As I finished reading through the recently released seventh volume of Chew (“Bad Apples”, Publisher: Image Comics, Writer: John Layman, Artist: Rob Guillory), I have come to two diametrically opposed conclusions:
1) Chew is, to best of limited knowledge, the best ongoing comic book at the moment – a perfect synthesis of writer and artist, striking a fine balance between (black) comedy and serious character work, managing the improbable task of making almost every issue a done-in-one mystery while (at the same time) building a greater story arc.
2) Chew really shouldn’t work: the first volume started off as a low-key alternative reality (main differences – a deadly outbreak of the bird flu has made chicken illegal and turned the FDA into the most powerful agency on the planet) with an odd element of sci-fi (the protagonist, Tony Chu, possess a weird power which allows him to receive psychic echoes from everything he eats) and has blossomed into something akin to the X-Men (if everything revolved around food).
The previous volumes of the series slowly added more fantastic elements to the story: each new arc brought with it a new food-related super-powered individual, Tony’s partner was turned into a cyborg, alien life was hinted at, and there is a chicken that is the single most terrifying being on the planet. The seventh volume takes this progression and kicks it into high gear: a single chapter of the story introduces a dozen new food powers (including Bromaformutare who takes the form of whatever he last ate, and Lagamousikian who can use pasta noodles as guitar strings); Tony finds himself at the center of an ancient prophecy, and he has a full-blown diabolical arch-enemy. This, I wish to remind you, all started from a premise about a guy who solves food-related crimes in a gory / funny fashion. It really shouldn’t work – logic dictates that Chew should be a car wreck of series, an impossible mish-mash of ideas and genres. It should not work. But it does.
But how can it work? The foremost reason is that Chew‘s ascent(?) into madcap is a rather methodical process – by the time volume 7 arrived, the reader has already encountered all manner of madness. And while this particular story increases the volume of strangeness, it does not alter it: we have already encountered various food-related powers throughout previous volumes, so we know it is a “thing” in this fictional reality. If we return to the X-Men comparison, the reader knows that in that particular reality mutants are a “thing” and so if s/he reads a story in which a bank robber suddenly shoots lasers from his eyes, we are fine with it because there has been a set-up; if the same thing would happen in an episode of Law & Order, we would likely protest.
The second reason is the way the characters work – no matter how strange the situation they are in, they always take it seriously. Tony is not simply straight-faced but almost utterly humorless – a by-the-book cop in world in which the type of book is seemingly undetermined (Douglas Adams? Early Terry Pratchett?). Likewise with the other characters – none of them ever acts like they are in a humor comic. This both serves to make them more funny (because humiliation heaped upon the dignified, such as poor Tony ordered to eat feces to solve a case, is funnier than it being heaped upon the already-beaten) and allows the series to become serious when it wants to (there is no awkward tonal shift whenever Tony gets into something deadly serious – which would occur if the series would have played Tony for laughs).
The Third reason is Guillory’s excellent artwork. It is hard to describe just what makes it work as well as it does: his characters are often what we would call “cartoony”: Mason Savoy’s over-intelligent demeanor, D-Bear’s improbable hair atop his tiny figure, the various female USDA agents with their breasts enlarged past the point of sexualization (including the grey-haired-old-as-hell boss), the Vampire – a made to order eastern-European stereotype. There is exaggeration there, but Guillory never crosses the invisible line into impossibility – these characters are improbable but never impossible. Guillory’s mastery over expression is a big help in this case, even when the body does things that it shouldn’t do (such as Savoy’s ballet-like movement despite his heavy frame), the faces always show recognizable human emotion – and he can under- or overplay them as he chooses: moments of subtle character acting interplayed with large gestures
Look at that picture of Savoy – his smile contains within it particularly all you need to know about him: there is self-control – as if crushing through a window is something he does on a daily basis; there is overconfidence – he knows he’ll win the fight without an effort; and there is a small hint of cruelty (watch the way blades angle around his monocle) – of something vicious ready to break loose.
As a writer and a student of literature, it is my natural state to comment foremost upon the writing aspect of the comics, about dialogue and characters work and plot mechanics and world building. But when it comes to Chew, I find myself unable to make this distinction – Guillory’s artwork is the “world-builder” and the “character-work”. I literally cannot imagine any other artist alive (or dead) that could do the series any justice – give it to an accomplished cartoonist and you lose the human element, give it to a realist draftsman and the “silly” aspect of the plot would collapse.
It is upon Guillory’s shoulder that burden lies – not only to hold all those story points and ideas together but to make them palatable to the reader. And upon his mighty work, Layman is free to craft a world that is mad as hell and yet is populated by some of the most realized human beings in today’s comics.
THAT is what makes Chew so damn great.
 More than any other series, Chew brings to mind Garth Ennis and John McCrea’s unsung masterpiece Hitman – another series in which there a was constant interplay of black comedy and serious character drama; though Hitman, unlike Chew, had its work cut out for it in terms of world building – it was a part of DC’s super-hero universe, so the fantastic elements came built-in.