Cliff Chiang is a gifted artist, a boundary pushing creator and a helluva nice guy. He’s smart, upbeat and laser-focused on producing the best work possible. I’ve always enjoyed time his work and our conversations. With all that in mind, I found myself enjoying the first issue of his latest, Catwoman: Lonely City, more than I thought I would. I should note this oversized, four-issue comic series is from the DC Black Label imprint. There’s been a lot of Batman stories published lately (as Mike Gold pointed out here), and I worried I had had my fill of the character for a while.
Chiang has pleasantly surprised me yet again. I was so impressed with this book. I had to reach out to the artist, now writer-artist, to find out more. Here are the highlights from our conversation:
Ed Catto: I feel like right now, there’s a lot of Batman product out there. There’s a bunch of different projects coming out and part of me was like, “I think I’m reading too much Batman.” But somehow you broke through that clutter and really delivered something fresh with Catwoman: Lonely City.
Cliff Chiang: I wasn’t going to spend all this time on a throw-away story. I think you might be able to tell by the first issue, certainly by the second, that I’m trying to pay homage to those classic Batman stories, The Dark Knight Returns and Year One. You know, I almost hesitate to say “my take” take on it. But I’m just looking to show the parts of Gotham and that don’t necessarily get shown.
Catwoman is such a perfect vehicle for that. She’s really a great character, but she’s also kind of not necessarily as rigidly defined as Batman . Certainly not the Batman that is popular today. I thought there was a lot of gray area to her that would be interesting, especially in the context of a more “crime story” showcase.
EC: Somehow it all seems very fresh. Visually I feel you tagged all the bases for fans, with all the old costumes and whatnot, and then you kind of faked us all out, with “here’s something new”.
CC: And that’s deliberate. Part of me wants to acknowledge all the publishing history that’s come before. That’s part of the mystery of the character. That’s part of what makes you feel her age as well. Because you’re like, “Oh wow she’s done this, and she’s done that. And this is the costume that she wore that time when she did this.”
There’s a way in which all the publishing history, our character can be leveraged to make it feel the weight of the years. And to celebrate that stuff to you know. A big part of this story is about is about getting older. Gotham gotten rid of superheroes, and sort of grown-up in the process.
And to take a look at how city like Gotham might function in the modern world. I wanted to play with that stuff as well.
So, you’ve got you the older stuff that we’re all fans of on one hand, and on the other hand, you can bring in new ideas. I didn’t want to throw away the old stuff. I wanted to keep it and kind of look at different eyes and make you appreciate it again. And then bring in these other concepts to so that the whole thing is richer.
EC: This your first big venture as both writer and artist, Cliff. How was it working with a new writer (you) for “Cliff the artist”? How did that process change for you?
CC: You know, it’s funny. I started this two years ago, and the interesting thing about it is that, in order to get a handle on it all, because it’s such a big story and it’s a big job, I had to compartmentalize. The writing – it was a year of writing – included an outline and the full script.
I wrote in full script because I know how much information is there on the page. I’ve read so many scripts from other people, too. It allows me to kind of evaluate the story on an abstract level.
Whereas, by thumbnailing stuff (and not developing a full script- EC) ,you kind of get seduced by it because it’s a drawing. It’s a comic all of sudden. I wrote it all, and then I thumbnailed it and lettered it so it could be read by myself and the editors.
A lot of the writing was done, super focused, at the beginning. Now as I’m drawing, I am thinking “Oh yeah, I knew this part was going to be a bear to draw.”
There’s so much stuff going on in every panel. Even for the city itself. One of my goals is to make it feel really like New York City, and you can’t do that in a minimal way. Unfortunately. I wish I found shortcuts for this stuff, but at the same time, it’s what the story is. There were times when I cursed “the writer” a little bit. But it’s all going more or less “on plan”. It is taking longer than I ever expected.
EC: Do you think you would like to continue to create in this Black Label oversized the format for a while?
