A human can bite down with 170 pounds of force. That’s more than about every dog other than the pit bull and the rottweiler. Eating is a violent act, a time when tissue and bodily fluids meet in physical trauma. This is something that artist Rob Guillory and writer John Layman constantly remind you of while you’re reading their comic Chew, whose second trade paper back, International Flavor, was released in April. Chew has received consistent praise, unusual for a comic from the genre market, getting play on MTV.com and reaching the New York Times bestseller list. Guillory and Layman deserve the accolades. They’re nimble storytellers, but the ghoulish concept is probably some of the attraction. The story isn’t like much else in fiction. Chew’s world is an alternate history, where 23 million people died as a result of what the government says is bird flu, which leads to a prohibition on chicken. (The pork industry must love this. Now they’re the ONLY white meat.) The FDA becomes the world’s most powerful law enforcement agency to make sure these new regulations get followed. The main character, Tony Chu, is a cibopath, which means he gets psychic impressions from whatever he eats. As an agent of the FDA in a hyper-violent setting, that usually means taking a bite out of corpses. Chew, obviously, is a comic obsessed with food. It asks a basic question about the simplest animal activity; Why do we eat what we eat? It gives a lot of answers, but it suggests that the best reason for eating is something surprisingly Puritan, given how visceral the setting is. Like the roots of America’s mirror diseases anorexia and obesity, the book tells you to hate what you love.
The world of Chew, if you forget about all the weird psychic powers revolving around food, is an alternate history with one key difference, the bird flu outbreak. Everything else diverges from there. Regular readers of the Boston Gastronauts, or people who simply pay attention to the news, know that mass food poisoning or disease is not that unlikely. Whether or not stricter restrictions on chicken and eggs are justified, making it illegal turns the food into a drug. In Chew, you can walk down certain streets and hustlers will promise, “Got all kinds of good shit. The farm fresh. The grade A. The hard-boiled.” Like with the war on drugs, getting people to stop eating chicken is impossible. Tony Chu’s partner, the hopelessly corrupt John Colby, chows down on chicken and eggs whenever he can. The theme of abuse of power seeps through the whole comic, governmental power especially. The main villain in international flavor is Nami Haupui. Haupai governs the small Pacific island of Yampalu. Haupai has discovered a fruit, the Gallsaberry, that tastes, of course, just like chicken and only grows on his island. His evil scheme is to hold chefs and food writers hostage in order to introduce the Gallsaberry to the world. Guillory usually frames Haupui in extreme close up, making him appear as tall or taller than the other characters, emphasizing his outsized influence. One page describes Haupui’s reaction after a prisoner escapes, and Guillory uses this extreme close up in the three bottom panels, and in the last one, he busts out of the panel itself, like a menacing, miniature Hulk. To really emphasize the theme of governmental abuse, Guillory and Layman follow this scene with two pages detailing four crime scenes. Three of these involve decaying bodies, and one, a dirty diaper. Guillory illustrates the crime scenes in large detailed panels that each take up half a page. Set into the lower left hand corner of each of these panels is a miniature inset of Tony’s boss, Mike Applebee, who hates his underling, and is overjoyed to send Chu to taste these horrible things. The repetitive design of these pages emphasizes the constant abuse of power that Applebee exercises and the consequences for our man, Tony Chu. Not to be left out, shortly after these pages Yampalu’s police chief dupes Tony Chu into helping him steal a prize cock-fighting rooster.
All of this is to say that Chew imagines government as inept and corrupt, and should not decide what people eat. There are even hints that nobody died of bird flu, and that the US government is using the prohibition of chicken to hide some sinister secret. Readers of my Gastronauts posts know that I think governmental policy towards food should be improved, not thrown out. The artists behind Chew don’t offer any alternatives to governmental policies, but hey, to be fair, the point of a satire is to point out what’s wrong, not how to fix it. Guillory and Layman definitely are not libertarian in their outlook. The former chicken industry is just as shady as the government, and orders a hit on Agent Chu. Ultimately Chew leaves the choice on what to eat to the individual, and the book offers two competing reasons for that decision.
The first is enjoyment. The comic holds this reason in suspicion. Actually liking what you eat is usually depicted as a character flaw. The other antagonist in International Flavor, a Cibopath pretending to be a vampire (it makes his job of being evil easier), enjoys eating people. John Colby shakes down chicken suppliers for their product. Chow Chu, Tony’s brother and a famous chef before the chicken prohibition, loves poultry so much that he’d risk his life or willingly be taken prisoner by a megalomaniac governor in order to serve it. The comic always associates the joy of food with vice or weakness. Chew takes every opportunity to lampoon America’s overconsumption, and in a country where 1 in 4 people is obese, that might as well be a public service. The only character that doesn’t like eating is Tony Chu. His cibopathy makes every bite an adventure, but not a very fun one. Eat a steak and find out how the cow died. The only thing that doesn’t trigger his cibopathy is beets, which, I guess, is how Tony gets most of his calories.
Why does Tony Chu eat then? When we see Tony eating, he’s usually doing his job as a cibopath. He takes bites out of corpses, but he hates it, which is what makes him a good guy, as opposed to the vampire, or his deranged ex-partner, Mason Savoy. The onomatopoeia that accompanies Tony’s bites into corpses is a monolithic chomp. There is nothing really bodily or organic about it. It’s mechanical, just part of a man doing his dirty job. Tony hates tasting dead people, but it helps him to be a good cop, and so he puts up with it. His love interest, Amelia Mintz, like Tony, eats to work. She’s Philadelphia’s most popular food writer. Also like Tony, her work comes with an unusual power. She’s a saboscrivner, meaning that whenever she writes about food people can actually taste what she’s writing about. That’s one of the reasons that Tony falls in love with her. For him, reading her work means eating without having to find out all the gory details of the food’s past. As a food critic, she doesn’t just eat because it’s fun, but to make a living. What makes her different from Tony’ brother Chow is that she gives people both the good parts and the bad parts of food. Chew introduces her writing about a restaurant that’s so disgusting that people puke when they read her review. To write this review, she had to eat the food herself. She’s not just down for the enjoyment. She’s a muck-raking, muck-eating journalist.
With all this in mind, Chew’s view of food comes across as strangely uptight. Its message is to eat because it allows you to keep living, and that any pleasure can lead to your own moral destruction. While Chu does love Amelia Mintz, this comes across as a desexualized kindergartener’s view of love. It’s like a Disney movie. Whenever he sees Amelia, the background of the panel becomes pink, and he’s surrounded by red hearts. Tony Chu is the hero of the story because he’s uncorrupted by any kind of enjoyment of life, from eating to f***ing, except for the satisfaction of a job well done. He might be naïve sometimes, in that he doesn’t suspect the government of having anything to do with the avian flu scare, but as the hero, he’ll be the one to figure this out. What makes this all the more strange is that the pleasures of Chew don’t come out of moral teaching, but out of the detailed sight-gag heavy art, slap-stick action, clever dialogue, and great, if unusual, pacing. Tony Chu wouldn’t waste his time reading Chew. A perceptive reader can see Chew as a sign of America unsure about how it should eat. People know roughly how to eat right, but because of the power of the processed food industry and a real lack of choice, they can’t. By the same token, America has become fascinated with unhealthy food, because it is understood that this food will taste better than “health food.” Like a chocolate cake ad that describes its product as decadent or indulgent, part of the fun in reading Chew is that it warns you against liking it.