Cliff Chiang: It's a Wonder-ful Life, Part 2
We return with Part 2 of our exclusive Toucan interview with WonderCon Anaheim special guest Cliff Chiang (click here to read Part 1). Cliff is winding up his 3-year run as the primary artist on Wonder Woman, and relaunched the character with writer Brian Azzarello as part of DC’s New 52. In this part of the interview (which was conducted in early March via phone), Cliff talks more about the wondrous woman, designing covers, including his exclusive cover art for the WonderCon Anaheim Program Book, the increasing amount of digital drawing he’s doing, and much more. (Click on the images to see them bigger on your screen and in slideshow mode!)
Toucan: Is there any other iconic character that you’d like to tackle?
Cliff: I would say that even though I’ve touched on it over the years, maybe just a few things here and there, I do enjoy working in the Batman universe, so something in Gotham City would be great.
Toucan: One of my all-time favorite covers of yours is Gotham Central #31. It’s the portrait of Batman with the supporting cast inside his cape.
Cliff:. That was an inventory cover. They actually weren’t sure when they were going to use it, and they just said can you do something for Gotham Central and Gotham Central was so story-driven, I had a hard time figuring out what you could do on an inventory cover. I just thought, well, if Gotham Central were a TV show—which sounds like it’s happening or a version of it is happening—or a movie, how would you portray this cast? I was thinking about NYPD Blue and Law & Order and it’s really about this giant cast of characters being able to show how Batman literally looms over them, kind of influencing all their choices in the way the job happens. So I just tried to do something that had the city, had Batman, had the whole cast of characters and just trying to come up with a good graphic solution for all of that. It was a lot of fun. It was probably the first cover that I did that was that graphic, and I think that was a milestone for me just professionally, and then going back to do things like that, trying to capture that graphic quality.
Toucan: You colored that one, too, right?
Cliff: Yeah, that was one of the early covers that I started to mess around with color.
Toucan: Your covers are very poster-like and very design-oriented. What’s the difference to you between designing a cover and a story page, I mean besides the obvious? I guess on a cover you kind of have to tell a little about the story inside, but you’re not really advancing the storytelling.
Cliff: Yeah, the job of the cover is really to be striking, whether or not it has anything directly to do with the interiors. I’m afraid I’ve done covers that don’t relate, or hardly relate except for maybe symbolically to the interior, but I think that’s okay. I think gone are the days with characters with speech balloons on the covers, kind of previewing the story inside. I think you want something that’s going to stand out on the racks and often that’s just with a striking image and striking color. So for me a cover can’t just look like a splash page. It has to have a narrative of its own going on there, but it can’t look like it leads to something else. It can’t just look normal like a regular page. You have to design with a little bit more, keeping the logo in mind and not cluttering the image, so that when you stand ten feet back it just turns into brown. With an interior page you can include so much, you can throw everything and the kitchen sink into it, and that’s interesting because you’re staring at the page as part of a story and you’re looking for details, but you don’t necessarily need that on a cover.
Toucan: Are there designers outside of comics who influence you in your cover work?
Cliff: Yeah, there are. A lot of times I would look at movie posters or rock concert posters. There are illustrators that I like as well, such as Rene Gruau, the French designer who did a lot of fashion illustration for Vogue back when Vogue was doing illustrated covers and things like that, as well as Eyvind Earle, who was the lead designer for the Disney Sleeping Beauty movie.
Toucan: Let’s talk a little bit about the Wonder Woman cover you did for us. Can we go through the process of creating a cover like this? What we told you originally was we wanted something that was iconic, and you can’t get much more iconic than Wonder Woman. I know what you first sent us was a color sketch, so is that where covers start with you now, by totally realizing what the color scheme is?
Cliff: Yes. I find that color is such a huge part of what’s attractive about a cover. I almost always send a color comp as a sketch because it communicates so much more effectively what the idea is going to be. If I had sent that in black and white someone might have looked at it and said, well, maybe we’ve seen something like this before, but the color treatment can change a lot of that, make it feel really special. So usually I go through a bunch of rounds of sketches just on my own and then there’s one that will kind of rise up from the rest and that’s the one I’ll work up into a color comp. I like to send my best work as opposed to sending something good and then two other crappy things, because sometimes people will pick the worst of the bunch. So you have to be committed to whatever you send. I try to just limit it to one really, really good sketch that I believe in and will fight for if they don’t like it. Often there are changes to that, which is great, but you want to communicate really effectively and put your best foot forward.
Toucan: Are you working exclusively digitally these days?
Cliff: I’m about half digital. The sketch is done by hand and then scanned and colored in the computer and then it’s tightened up in Photoshop with a Wacom Cintiq tablet, and then that gets printed out to ink traditionally. I like having a piece at the end, and mostly I like the interplay, the organic interplay of pen on paper. There are times when the brush or the pen does something you don’t expect and you get a little spurt of ink or it catches in a certain way, and it’s hard to re-create that digitally. You’re also able to let go of things easier if it’s on paper. If you have the option of just hitting undo, you might not let “mistakes”—put that in quotes—because you have the option of fixing them to be perfect. So inking something on paper allows me to let the drawing go and let it have its own integrity as opposed to me kind of nitpicking it to death.