CC: I do enjoy it. I think it needs the right kind of project. And I think you have to adjust your pacing for that. That being said, I do enjoy the storytelling opportunities you get with the Black Label line. It wasn’t until I held the thing in my and I realized the physical size of the page does have an impact.
EC: I was speaking with a local comic owner (Ash Gray from Comics for Collectors in Ithaca, NY) as I was preparing for our talk. It seems he under-ordered your series. He said that the orders were low initially on the first issue. Then there was a big buzz and it immediately sold out. Now he’s having trouble getting more copies to sell.
CC: I was at the Baltimore Comic-Con. I met a lot of people there who are excited to read it. I met a lot of shop owners. Some of them knew to order heavy on it. [They had the opportunity] to read previews of it. They had two issues to read if they checked it out. Some knew that, based on their store, based on their readers, that they could order “Batman numbers” on it.
Things do get lost in the shuffle. Hopefully the buzz on it is that it sold out, and people bought it and that people came around asking for it. Hopefully for the second issue people won’t be caught without it.
I just wanted to tell a story. I just want people to read it, and I think there’s a big audience for it. I think that’s the kind of book that you can, when all is said and done, hand it to somebody how might not be at the stores every week. It could be someone who’s last Batman movie they watched was Batman Returns in 1992. What you need is just a basic pop culture knowledge of Batman and Catwoman. Everything else just falls into place.
It is a blank slate situation: Her name’s Catwoman. She’s a cat burglar and she wears a cat costume. And sometimes she’s involved with Batman. And that’s all you need going into it.
EC: Upon reflection, of course, Catwoman is oftentimes portrayed as a sexy, young woman in a skintight suit. In Catwoman: Lonely City she’s not a young woman. I think it may have been a brave decision for you to have an older protagonist in this book.
CC: Yes, I thought it immediately makes you reassess her. It puts both the reader and the character in a different place. It’s a pendulum. There’s a history of her as the sexy ingenue and then her involved in more hard-boiled crime.
For me, I felt making her older and having her grapple with ageism and sexism would force you to see her differently. And in some ways, to tone that down, so you could see her as a person. Much of the story depends on you relating to her and to her losses and indignities and how she suffers. And you can’t do that with someone slinking around and purring and all that stuff.
I think that’s all part of her history. You see that in a couple of issues, too, but she’s not that person anymore. It’s a little bit of playing a part at one point in your life and moving past it.
EC: Working with your editors, was there every a point where you were told “watch out someone else is doing something similar?” Doing something with characters like Catwoman or Killer Croc? Or was this separate enough from everything else.
CC: A little of both. My editors were worried about something being similar to what just happened. But then, once we squared that away, everybody was really happy with the story. I think the realization was that: there’s an audience for this book is separate from the audience for other books.
And that’s okay. It’s a bigger project and it’s kind of more evergreen than whatever it is happening in the monthly book. There are things I wish, maybe, that had more novelty to them. But we’ve seen that happen. When I wrote this story – I came up with this story two years ago – there were elements that hadn’t appeared yet. That’s just the nature of the beast.
You think you are ahead of the curve. But you are not. You are just part of the Zeitgeist like everyone else. You can think you’re clever doing a book about adolescents in 1988 and then, two months later, after your book, Stranger Things comes out.
EC: This is more of a technical question. You are a very thoughtful artist and you’ve been doing this for a long time. Do you feel as if you deal with editors differently now than you would have years ago?
CC: Probably. I’m on the same wavelength as the editors. And Black Label is open to creators taking changes and thinking about things differently. So, it’s a pleasure. All the interactions and all the notes and suggestions from the editors make the story better. As an artist I can appreciate that end of it. It’s so great that I can’t complain about it.
EC: Well, Cliff this has been fantastic. Good chatting with you, I hope to see you in person real soon. Good luck with everything and best your family during this Yuletide Season.
CC: Okay, all right. Hey, thanks a lot and take care now.
Issue #2 of Cliff Chiang’s Catwoman: Lonely City, a DC Black Label book, is on sale December 22nd.