Edible Arraignments: Chew, Vol 1 / by Erik Sugay

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“It tastes like chicken.” That’s a nice little stock-phrase that people use when they don’t know how to describe what something actually tastes like. Turns out, if you ask enough people, nearly anything neither offensive nor extraordinary can taste just like chicken. If this were really the case, then the people of Chew’s universe would have much easier lives.

Due to a catastrophic amount of deaths attributed to avian flu, a worldwide ban on the sale and consumption of poultry was instituted. As a result, as often happens with banned items, chicken becomes the most sought after commodity in the criminal world. Unfortunately for them, the government’s enforcement of this particular law is suspiciously swift and severe.

Tony Chu, our protagonist, is one such enforcer. He is as by-the-book as they come. Even if other authorities do, Chu doesn’t willingly partake in the consumption of chicken—or any other food, for that matter.

Chu is one of three known people to possess the innate ability to see the entire history of nearly anything he tastes. If he takes a bite of chicken, he can see where that particular chicken was born, how it was raised, what it ate, and, more poignantly, how it died. It’s a power he despises as these psychic flashes detract from his enjoyment of the actual food.

This ability, however, isn’t limited to food; it also pertains to people. Since a drop of blood could tell Chu a person’s history, it’s also a power the world despises, viewing it as a breach of privacy. Chu is usually hesitant to use his powers, but as a determined agent he does so if it’s in the service of justice. If he comes across a mysterious corpse, a bite of the decayed body will tell exactly him what he needs to know to close a case. Chew is a bloody and graphic story, but it contains just enough humor to balance the unsettling nature of the premise.

Without the right presentation, that humor would fall flat. Fortunately, presentation is where this graphic novel truly shines. Rob Guillory’s exaggerated and sketchy art style is ideally suited to the story’s content. Considering the gory and cannibalistic nature inherent in the premise, a more realistic approach might have overpowered the more nuanced playfulness and charm of the characters. (Never before has projectile vomit come across as both amusing and endearing in its use.) It rides a fine line, being harsh and grim with just enough colorful, cartoon-like embellishment to not completely disgust.

Expectedly, the entire first volume’s purpose is to introduce most of the story’s main players. The first few chapters give a glimpse of the characters’ various personalities and display how Chu gets caught up in what is sure to be Chew’s overarching tale.

Planting narrative seeds is a necessity in any story’s inaugural volume and nowhere is this more apparent than in the fourth chapter. Certainly, it provides some brief, but appreciated subtle character moments between Chu and his new mentor, but it’s strongest element is the sudden introduction of some seemingly incongruous fantastical details into this thus far semi-grounded universe. (Well, other than the eating people thing.) But then, these elements aren’t even remotely touched upon again in this volume and the pacing suffers.

The final chapter, by comparison and against reason, is executed exceedingly well. The chapter’s revelations are predictable, but presented in such a way that it encourages the reader to want to continue reading into further volumes. Despite being conventional, the conclusion strongly sets up a narrative goal and what is sure to be one of Chu’s most capable adversaries. It’s a classic dynamic that I expect writer John Layman to utilize for great emotional effect.

By all accounts, the first volume of Chew does not taste like chicken. Whether it’s offensive or extraordinary has yet to be determined. Frankly, it might just be both.

TL;DR The first volume of Chew has some pacing issues trying to equally supply both character and narrative development. Nevertheless, it is an intriguing tale with art that expertly balances the gross with the engrossing, and whose ending promises a great tale.

Chew Volume 1: Taster’s Choice is written by John Layman with art by Rob Guillory and published by Image Comics. You can buy it at your local comic book shop or you can find it (and other volumes) on Amazon.