The visual half of the powerhouse pair behind DC Comics’ “Wonder Woman,” artist Cliff Chiang has impressed fans over the past year with his version of the Amazon Princess. Heading into 2013, he and “Wonder Woman” writer Brian Azzarello have a chance to wow readers all over again with the New 52 introduction of Jack Kirby’s classic creations like the Boom Tube, the Astro-Harness and Orion of the New Gods.
One of the main protagonists in Kirby’s “Fourth World” saga, Orion is the adopted son of Highfather of New Genesis and the biological son of the Anti-Life Equation-hunting Darkseid leaving the demi-god torn between his upbringing and his blood parentage “Wonder Woman” #12 marks the character’s first New 52 appearance, and Azzarello and Chiang will pick up his story and reasons for coming to Earth in December’s issue #15.
An artist with a non-traditional comic book aesthetic, Chiang began his comics career as an editor for Vertigo before transitioning to freelance illustrator with stints on “Green Arrow/Black Canary” with Judd Winick and “Human Target” with Peter Milligan. While “Wonder Woman” is not Chiang’s first collaboration with Azzarello, after a year on the book the two have become one of DC’s prominent creative teams, their first issue landing “Wonder Woman” in the top thirteen bestselling comics in America and subsequent issues maintaining a position in the top 50.
With the Orion tease and a full year under his belt, Chiang spoke with CBR about his vision of the New Gods, the thought process behind his popular re-imagining of the Greek pantheon while reflecting on his work with Azzarello.
CBR News: We’re just about set to see your version of Orion. I would say your take on Hephaestus has a Kirby-esque feel — when it comes to Orion, is he going to be even more Kirby-like in design?
Cliff Chiang: I think initially when Brian and I talked about the New Gods being in the book, in terms of design, we were thinking to stay more Kirby-ish. But as the design process went on, we realized that it actually needed to change a little bit more. We sent out initial design, and [DC] felt it was too respectful of Kirby’s design, so they pushed us to really think a little bit differently and come up with a new take. I think our approach is not necessarily about Kirby but about trying to capture some of that energy.
We’ve seen Darkseid in other comics, like “Earth 2” and “Justice League,” but this is pretty much the first time we’re seeing the New 52 Orion. Is this your chance to push forward what New Genesis and that side of the New Gods looks like?
No, it’s not quite as organized as that! [Laughs] We’re playing with Orion, but the book is “Wonder Woman,” not “The New Gods.” We’re just going to have Orion and see what he brings to the dynamic, how he plays off of Wonder Woman and the other characters. He’s a guest star, so our focus was designing him and making him fit into the world that we’re creating for Wonder Woman, and not so much about trying to design something for all of the New Gods.
We spoke with Brian at NYCC, and he said he felt the New Gods fit into and played with the series’ overall mythology theme. What was the impetus on your side to want to play with Orion?
It just made sense, you know? The Dog Of War; personality-wise and everything, he’s not that different from the Kirby version. But to see how that plays against Wonder Woman and her more compassionate side I think will be interesting. They’ll definitely butt heads quite a bit, but they’re ostensibly after the same thing.
Comic book fans have such a love for the Fourth World characters and can be very specific about the way they like to see them appear. You mention Orion is the opposite of Wonder Woman — how would you describe his role in the upcoming story?
In a way, Orion is kind of the opposite because he’s given himself the ability to act out whereas Wonder Woman hasn’t. I think our Wonder Woman is impulsive and does kind of act first, but our Orion has totally given himself over to that and has no qualms about hurting people, while Wonder Woman does. But there is a part of her that’s similar to Orion ,and it’ll be interesting how they connect.
I love the Fourth World characters; I really think they’re a tremendous achievement. They’re so great and we’re trying to do this in the spirit of, it’s not a strict Kirby interpretation, but it works for the character. We’ll see him, hopefully, a little larger than life and from a different world in the way he acts and why he’s messing around on Earth.
Shifting from New Gods to the Greek Gods, I think one of the more interesting surprises on the book is that your version of War is Brian Azzarrello!
He’s said that was pretty much all your doing — what made you want to enshrine Brian as War?
