Before Image Comics became the go-to destination for A-list comic creators looking to spread their creator-owned wings, John Layman and Rob Guillory’s Chew established itself as one of the publisher’s first post-The Walking Dead hits, filling a body-horror/humor niche that no one knew the industry was missing. With multiple Eisner and Harvey Awards to its name, Chew concluded in 2016 after 60 issues. Today, Paste can exclusively announce Guillory’s next long-form Image Comics project: Farmhand.
Written and drawn by Guillory with colors from Taylor Wells, Farmhand launches in July and introduces three generations of a mixed-race family living south of the Mason-Dixon line. Protagonist Zeke has been estranged from his father Jed in the years before the series opens, and brings his wife, son and daughter to Jed’s farm to mend ties. Jed isn’t a typical green thumb, though—he’s the geneticist behind cutting-edge bioengineered stem cell plants that grow new limbs and organs as easily as lemon trees grow citrus. He’s also got a literal green thumb, as the first human recipient of one of his harvested body parts. In advance of the series’ announcement at today’s Image Expo, Paste exchanged emails with Guillory to discuss Farmhand’s blend of body-horror nightmares, familial drama and Guillory’s expert comedic timing.
Farmhand Promotional Art by Rob Guillory & Taylor Wells
Paste: You’re best known for the out-and-out—and frequently gross-out—comedy of Chew. There’s still a lot of your sly visual humor in Farmhand, but with a more serious edge. How conscious was that pivot? Is it important to you that readers not associate you solely with comedy?
Rob Guillory: It was more of a practical shift than something I did out of not wanting to be typecast. No matter what project I’m working on, my first priority is to give the project the work it needs. Chew needed to be over-the-top crazy. And Farmhand needed a bit more of a grounded approach, given that it’s more grounded to a small-town setting. That said, Farmhand has plenty of silly humor. That’s just who I am. But for this story I’m more focused on slow and steady character exploration than frenetic madcap humor.
Paste: With that in mind, have you made conscious changes to your style or how you lay out a page in Farmhand to better suit the tone?
Guillory: Yes and no. Farmhand is still indelibly me, as Chew was indelibly me. I never developed a “Chew art style”. This is just how I draw, really. That said, I do think my focus on Farmhand has shifted to a slower, more deliberate storytelling pace. I really want the reader to sit in the silent moments of this book and immerse themselves in the characters and the world. I’ve always been known as an artist that uses Easter eggs in the art to convey aspects of the story that went beyond the script, and I think that’s true of my Farmhand work. There’s just as much being said in the silent panels as in any scene with dialogue.
Paste: From the zombie-like hands on the cover to the opening dream sequence and the final page, there’s quite a bit of horror, particularly body horror, in this first issue. Are you a fan of the genre? Did any movies, comics or books have a particular impact on how you incorporated horror into the story?
Guillory: Well, I grew up with tons of horror, and I had more than my share of nightmares. Friday the 13th, Halloween, Nightmare on Elm Street and Psycho were my faves. And while I wouldn’t call myself a diehard fan of the genre, I do feel that horror is an immensely powerful storytelling device. Every one of us knows fear. It’s the first thing we encounter the second we leave our mother’s womb. So really, I’m just tapping into that primal fear with this book. But I hesitate to call Farmhand a horror book, honestly. I think it’s more of a family drama with a healthy dose of scary crap growing under the surface.
Paste: In your brief note at the end, you say that Farmhand is very near to your heart. How long as the book been bouncing around your head? When did you decide that your next commitment needed to be a series you both write and illustrate?
Guillory: I came up with the initial concept in January 2016. I was just beginning work on the final issues of Chew, and I knew it was time to get cracking on a new project. So I ended up slowly developing it over that year and wrapped the first issue’s script in December 2016. The odd thing was, as I began writing it, my wife reminded me that my entire college senior thesis was a series of paintings featuring people as plants. It was an exploration of the meaning of family, coming to terms with my own heritage and whatnot. So I suppose I’ve been percolating on these themes for the last 15 years or so. There was no question that I had to write and draw this. Most folks don’t know this, but pre-Chew I wrote most of my own projects. So this was really a return to my roots. Put intended.
Paste: It’s not too overt in the first issue, but there are suggestions—sign names in town, for instance—that Farmhand will have something to say about race in America. You’ve also created an interracial family at the heart of the book, which is still depressingly rare in comics. Can you talk a bit about how you approached that theme?
Guillory: On one hand, I’m just being true to my upbringing. I approached this book, the racial makeup of it and whatnot, based on my own experience as an African American born, raised and still living in Lafayette, Louisiana. And it’s a complex experience. I’m black, from a family whose lineage includes French, Native American, Hispanic, German, Italian and caucasian backgrounds. We’re Creole, which is sort of a nice way of saying “We’re mixed with EVERYTHING”. My wife is white, and my three kids are biracial. My heritage is diversity, and that’s what I’m depicting and celebrating in Farmhand. It’s really that simple. I’m not out to lecture anyone with some grand statement on race relations. My primary interest is creating three-dimensional characters that expand beyond typical stereotypes.
On the other hand, I’m fully aware of the connotations that come up by creating a book where the main character is a black farmer in the South. I know what this conjures in people’s heads. My goal is to take that picture and flip it on its head with a story that’s deceptively complex. The South has a rich heritage of pain and progress. That’s rich soil to cultivate a story in.
Paste: Farmhand centers three generations of a family. What’s appealing to you about a father/son dynamic like the one between Jed and Zeke? And how much of their past should we expect to see on the page?
Guillory: Well, going back to the previous question, I wanted to explore the evolution of pain and progress over three generations of a family. And as a father myself, it’s a subject I’m constantly pondering. I know that my choices have real life consequences on my kids, just as the choices of my father have had lasting effects on my life. So a huge part of Farmhand is this family coming from a place of intense darkness into a more hopeful season. But all the while, the ghosts of the past keep trying to drag them back into Hell. That’s the central struggle. We’ll see a good bit of their past over time, as it’s constantly infecting and informing their present experience throughout the book.
Paste: Finally, Jed has a literal green thumb. Are you a gardener at all yourself? Did any particular research on stem cells or agriculture influence the book?
Guillory: I’m a novice gardener at best, to be honest. I used to keep a little square-foot garden back when Chew was just getting started, but the business of a monthly comic schedule with raising kids ended that. But we have a patch of land that I occasionally dream of turning into a family farm one day, when my life slows down a bit.
As for research, I did a decent bit of digging on genetically engineered plants and stem cells early on. I was particularly interested in how scientists were engineering plants with the ability to grow certain types of medicine. Based on that, along with some of the techniques used for growing human organs, the world of a bioengineered seed that grew into human/plant hybrid body parts didn’t seem too far-fetched. Weird, but not too far-fetched.