Toucan: So it’s more spontaneous for you, then?
Cliff: Yeah. Inking for me is purely spontaneous because you’ve spent all this time penciling, and penciling is really the heavy lifting, where you’re looking for reference, you’re doing storytelling, you’re making sure that you drew a hand correctly, that kind of thing where you have the right number of fingers on the hand. So you’re very detail oriented, and inking is the reward for all that hard work, where you’re just kind of able to sit back and react to a piece as you’re inking it. It’s much more spontaneous. It’s more like a performance in a way. Like you’re practicing really hard, but then the performance is where you can finally just emote and let it out and it is what it is.
Toucan: Do you have any fellow artists that do kind of the opposite, where they’ll pencil on paper and then scan that in and ink it digitally?
Cliff: I found if people ink digitally, they pencil digitally as well. The whole process is digital for them. I think for me the feel of digital pencil is pretty close actually. I don’t prefer it, but it’s 90% there, so it feels pretty much like the real thing. What I like about penciling digitally is that I can change things very easily, stupid drawing mistakes. Someone’s head is too small, but I like the way it’s drawn I can just go in and enlarge it and I’m not spending an hour of my time erasing and redrawing.
Toucan: But there are also a lot of artists who save their heavy lifting for the inking process too, right?
Cliff: Yeah, yeah, and part of my process is my pencils are fairly loose now and a lot of the detail does come in the inks.
Toucan: Looking at the TwoMorrows book [Cliff was the recent subject of one of the publisher’s Modern Masters books] I saw some of your pencils. There was a progression of a page from Neil Young’s Greendale that showed fairly complete pencils and then the next a lot more detailed pencils and then the inked version.
Cliff: Yeah, and that stuff was fairly tight actually back then. It’s gotten a lot, a lot looser. There’s actually an upcoming volume of Wonder Woman—the hardcover, volume 4—that has my actual pencils from issue 23 along with Brian Azzarello’s plot. We’ve been working Marvel-style on the book, and it’s been really collaborative, so you can actually see what Brian gave me for plot and how it gets fleshed out, and then you can see how loose my pencils are versus the final inked and colored art in the book.
Toucan: Did you work that way from the beginning on that book?
Cliff: It came about maybe in the second year when we started playing with it a little bit more. We were much more comfortable with each other. We knew where the story was going, and it just felt like it was easier for us to work that way, in a lot of ways because Brian would give me a script and he gives me a lot of freedom to change things, and so I would. And then I said to Brian why don’t you just give me the dialogue and I can restage things however, because he hated doing panel descriptions, so I said I’ll do that. I can do that, you know if I’m going to change it anyway then I should do it. Then it grew from that to why don’t you give me the gist of what they’re talking about and I can kind of pace out the conversation and you can fill it with dialogue. So it’s been great because we’re familiar enough with each other’s rhythms and storytelling styles that it really works very well. I’ll give him specific moments for characters to say things, to make wisecracks, to respond to something nasty that someone else has said. So it’s rich in that the acting is already there and he’s given me the gist of a conversation already so it all comes together at the end when he’s dialoging it. It’s great to see it come back, because it’s even richer than what I’d imagined.
Toucan: Let’s get back to the Wonder Woman cover that you did for us. There didn’t seem to me to be a lot of change between your initial color sketch and the final version you sent us.
Cliff: A lot of the covers turn out that way, particularly when I like the sketch. There’s an energy to sketching that you want to carry over to the final piece, and if you don’t adhere to some of the wonkiness, the weird stuff, then you can kill it, like I said before, kind of by nitpicking it to death. What might make something interesting is how big a hand is versus the head, so you get a sense of perspective, but you might try to fix that on the board and kill any dynamism in between. So I did tighten it up quite a bit in places, but the basic pose and the basic layout are exactly the same because I liked it and it’s what you guys approved as well. So I try not to have any nasty surprises. But just tightening up areas like her face and her hands and that sort of thing.
Toucan: The way your Wonder Woman’s face and hair are drawn certainly shows her heritage, which was something that was missing from the comics in the past, that this person has definitely descended from Greek Gods. To me the only other person that captured that might have been Adam Hughes at one point in time.
Cliff: Right, and Adam’s Wonder Woman was a huge influence on me, as well as Phil Jimenez. I think lots of people have done really great work on Wonder Woman over the years, but I think the fact that her costume is so patriotic people tended to kind of present a more kind of whitewashed Wonder Woman I guess, a more Caucasian Wonder Woman.
Toucan: American, yeah.
Cliff: Yeah, and for this story we wanted to get back to the Amazons. We wanted to present Wonder Woman as, in this day and age, as a global icon and so we don’t have the same standards of beauty now, so why not let some other features in. Why not let her eyes change, let her nose change, let her hair texture be what it is. The fact that people have embraced it I think is really great. I think it shows kind of a change in the landscape of the readers and of the country and I would hope also means that people can look at this Wonder Woman and not necessarily see her in the same way they might see Captain America, that she would represent something even bigger than America.
