After years of working with John Layman on “Chew”, Rob Guillory is getting back to his roots and writing and drawing his own work again. With “Farmhand”, Guillory is telling the story of three generations of a Southern family, all framed within a story about a man who figured out how to grow organs on a farm and what that meant for him and his family. Read on as we chat with Rob about “Farmhand”, the idea of mistakes being passed down, cryptid based cereals, creating stories not often seen in comics, and more.
To get things started, what is “Farmhand” about for those that may not know?
Rob Guillory: “Farmhand” is the story of a Southern farmer named Jedidiah Jenkins who is miraculously hit with this highly-advanced scientific data that leads to the creation of what is called the Jedidiah Seed. This seed, when planted and watered, grows into human organs. Jedidiah uses these “organic” body parts to heal many, growing richer than he could ever dream. Then things go horribly wrong. This story centers around Jed’s family, namely his son Ezekiel, as they cope with the consequences of Jedidiah’s creation.
Probably everyone has mentioned it by this point, but Ezekiel kinda looks like you. Was that a conscious decision to make the character look like you or more just you trying to tell a certain kind of story?
RG: I don’t think he looks like me, really. He’s a hairy black dude. And he has WAY better hair than I do. But seriously, I think Ezekiel is a character type that isn’t seen in comics all that often, and that’s what you’re probably seeing. Zeke’s kind of a nerd, and so am I. I’ve always been a bit of an oddball, and Ezekiel is certainly cut from that cloth. I’d say that a good bit of why I chose to have certain characters look certain ways boiled down to one sentence: “I’ve never really seen that done in comics, so let’s do it.”
As a black Southerner and the dad of biracial children, why was it important that Ezekiel and his family be this biracial family that you don’t often see in comics?
RG: Yeah, again, I just hadn’t seen it done quite the way I wanted to do it. Sure, some of it was working from what I knew, but more of those decisions were made just because it created a more interesting tapestry of story than any other option. Setting up Ezekiel as the son of a black farmer in the South tapped into a well of connotations and history that I could either draw from or totally subvert. For example: I knew some folks would see a black guy standing in a field and think “slavery”. But I liked the idea of playing on that expectation, then flipping it on its head by revealing that it’s actually a sci-fi story. It catches people off-guard, and that’s what I wanted. I wanted to surprise people with something original. It wasn’t some racial agenda. I just wanted to make something new.
Jedidiah and Ezekiel are both names that I think people would immediately think of as “country” or “old fashioned”. But they’re also Biblical names, with Jedidiah being the name God gave to Solomon and Ezekiel being a prophet. Did you pick those names with significance in mind?
RG: Totally. The Biblical nature of both names is absolutely significant to each character’s role in the overall story. The fact that they sound “country” is just an added bonus.
There’s one line in the first few pages of the book that I’ve come back to a few times – “But good fruit can’t come from a bad tree…” I feel like that idea of being tainted by the sins and trauma of your father or grandfather is something that runs deep in a lot of Southern fiction, and even Southern culture. How much is that idea going to play in the story?
RG: Oh, it’s huge. I think it’s a fundamentally human theme. Who hasn’t wrestled with the fruit of their parents’ choices, or the fears of becoming like them? That’s absolutely at the heart of “Farmhand”. It’s the story of three generations of one family, coping with their own sins, plus the added baggage of their forefathers’. It’s about that question: “Can good fruit come from a bad tree?” Or even better, “Can a bad tree become good?”Continued below
I know before “Chew” you wrote a lot of your own stuff, but how is it transitioning back to doing art and story after years and years of working with a writer? Did you pick up any tips or tricks from Layman and his scripts?
RG: It’s been the most fulfilling thing I’ve ever made, to be honest. Even when I was in the monthly grind of “Chew”, I was always percolating on returning to writing, so this has really been like coming home for me. I think anytime you spend as much time in a collaborative relationship with someone as talented as Layman is you’re bound to pick some things up. After 60+ “Chew” scripts, I’ve learned a ton about what works and doesn’t work. It’s been sort of a long apprenticeship.
Looking at the credits, you’ve got Taylor Wells, your coloring assistant on “Chew”, doing colors and Kody Chamberlain doing letters/design. I know you’ve known both of them for a long time, but what made each the right fit? Does this also make y’all the only All-Louisiana creative team at a major publisher?
RG: I’ve known both for years, so that made it easy. Taylor was my color assistant for 40+ issues of CHEW, so she knows my art better than anyone. She knows what works with my stuff, while being able to bring her own aesthetic to the work. And I wanted “Farmhand” to feel familiar, but new. I wanted fans of my work to still see what they love about my art, while still differentiating “Farmhand” as a different beast from “Chew”. I think Taylor’s colors play a huge role in that. And aside from being an amazing writer/artist in his own right, Kody is the most gifted graphic designer I know, so bringing him on as letterer was a no-brainer.
Since you’re writing and drawing, are you writing full script and laying it all out before you ever get to the art, or writing a bit looser and giving the artist side of you more leeway?
RG: No, I’m writing full scripts with dialogue. I didn’t want to do this halfway. I wanted to flex my muscles as a writer here, developing those skills in the event that I might want to write for other artists down the road. I give myself free reign to change things on the fly in the art if needed, but I didn’t want to cheat myself on the script end of things.
I think I remember reading in a previous interview around the time the book was announced that your senior thesis project in college was a bunch of paintings of people as plants. What is is about the idea of tilling the soil and farming that also speaks to family and why do you think it’s an idea that you hit upon again years later?
RG: I think I’ve always been fascinated with the idea of how ideas or values can be planted in people, only to grow into something unexpected years later. And as the parent of three young kids, I’ve become very aware of how much of an impact my choices make on their futures. I’ve always been sort of obsessed with this butterfly effect that can echo through generations of a family, so it just made sense to tell this story. But to be honest, when I started “Farmhand”, I’d completely forgotten that my senior thesis featured depictions of people as plants. Apparently it’s an idea that got planted in me a long time ago, and I’m only seeing the fruit of it now.
What are the chances that we can make the Chupacabra-O’s from the book a real thing? Who do we have to talk to?
RG: I’m reaching out to Alex Jones’s people as we speak. I feel like they’re probably in the know about mythical goat creatures.
Finally, is there anything else you’d like to add?
RG: I’m just really excited to share this story with folks. It’s been a long time coming, and I couldn’t be prouder of it.
Twitter: @rob_guilloryContinued below