The short answer is that Brian wanted War to be a tired old man, and I immediately thought of Brian! [Laughs]
No, I think he’s got a cool look! Brian’s beard, and by extension War’s beard, does a lot of the heavy lifting for that look. When we came up with him, giving him these coal black eyes and the blood and the fingernails and all that stuff, it was a different vision of War than we’ve seen in “Wonder Woman” before. This is not the traditional Greek god who glorifies violence and is kind of a psychopath. Based on the look, you can see War is someone who is a little more calculating, someone who has been worn down by the mantle. War has traditionally been Wonder Woman’s villain, and he’s not, here. He serves a purpose the way all the gods do, and it’s not this simple binary black-against-white. The fact is, he is one of her mentors and she has a personal connection to him. They care about each other. I think that has been a much more interesting angle then to just have them diametrically opposed.
That’s something we saw in the #0 issue, with the bigger, almost Viking-like War mentoring Diana.
One of the things for the designs is, we’ll think a lot about their personalities and research and see what animals the gods are connected to, if there is any sort of visual motif we can pull from. With War, it was definitely the vulture. The vulture is associated with Ares, so we gave him this sort of plume of white feathers around his neck and black feathers below and leather in almost a very S&M sort of way. All that fits with the character.
I’m curious, when you turned Brian into War, was he completely surprised or did he have an idea of what you wanted to do?
We had talked about it, so it wasn’t a complete surprise — then again, he’s never seen me draw him or someone who looks like him! It’s certainly not meant to be a portrait of Brian — if it were, he’d be smiling a lot more. Brian can come across kind of gruff, but whenever I hang out with him, I see a smile turn up at the corner of his lips! [Laughs] But we played with it a little bit — how skinny can we make him, how hunched over — he’s supposed to be sort of this creepy guy!
And then, like we said, your Hephaestus comes across as Kirby-meets-Hellboy —
What was the thinking going into his design?
When Brian told me about Hephaestus, he said he’s ugly, he’s a monster, he’s something that Hera threw away when she gave birth to him. It’s a huge betrayal, but he has to look like something that you would throw out! [Laughs] That you would be disgusted by and has grown into this Kirby monster, down to the little shorts and everything. In making him, we had to make him look weird; he’s got the big head, he sort of looks like a weird giant dwarf, his arms are very big, but he’s more akin to the original Hulk than to the modern day Hulk with a tiny head and big shoulders.
For War, you incorporated the vulture, and Poseidon is essentially a big fish, but with gods like Hades, the references seem more esoteric. What made you visualize the God of the dead as a child with candle-dripped wax covering his eyes?
A couple of the characters are actually designed by Tony Akins; Hades is one of them, Poseidon, Lennox and Persephone thus far. I know when I first talked about Hades, we decided that if Tony is introducing some of these gods, he should get a shot at designing them. I think he did really interesting work and interesting takes on them that is different from what I would have come up with, but I like them quite a bit!
With Hades, he was always supposed to be a kid because it was creepier that he was a kid who was trying to find a bride. I think the symbolism there is that it brings up the loss of potential that goes with that, you know? When you have a kid being the lord of death, you see that tragedy, all that is lost. When Brian and I initially talked about him being a child, [we thought] he’d piece his body together from the dead so he’d be sewn together patchwork, and when pieces wore out he’d put on a new piece. But Tony I know was inspired by a French painting of death as a horseman with a flaming head — it was like a French version of Ghostrider, I guess! [Laughs] That became the creepy kid with wax dripping over his eyes, his candles providing the only light in Hades as well.
Tony just filled in on issues #13 and #14, proving once more how simpatico your styles are on the book. Had you known Tony before working on “Wonder Woman” or was this a serendipitous meeting over the book for the two of you?
Actually, both! I knew Tony socially for a few years before “Wonder Woman” and I liked his stuff, specifically the work with “Jack Of Fables.” I know Tony cares about the story, about the character, so it seemed like a good fit. He’s good friends with Brian; I think they’re both originally from Chicago, so it made sense. That Brian had someone he could trust with the visuals was the important thing because we were trying to push the book in a different direction. As far as style goes, I think we were lucky that Tony could do something that was different but still felt like it belonged in the book.
Looking back on your past year, do you feel your work has changed or your approach has evolved?
I think it’s different with every story. Every arc there’s different things you want to achieve, visually, so there’s a lot of room to play. That said, I think I feel a lot more comfortable with the book now. Those first issues are really difficult because you’re just trying to figure out how you see things and what’s right for the character and look. At this point, the decision is much more natural. I’m not stressing out about them as much and I can just draw. You put a lot of work in the front end of these books, and it’s not until the second year you reap the benefit of having put that thought into it.
