’ll do the book until issue 60, then we’ll move into animation. We’ll do a kickstarter at the end. Not until the end, we’re lazy and I don’t want to mail shit.” Layman explained the benefit of doing the show as animation would be getting to use Rob’s designs.
“This thing has been pitched to Vertigo 8 times. Two people turned it down, six just ignored me.” Layman explained, because he had envisioned Chew as a Vertigo title. So when Guillory gave him a harsh, scratchy artstyle on the first page, Layman was prepared to cut the the cord, having learned his lesson in the past about working with artists when you don’t like the results. So he told Guillory that he didn’t like what he got, and Guillory explained that Layman had asked for a Vertigo style, and that’s how he drew. Layman asked if he could get something more like the fun cartoony art he’d seen on Rob’s webpage. Turns out those were Rob’s own style, but that everyone always asked him to draw in someone else’s style. So once Rob switched to drawing Chew in his own fashion, it worked. “People are going to be eating people, and throwing up. We want the fans to chuckle and not go BLERGH.” Layman realized that in retrospect, had the book been done at Vertigo, they would have done a gritty realistic art style that repulsed the readers given the content and lasted 7 to 12 issues before the book would get canceled.
So, Layman was getting art back from Guillory, and paid him for more pages, and then called Eric Stephenson to confirm that the book was on at Image. No answer. More money went to Rob, and still no word from Stephenson. Layman was worrying that he was throwing money into a book that wouldn’t go anywhere. He called his friend Robert Kirkman, and said “Dude, I got this Image pitch. Can you prod Stephenson?”
Stephenson responded “You fucking asshole, I approved the book!”
“You said you were only going to do it if I found an artist who doesn’t suck.”
“Does Rob Guillory suck?”
“The book’s approved.”
Image’s policy is that creators get 200 copies of their book. In his case, it was split 50/50 minus ownership and page rate, so that he got 100 copies and Rob got 100 copies. And Layman gave out his comp copies of Chew #1 like candy, to his mailman, to his neighbor who doesn’t read comics, and then watched as the book sold out. And they did a reprint. And a variant Larry’s Comics cover. And a third printing. And the Last Bite final reprinting to tell retailers this was their last chance to get issue #1. “Image went ‘Holy fuck, we could have sold more!'” Robert Kirkman approached Layman with the idea of doing Chew as a flipbook in Walking Dead $63, telling him that it’d cost a few hundred dollars more but be worth it. At this point, Layman hadn’t gotten any money from Chew yet but had been paying Rob, and then got told that actually it was several thousand dollars to do the flip book instead. But Kirkman insisted, and there was a spike in readership after premiering in Walking Dead. Chew #1 had four printings, and that combined with the $1 intro edition, means there’s about 150,000 copies of the Chew #1 floppy, and a similar number of the first few trades. “I recommend selling your Chew #1s. Buy a bunch of Chew trades instead. And buy Legos.” Layman tells his wife that he’ll use the money he makes at the con selling copies to buy Legos. This con is paying for the Iron Man Lego sets.
“I despair often. Mostly when deadlines are due. I’m super slow. I was super far ahead on Chew and Mars Attacks… when Marts called.” (Batman editor.) Layman couldn’t turn down a chance to write Batman, figuring he’d do an arc and be done. “It’s been going really well, but I’m no longer ahead. Rob needs issue 34 to work on, but there’s a political speech I don’t want to write, so I’m working on issue 36.”
Layman went on to explain that issue 36 will be like the earlier issue 27 which was released a year ahead of time out of sequence, and be effectively Chew #29.5, focusing on the character who died in issue 30. Layman then sort of spoiled who it was for people who hadn’t read volume six, Space Cakes.
Layman is willing to return to the world of Chew, even after concluding the main story in issue 60. But not for at least six months, as he’d want a break. “Rob is a hard worker. Rob wants to work. I want to play Warcraft all the time.” admitted Layman.
