INTERVIEW: Creating Catwoman: Lonely City – Behind the Scenes with Cliff Chiang

An older Catwoman pulls her mask on over half her face. Several other masks are behind her on shelves

Cliff Chiang is best known to the comics community as an artist–and a damn good one at that. He’s worked with some of the biggest names in comics over the years, including Brian K. Vaughn, Brian Azarello, and Judd Winick. You look at the credits to his name and can’t help but be impressed by the length and breadth of his career. But Chiang is not–nor has he ever been–just an artist. Chiang worked as an editorial assistant at Vertigo comics in its heyday, working with Stuart Moore on Books of Magic at the same time that series like Preacher and Transmetropolitan were around. He’s seen a lot–and done a lot. And now, with Catwoman: Lonely City, he gets to do everything.

The shape of Catwoman leaping from a building. Inside the shape are all the incarnations of the character

“I’m always curious about anything that goes into the production of comics,” he says. “I think that comes from being in editorial, and it comes out of wanting to be independent as well. If I wanted to make a comic all by myself, I just would want to know how to do it, rather than just laser focus on one aspect of it. So I was curious about what goes into that, because it was a big, blank spot in my experience that I wanted to fill in and see how it’s done.”

Filling in that blank spot has meant creating a workflow that Chiang admits probably only makes sense to him. Like doing the lettering–the aspect of comics he had the least experience with before beginning this project–first. “I actually lettered this project before I did pencils,” Chiang explains. “So it’s there in my digital files, and then I print them out so I can ink with balloons on the pages.” Over Zoom, he shows a page that he’s currently working on. “I’ll have the borders printed out, and then the lettering is there, and this is just blue line that I can ink over and the scanner doesn’t pick it up. So it’s there, and I can react to it, as opposed to just this, you know, this idea that something is going to be there, maybe it’ll fit.”

Process page from Catwoman: Lonely City Issue #1, courtesy of Cliff Chiang

Having the balloons there before he starts to envision the page is key to Chiang’s process. “Because if you don’t see a balloon there, you might put a lot of detail, whereas when you see it there, you realize maybe it doesn’t need anything around it, and that it sits better in the negative space that way. So I feel like it leads to a much more organic look, even if it’s not a platonic idea of lettering.”

Platonic ideal or not, the fact that Chiang created an entire workflow based around the lettering process is no small feat, and one that is as nostalgic as it is artistic. “Having come up in comics at a time when lettering was still done on boards, I have a familiarity with that. Only a few years later, that whole process kind of went away, and now everything is digital. But for me, I wanted to take another look at that and see what might have been lost in that translation.”

The lettering-first approach also helped during the editing process, Chiang adds, since the script was all there. “And the good thing about this was also the whole book in layout form is completely lettered, so the editors could read the whole thing and we could evaluate it and say like, ‘Oh, this feels a little off,’ and then I could go in and change a panel here and there to address problems in the story.”

You get the sense that Chiang is rarely completely satisfied with his own work and that there is a bit of not just perfectionism, but artistic vision that he, for once, did not have to compromise at any level, from the structure of the narrative down to the smallest details. “I don’t need to check with anybody else if I want to change something,” he says, dryly. “And, oh well that means that it should be colored this way, and no we should move that balloon…these are all things that can be massaged, and taken care of, and don’t have to worry about making more work for somebody else, because that person’s me.”

The structure of the book, as four issues, was Chiang’s choice, and, he explains, not just because of his love for serial narrative, but because comics are inherently tied to seriality. “It’s something that’s part of the history of comics, to the serial nature of it, and the way that changes how you tell a story. There’s something really powerful and affective about serialization that keeps readers engaged. Putting all this out as one book, I could see that being an option, but it just wouldn’t be as fun.”

And by “fun,” Chiang means something more than enjoyment. He really is attempting to do something that is new to comics in terms of using the format–the materiality–of the physical comic, and the nature of time–to tell part of this story. The inspiration to attempt this in a comic book Chiang credits to filmmaker Steven Soderbergh. “There’s a Steven Soderbergh movie, The Limey, where you see Terrence Stamp, and to show young Terrence Stamp they’ve got old footage from another movie, you know, completely unrelated. But when it shows up, you’re like, wow. It’s suddenly you feel all the years in between, you know, and that was really interesting to me. And how do I do that in a comic book? And the way to do that was to talk about other versions of Catwoman, to show older printing processes, to remind you of the history of comics.” You can see that Soderbergh influence in a uniquely comics way through Selina’s recognizable Catwoman suits, which appear in flashbacks much like the Terrance Stamp footage in The Limey.

It was at this point in the conversation that I was struck by how much thought and care Chiang has been able to put into this project, and that’s what makes this project so special–outside of it being a fantastic story. Catwoman: Lonely City is the first (and only) title that I’ve read in the Black Label imprint, but it only took one issue of this series for me to be convinced that this is the best idea DC has had in ages. With this book, I can appreciate what DC is letting creators do–which is not only to be creative in building their own continuities, but to have the freedom to do what they want to do without having to tie into other comics series or some sort of event.

Although the Black Label imprint uses DC’s “prestige” format for production (generally accepted as being somewhere “halfway” between a traditional comic book and a graphic novel in terms of production value, product size, and paper quality), I would argue that the “prestige” is also applicable in the same sense of prestige television on a story level as well. Creators are getting to write stories for DC that they want to write. Those stories don’t have to be any particular length, or format. They can be singular graphic novels like Harleen, or longer ongoing series because that’s what the creator wanted to do. It demonstrates a level of trust in the creator, and it’s paying off, big time, with a quality of storytelling that is truly elevated.

In the next part of this series, I’ll dive into my conversation with Chiang about the first issue and the storytelling itself. Since the story is connected so strongly with the production and process of creating this story, it’s deserving of its own article.

Kate Tanski

Kate Tanski

Recovering academic. Fangirl. Geek knitter.

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