What has it been like working with Brian over the past year? Have you two changed the way you work together?
The great thing about working so consistently with Brian is that we’ve gotten more and more comfortable with each other and trust each other more with each issue. For the #0 issue, we did that old school Marvel-style; he gave me a one-page plot and then broke it down into panels and provided some dialogue in cases. That way of working is really collaborative and trusting of the other person, honoring what they did and then adding to it, kind of like improv. You don’t work against what someone’s done, you work ahead and move things forward.
With the last couple of issues since #0, we’ve done more and more of that. Sometimes the scripts will be just plot; other times it’ll have the dialogue for after it’s drawn. He’ll go back and tweak the dialogue, so hopefully it ends up being a more cohesive product where it works together and you don’t feel the writer and you don’t feel the artist as separate people. There’s benefits to the full script style, but when you’re working with people that you trust, you can also let them in creatively. What you end up with is something that is pure and not an assembly line thing that can happen really easily when you divide up people’s roles that strictly.
Before working as a full-time artist, you were an editor over at Vertigo. Do you feel that influenced your style and the way you approach art?
I think it’s indicative of a mindset. I was looking over there because I love Vertigo books and I was open to different kinds of art. In my approach to superhero stuff, I try to incorporate as much of that as I can. It’s about having different interests and being able to bring, if not something new, at least something interesting to the table.
When we first spoke with you about coming on the book, you talked about wanting really strong poses for Wonder Woman. Now that you’re a year in, how do you see Diana?
It hasn’t changed. I think Wonder Woman still has to come across as being in control. I think that’s an important visual. Even when there are covers where she’s in a perilous situation, it’s not a woman tied to the train tracks. To get away from that kind of idea, that kind of story, even, it has been interesting; we want to show Wonder Woman doing heroic things and doing what she needs to do and not be seduced by juvenile imagery like that. For me, Wonder Woman still is strong and I’ve gotten more comfortable drawing her in that way. I know her personality now, and the kind of things she would do and not do and how she holds herself. That’s the benefit of having worked on the series for more than a year. She’s part of me.
The way you draw her, especially when she’s standing next to Zola, she’s physically taller than everyone else, almost a larger-than-life figure.
Yeah, I want her to feel like, if she were a real person and she walked into a room, all eyes would go to her. She’s a really tall, broad woman. She’s very sturdy! [Laughs] There’s actually times when I’m drawing her that I have to slim her down a little bit from what I’ve initially drawn because her shoulders are too big or something like that. But I think that’s also about showing these different athletic body types. We’re so conditioned to think an attractive woman looks like a model, but what about fitness models? What about pro-athletes who are in prime condition? There is something very graceful and beautiful and sexy about that, and trying to incorporate into drawing Wonder Woman is very important to me. At the same time, I’m not even necessarily adhering to that idea that Wonder Woman has to be sexy all the time. She’s not a porn star. That’s not part of her job, to be sexy! We want her to be attractive as in appealing, but in terms of sex appeal, that’s not the first thing I think of when drawing Wonder Woman because that’s got nothing to do with the story.
Do you know have a Greek god to draw?
Strife is always really easy to draw because Brian’s dialogue for her is so lively. I immediately know how she’s going to stand and how she’s going to deliver her line. She’s been a lot of fun. I had a lot of fun drawing Eros, as well.He was just such a fun caricature of this Euro-hipster, I’d like to draw more of him! We also have Dionysus coming up; he’s already appeared in issue #13 and designing him was a lot of fun because I wanted to go further afield and kind of surprise people with what he looks like.
What are you most excited for fans to see in the upcoming Orion story?
I’m excited for people to see those iconic Orion moments: Orion on the Astro-Harness and the Boom Tube and all those things people love. But then there’s smaller moments I think I like that other people wouldn’t or aren’t anticipating. Quieter moments with him — who is this Orion? When we meet him, we’ll see a softer side of him as well.
Finally, now that you have a year’s perspective on the book, if you could go back in time and talk to year-younger Cliff at the beginning of your run, is there any advice you would give him?
Yeah! I’d say don’t worry so much! [Laughs] It’ll work out! I spent so much time worrying about whether people would respond to this interpretation and would they respond to the artwork. The fact that they have, if I had known that then, I think it would have been happier. I think I would have put out stronger work, as well, knowing that I could trust my instincts!
“Wonder Woman” #14 hits shelves November 21; Chiang and Orion return in “Wonder Woman” issue #15 on December 19.