He’s no longer doing video game writing these days. “I don’t need it, and I’m too slow. Fucking money was incredible though. I had a friend who worked at Nintendo, couldn’t take the job offer from Activision because of it. He said hire my friend, he works in comics. Turns out video game people love comics. Every job I got was because I worked in comics.”
The story didn’t change dramatically after Guillory was hired, but that was mainly because the first three issues were already written before he joined the team. Once Layman realized that Rob was fantastic at comic timing and action, he started skewing the book to fit his strengths. Issue four is where this begins to show, as it starts to get stranger and has a lot more connections to the overall storyline, which wasn’t apparent at the time.
“Rob wants to draw the Hulk some day.”
Poyo wasn’t really meant to be important, but because Layman doesn’t do lots of rewrites, he finished issue 12 with Poyo tearing out a man’s eye and realized that in retrospect, he should have had Poyo ripping out the man’s heart. But… he could fix that by using Poyo again in a later issue! Issue 18 was so crazy, he realized he could do anything with Poyo, and hence the Secret Agent Poyo one-shot. “Chew turned up to 11. Everyone loves Poyo.” There will be Poyo plushies eventually, and at least two more one-shots. Deep Space Poyo and Son of Poyo are scheduled before Chew ends at issue 60. Possibly an additional one-shot in Barbarian Warrior Poyo. They’re scheduled to come out every other summer or so, like a Michael Bay blockbuster.
Of the various Chew characters who aren’t poultry, Colby could probably also handle a one-shot, but because of how the book is structured, he gets enough focus in it that he really doesn’t need one.
The names of the food powers are perhaps Layman’s favorite part of the entire series. In issue 34, he introduces 12 more of them. He doesn’t do much research in his writing, except for finding the various Greek and Latin root words to combine to come up with things like Cibopathy, which is derived from Cibo, meaning food, and Path, the root word we get telepathy from. He was an English major whose favorite class was the history of words.
Every member of Tony’s family has a food power. Yes, even Chow. It just hasn’t come out yet. Sadly, Layman is a cruel god and plans on never revealing the majority of these powers, so the fans will just have to guess forever. While there are a great deal of members of the Chu family, we’re not going to learn much about them because the majority of Tony’s family wants nothing to do with him. We’ll mainly continue to learn about Tony, Toni, Chow and Rosemary who has been raising his daughter Olive.
For a while, Olive was always shown wearing Threadless T-Shirts. This was an advertising deal made with Threadless, because Layman was addicted to those shirts, well to awesome t-shirts in general. He now uses a T-Shirt web aggregate to check out all the cool limited edition shirts from Woot and the various other companies, buying himself another shirt every other week. He has a closet full of about 120 t-shirts and still buys more and more and more. Rather than being paid in cash for the ad, Layman just wanted free copies of the shirts he’d have Olive wear.
A fan asked that since Layman wrote video games, and loves Lego, would he write a Lego Videogame? “I would drop Chew in a heartbeat to write Lego City Undercover 2.” joked Layman. “It’s a superfun, G-rated GTA.” He also admitted that since GTA 5 comes out in September, for some mysterious reason you will probably see Chew running late in October.
Despite having advertised Threadless shirts in the comic, he couldn’t get Threadless to produce Chew T-shirts. So instead, he’s gone through Graffiti Designs, which currently has a Chog T-shirt for sale. Layman loves working with Graffiti, because as a young fan he was a Cerebus nerd and Graffiti was great about having T-shirts of the Dave Sim series in stock. There will be a Pullet Fiction, and a Reservoir Chog shirt, using the covers for T-Shirt material, and an upcoming cover will conclude the Tarantino Film homages with Destroy Savoy (Kill Bill? Get it?).
Poyo was never intended to be more than a little gag character, and just took on a life of his own.
He gave away his last copy of the glow-in-the-dark variant, which surprised him that he still had unsold copies of it. It turns out a scratch and sniff cover was considered, but never produced because A) it was too expensive, and B) he didn’t want his garage to smell like chicken wings forever.