Toucan: It seems every time DC tries to change her costume it becomes a huge thing on the Internet these days, but do you think the idea of a patriotic costume on her is kind of passé?
Cliff: I think it’s part of the character. I think you can only change it so far before you break it, and so you need stars, you need red and you need some form of blue. We’ve kind of largely muted the blue and almost made it black in most cases, but if you don’t have that , I’m not sure it’s Wonder Woman, at least not for the long term.
Toucan: I think the other interesting thing is that you’ve made her hair almost part of her costume. It’s almost like a cape type of thing.
Cliff: Yeah, the hair is a big part of her, it’s a big part of her femininity. I suggested tying it up just to be contrarian, but Brian said, no, you leave it because it’s like Batman’s mask or Batman’s cape, the way it frames her face and being able to use it to show movement and that kind of thing. Then I realized how right he was once I was drawing the book. I think when George Pérez did the book in the ’80s, the curly hair that he drew on Wonder Woman was so striking and something we hadn’t seen before. Since then I think it’s become a much bigger part of how any artist will put their stamp on Wonder Woman, and then Adam Hughes went to a slightly straighter curl and then I think guys like Doug Mahnke maybe doing a total flat-ironed look. You get different interpretations, and the feel of it will be down to what they do with her hair, which is kind of funny for me to think of a bunch of comics guys defining their stuff with women’s hair.
Toucan: Whose work do you enjoy these days?
Cliff: I’ve been reading a bunch of manga. I’ve talked about this before, but I really love Naoki Urasawa, who did Pluto and 20th Century Boys. As a writer and as an artist, I find his stuff is fantastic. The Italian artist Gippi is also really great for the way he writes and draws his stories. Paul Pope is always an inspiration. He’s kind of unstoppable. He’s got his vision and it always just comes through with everything he does. You can see in his art how much movement he gets out of it. He puts his whole body into it when he’s inking.
Toucan: Anybody else in current comics?
Cliff: Yeah, there really is a lot of great work out there. I think Matt Fraction and David Aja are doing awesome stuff on Hawkeye. I was reading Saga and I think that’s a fantastic book. There really is a lot of good stuff. There are things I’ll kind of follow for the artist or for a writer, it kind of changes over time, but there’s a lot of great stuff coming out.
Toucan: Do you have any advice for anyone that wants to break into the field as an artist? You had a very different way of getting in.
Cliff: My advice, actually, is that everybody has a different way of getting in. There’s no one way of how to do it, which is why I find those panels about how to break into comics really funny because there really is no one way. You have to play to your strengths, but at the same time be humble enough to realize where you need work. If you want to draw, you have to figure out what you want to do for a living. If it’s specifically comics, that’s one thing, but if you just want to draw or tell stories that might be where you start because maybe you’ll work in animation and then find your way into comics or you’ll work in concept art. It’s never a straight path, so you might take some detours, but as long as you keep your eyes on learning and developing your skill set you’ll find your way to it.
Toucan: What do you like about attending conventions like WonderCon?
Cliff: Drawing comics is very solitary. You’re in a room and it’s just you and the page and even after it comes out maybe you’ll hear some reaction on the Internet or read some stuff on Twitter or a review, but you never get a sense of who your readers are until you go to a convention. It’s at that point that there’s an actual conversation happening between you and the readers and seeing who reads your books, and telling you why they like it. It’s important for me to remember to put faces to names and remember that the book means something to people. To be able to interact with them outside of the work in the book is also really important. The fans, the readers love being able to talk to the authors, but it’s the same for us being able to see who reads the book and talk to them about why they like it and what it means for them. It helps me when I’m drawing the book to remember that, and it fuels the work to make sure that this story means something to somebody.
Toucan: Has your convention schedule wound down a little bit now that you have son?
Cliff: Yes, although the trouble is there seems to be more conventions than ever, so it’s important to pick the ones that are going to make the most impact for me in terms of my time and being able to meet people and hit different parts of the country.
Toucan: Are you going to have a table at WonderCon?
Cliff: I’m not, I’m just going to be wandering around and then doing panels and signings. There should be a signing around each of my panels, either before or after. I would love to meet people there, but I won’t be actually sitting and manning a table.
Toucan: Are you going to be signing with DC?
Cliff: I’ll probably be signing with DC as well, yeah. So I know I have at least a couple of signings outside of DC and then whatever DC puts me up for, so I would guess probably five signings at least. [Check the WCA 2014 Program Book for Cliff's schedule of panels and signings.]
Toucan: What still excites you about comics these days? You’ve been doing this now for—with your assistant editor stuff—going on 15 years, right?
Cliff: Yeah. What excites me is what you can do in comics is more open than ever. The readers and the market are responding to all these different kinds of books. You see it with Vertigo books, you see it with the Image books that are coming out now. People are seeking beyond superheroes for comics and that’s really exciting, because it means you can tell any kind of story, and hopefully we will get a much broader sampling of material and we can bring in new readers that way.
Cliff Chiang will be at WonderCon Anaheim 2014! Will you? Badges are still available but going fast . . . click here to buy badges online now. No badges will be sold at the door at this year’s event.