John Layman offers clues on 900th ‘Detective Comics’ and ‘Chew’

April 02, 2013 | 12:03 p.m.
detectivecomics19cover John Layman offers clues on 900th Detective Comics and Chew

"Detective Comics" No. 19 marks what would have been Issue 900 before DC's New 52 relaunch with 80 pages, 50 of them by regular series writer John Layman. Cover art by regular series artist Jason Fabok. (DC Comics)

dtc 19 6 7 John Layman offers clues on 900th Detective Comics and Chew

A two-page spread from the main story in "Detective Comics" No. 19, with art by Jason Fabok. The deluxe issue also includes pinups by artists including Dustin Nguyen, Chris Burnham and Francesco Francavilla. (DC Comics)

chew34cover John Layman offers clues on 900th Detective Comics and Chew

John Layman and Rob Guillory's "Chew" No. 34, out in May, features three covers on each copy, and readers are invited to take scissors to them. This image has Tony Chu's eyes, ex-partner Mason Savoy's nose and the mysterious vampire's fangs. Cover(s) art by Rob Guillory. (Image Comics)

chewsecretagentpoyo John Layman offers clues on 900th Detective Comics and Chew

"Chew" readers' favorite cybernetic kung-fu rooster starred in a one-shot released last summer. John Layman says he and co-creator Rob Guillory are planning more Poyo "summer blockbusters." (Image Comics)

Writer John Layman works closely with two highly unorthodox detectives – one is a billionaire who stalks the night in a cape and cowl, the other is a federal agent who quite literally takes a bite out of crime.

The Phoenix-based comics creator had developments to detail about both his Batman series for DC Comics and “Chew” for Image Comics at WonderCon in Anaheim over the weekend.

The latest “Detective Comics,” arriving Wednesday, is an extra-thick case file. The 80-page volume marks the title’s 900th issue but is numbered 19 because of DC Comics’ New 52 continuity revamp and series relaunch.

Titled “Mystery of the 900,” it features the New 52 debut of Kirk Langstrom, inventor of the grotesquely and perilously transformative Man-Bat formula. The issue also moves toward next month’s conclusion of the larger story of Penguin henchman-turned-usurper Ignatius Ogilvy, who has stripped old boss Oswald Cobblepot of his wealth and declared himself Emperor Penguin.

Layman at first was to write only 32 of the pages of what he knew would be a deluxe issue, but said that when he heard the final length, he offered to do more and “had so much Batman adrenaline” that he ended up writing 50 pages (there’s also a story written by James Tynion IV of “Talon” and pinup art). Artists on the issue include series regulars Jason Fabok, who Layman says “does this great sort of Michael Bay action, brooding Batman” in the feature and Andy Clarke, who the writer says is “phenomenal” on the quieter, villain-centric backups that have marked Layman’s run since he assumed “Detective” duties with Issue 13.

Over in the bonkers, Eisner Award-winning “Chew,” Layman and co-creator/artist Rob Guillory are dealing with recent tragedy in the life of Tony Chu, a “cibopath” who’s bombarded with psychic impressions from whatever he eats (except beets), though the series hasn’t lost its trademark humor. And there’s plenty happening outside the story: The May issue features an unusual cover concept, and there’s an odd collectible inspired by the series due soon from Skelton Crew Studio: the chog, a hybrid foodstuff designed to provide chicken flavor to a world where eating the bird is illegal. There’s also more in the works about fan-favorite cybernetic kung-fu rooster Poyo — and hopes for a TV adaptation of “Chew” haven’t been completely dashed.

On Sunday, Layman sat down with Hero Complex in the DC booth at WonderCon to discuss the latest on both his investigators.

HC: Can you give our readers a first clue as to the “Mystery of the 900”?

A look at the first page of "Detective Comics" No. 19. (DC Comics)

A look at the first page of “Detective Comics” No. 19, with art by Jason Fabok. The issue also includes pinups by artists including Dustin Nguyen, Chris Burnham and Francesco Francavilla. (DC Comics)

JL: I don’t necessarily think of it as a mystery so much as the hook. And the hook was it’s the 900 block of Gotham…. Batman has to contain an outbreak of a whole city block. So basically it is the 900 block infected with sort of a weaponized, airborne, contagious Man-Bat virus.

HC: What’s Kirk Langstrom’s appeal to you?

JL: There’s always a place for the tormented scientist in comic literature. He’s the cursed guy. He’s Bruce Banner, he’s Jekyll and Hyde, he’s a half-dozen other of these guys who invents something with the best intentions and it turns them into a monster and they have to deal with it. In this case, he’s turned an entire city block into monsters, and he’s not one yet. He’s a good person. He wants to undo the damage at any cost, even to himself.

HC: And your greater Penguin / Emperor Penguin story, will that also play into 19?