I asked Layman which was the hardest licensor to work with, given that he’s done books with Godzilla, Mars Attacks, Army of Darkness, Xena, and plenty of others. The surprising answer was Left Behind, the comics adapting the Christian Apocalypse novels of a decade or so ago. They made Kirk Cameron movies based on them. Back when he was an editor at Wildstorm, they got the license but needed someone to write 48 pages for free and just get paid on the back end for sales. Which, any comics professional would never take as it’s a fools gig. But he was an editor trying to branch out into writing, and while he couldn’t ask someone else to do it at those conditions, he could do it! He got the gig, and it turned out to be the second highest selling comic of 2002, only after the Dark Knight Strikes Again. But the comic was only sold through Christian bookstores for the most part! Still, he got a ton of royalties from it. “Wildstorm under DC sucked, so I had this pile of money, I wanted to write comics. Left Behind paid for me to write my own stuff.”
A fan asked him if he felt that his career in journalism affected how he wrote comics.
The next question was how did he balance the various powers that the characters have in telling the story. “Here’s how I’m a giant fake. I start with the soap opera element, I write the character’s sitcommy intro, I know the ending to the story, I just have to have a case for them to solve. I rack my brain trying to come up with one, going running, swimming, drinking just to get to the next story point. The case comes last. Unless the case comes first in my mind, in which case the issue gets written in four days. Other wise it’s usually two and a half weeks.”
There is no particular creator on Batman that influences his writing on the book, much to the shock of a fan who was dead certain that Batman: the Animated Series and particularly the performance of Kevin Conroy as Batman was inspiration. “I don’t read a lot of superhero comics. I don’t watch a lot of cartoons.” explained Layman, who then enticed readers of Chew to try his Detective Comics, just four dollars an issue. Well, 8 dollars for next week’s issue due to it being the oversized anniversary issue for pseudo-issue 900.
He gave a fan a copy of the Chris Giarusso variant cover, which will be the only time that a non-Rob Guillory cover will be used on the book, as it was a thank you to Image for their 20th anniversary by participating in their line of Chris Giarusso homage covers.
When asked about a potential Chew videogame, he agreed it would be fantastic and that a side scroller where you played Poyo just killing things would be awesome. Something like the recent Usagi Yojimno game, with similar mechanics, possibly something like Doodle Warrior.
The secret reason that beets are the one food Tony can eat without triggering his powers is that they are blood covered, and it makes an interesting visual along with the fact that there’s a Russian “vampire” character, Russians being known for Borscht, and Layman thought that he’d be able to use those facts to come up with a very clever explanation later in the series. He just hasn’t gotten there yet. Not just in revealing it, but in coming up with the idea.
The key to how his Detective Comics run is able to balance telling its own story alongside the requirements of fitting in with the other Bat-titles is that Layman focuses on writing books he would want to buy. “God knows I wouldn’t buy Left Behind. I’m not going to do anything I wouldn’t buy.”
Out of all the myriad food-related powers shown in the series, he’d rather be half-robot than anything else. Internal Internet access for the win.
“Digital comics, they’re freaking huge. I don’t understand it. I’m a book slut. I want the most expensive absolute deluxe hardcover. But we keep getting 1/3rd of our sales from the digital. I don’t get it.”
He has no idea where the idea for his “Emperor Penguin” storyline in Detective Comics came from.
He wrapped up the panel by formally announcing what had been speculated for years regarding a deluxe Chew hardcover, the Smörgåsbord Edition. The first twenty issues in an Absolute-Sized hardcover, priced at $100 set to premiere at San Diego Comic Con this year. If he manages to get off his lazy butt and design the thing. At the end, the plan is for there to be 60 issues of Chew, plus about 4 or 5 Poyo specials, which will be collected in 12 softcover trades of five issues each, 6 Omnivore Edition hardcovers of 10 issues each, 3 Smorgasbord Editions of 20 issues each, and theoretically two “Walnut Cracker” editions that will be 30 issues each, sized like the Walking Dead Compendiums.
Layman had brought the sole prototype Chog figure to the Con to show off at his booth. At the time of this writing, it had vanished. So there is likely a fricken Chog thief who stole what was an adorable piece of merchandising out there. Be aware.