Cliff Chiang is known for his critically-acclaimed take on Diana Prince with Brian Azzarello in DC Comics‘ current “Wonder Woman” run — but did you know he almost became a lawyer? Or how terrified he was at re-designing Jack Kirby’s New Gods?
Chiang stopped by the CBR Tiki Room at WonderCon 2014, discussing his almost-law career, the challenge of giving a new look at Kirby’s designs and more with CBR executive producer Jonah Weiland, including how he approaches drawing Wonder Woman, his background as a former assistant editor at Vertigo and how he keeps things fresh in his creative process.
On the early days of developing “Wonder Woman” with Brian Azzarello and designing his take on Diana Prince: Brian and I first spoke about Wonder Woman three years ago in January and immediately had a three or four hour conversation about what we would do if we were going to do “Wonder Woman.” It was really great because it was just thrilling to think that if there were no rules, what would we do? We came up with the story that we’re doing now. I felt a lot of pressure taking on this icon and knowing that Wonder Woman means so much to so many people. When I’m drawing her, I try to think about what that character is and make sure that I am paying respect to what other people feel about her. I’m trying to draw a character; I’m trying to draw a living, breathing person and make them feel as alive as I can to the reader. It’s funny when people come up to me and say they really like the way I draw her. They appreciate that she’s not oversexualized. That’s really a decision that an artist has to make — and it’s a lot of decisions. It’s not just, “Hey, whoops, my pen slipped and she’s suddenly too sexy.” You’ve got to draw that thong bikini, you’ve got to draw those big boobs and all that stuff. I feel like we have to check ourselves and say, “Well, is this really accomplishing telling the story that we want to tell?”
On getting to redesign the New Gods: It was really scary. We knew we were going to have Orion in there and we were going to lead up to the New Gods, and initially, we thought, “There’s nothing wrong with these designs. They’re great, and they work really well.” As I was looking at them, our first design was actually really respectful of the original Kirby look. We were like, “Okay, we’re going to go with that.” Then, they came back to us and said, “Look, the New 52 is about looking at these things a different way.” I didn’t feel like I could improve on Kirby’s designs, but I could say, “Well, let me try to interpret it through my own aesthetic.” It pushed us to really think about who the character was and how we wanted him to come across. It made the whole thing stronger because we really landed on what we wanted to look like and sound like and swagger; bring that all together in his design. We ended up making a Euro motorcycle kind of guy.
On his background as an assistant editor, and transitioning to an artist: I’m pretty lucky. I knew when I was starting out, when I got out of school, that I wanted to draw comics, but I also knew my stuff wasn’t very good. It was important to me to break into the industry somehow. Since I studied art and literature, it was actually easier for me to get a job as an assistant editor and when I got into Vertigo and started working there, I could spend my time learning about how the industry worked and how you put a book together. There’s all this behind-the-scenes stuff that happens apart from drawing the pages, and it allowed me to learn about that stuff and get connections with editors, have editors trust me and know what they need from me aside from the art; learning how to communicate with them. It was a great boot camp for learning how to be a professional in comics.
On how he almost became a lawyer: I really didn’t think I was going to become an artist for the longest time. It’s only after working in comics for a few years that I’ve really accepted that this is what I’m doing, this is where my priorities should be. I thought I was going to be a lawyer. I was on that path, I took my LSATs and everything, but I think it was during my sophomore year that I realized I couldn’t just be an English major, it would bore me after a while, and I needed to do some artwork — at least to get me over the finish line and graduate. I started doing more art classes, I was into film — and slowly, it all just coalesced into me wanting to work in comics, but hedging my bets and applying to law school. I got into law school, but then put it off for a couple of years. I told them I was going to go travel the world and get back to my roots, and all I had to do was give them a $300 deposit for the first semester. Instead, I went to try to find work in comics. I don’t know if there’s anything else I could have done, looking back, other than comics.