JL: Yep. It’s weird because – and this is common to comics – what you pitch and what is the end result, there’s a lot of deviations. When I took the story, I didn’t know about “Death of the Family,” I didn’t know about Damian, I didn’t know about 900. It’s a little like writing jazz: You improvise, you roll with the punches, which I’m fine with. So this sets up the ending of the Emperor Penguin thing…. And then next issue, Emperor Penguin has gotten exactly where he wanted to be; it’s time to take on Batman. And it’s turned out really well. You write the script, you think it’s good, you hope it’s good. You never know until you see the final product. Jason drew it, it looks fantastic, but then I got the lettered copies, and I read them, I’m like, “Holy cow, this is way better than I remembered it.”

HC: Can you talk a little bit about taking Oswald Cobblepot out of his element?

JL: He’s been sort of so arrogant on his perch – no pun intended – that it was fun to knock him down. The whole sort of theme is henchmen are so disposable in comics and movies and action entertainment. You know, not every henchman is going to be dumb and just a punching bag. I wanted to explore the idea of someone who actually has some ambition and the brains to pull it off. So that’s what the story’s about. And it’s about Cobblepot being knocked off his perch, trying to get back to the top.

HC: Your sense of humor is very evident in “Chew” and in “Mars Attacks.” It also pops up in “Detective Comics” …

JL: See, that wasn’t intentional. I think that’s just my personality. I’m aware of the Batman audience – they don’t want the humor that’s in “Chew.” I’ve learned from working on licensed products and working for editors and being an editor – you tell the story you want to tell is the most important thing, but equally important is give the audience what they want. Don’t let them down by suddenly turning it into goofy “Chew” stuff…. I think you’re going to get a little bit of goofiness and a lightness of touch wherever I write…. Some of the other Batman books are darker, and I’m trying to do a little lighter, little less of a body count, a little more action-y. And then also, it’s called “Detective.” So, to me, it’s like the “Law & Order.” You know how “Law & Order” follows the case and you don’t really get into his personal life too much? So, for me, “Detective” is all about cases, and I’m not going to worry about love interests and stuff like that. Batman is on the job, doing the job, and that’s the book.

HC: You’re writing two series starring detectives. Can you talk about the different approaches in writing “Detective” and writing “Chew”?

JL: Well, the cases are weirder in “Chew.” There is an element that’s the same – you introduce a conflict, and then you have a detective with a certain skill set resolving it…. Batman’s just happen to be gadgets and fists. I guess if there’s a formula in the skeletal layer, it’s probably the same.

John Layman and Rob Guillory's "Chew" No. 34, out in May, features three covers on each copy, and readers are invited to take scissors to them. This image has Tony Chu's eyes, ex-partner Mason Savoy's nose and the mysterious vampire's fangs. Cover(s) art by Rob Guillory. (Image Comics)

John Layman and Rob Guillory’s “Chew” No. 34, out in May, features three covers on each copy, and readers are invited to take scissors to them. This image has Tony Chu’s eyes, ex-partner Mason Savoy’s nose and the mysterious vampire’s fangs. Cover(s) art by Rob Guillory. (Image Comics)

HC: How did the “Chew” No. 34 cover come together?

JL: There are three covers, actually, and when you get the issue, you’re going to open it and there’s going to be another cover, and open it and there’s going to be another cover, and you can cut and mix and match. I’ve got a 6-year-old, and he’s got this mix-and-match superhero book. You open up and see Batman’s head on Superman’s body or whatever, and I just thought that would be fun to do with our covers. I’m trying to innovate covers still.

HC: Last year, you did the “Secret Agent Poyo” one-shot …

JL: We’re going to do Poyo every other year. It’s going to be our, you know, summer blockbuster, and we’ve got three, possibly four, planned by the end of it. But really, because “Chew” 30 was the halfway point, we killed a major character, and everything’s sort of the repercussions of that. Now I’m working toward Issue 40. It’s been weird, because I took the lead character out of the equation for a while, and now he’s back. He’s different, he’s more focused, he’s angrier, and he’s bloodier, and this arc is about him going down a very dark path before he can climb back into the light. So it’s been tough.

HC: Can you talk about getting to hold a chog?

JL: My chog is gone. I lost the chog at this convention, which means it was either nicked when I wasn’t looking or I put it down in a hungover haze, but yeah, it’s gone, it’s MIA. But it’s awesome. They’re shipping from China right now, so I’ll have one in my hands in three weeks. It’s an amazing feeling. This isn’t my first time. Marvel made toys when I did “Fantastic Four: House of M,” and I created the It, which is an uglier Thing analog, and the Inhuman Torch. Not really my creations, but kind of. And they made “House of M” Fantastic Four figures.

HC: You’ve said Showtime isn’t happening for “Chew,” but are there contingent plans?

JL: We had a writer, Brian Duffield, we have a director, Stephen Hopkins, who’s done a lot of Showtime stuff. And then we’ve got a half-hour and an hour script. We have all that stuff back from Showtime. They’re shopping it around…. And Rob and I are both very focused on “Chew”…. We’re just going to let Hollywood do its thing. If nothing happens by the time “Chew” 60 is out and we’re unemployed, then we take control and Kickstart a cartoon. We just can’t do it right now. So you’ve got 25 issues, Hollywood, to make a TV show, or we’re going to do it ourselves.

– Blake Hennon

Follow us on Twitter: @LATHeroComplex

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