Caught In The Nexus: Cliff Chiang

Cliff Chiang is a rising star in the comic book industry. Sharing and alternating art chores with Javier Pulido, Chiang’s work on the critically acclaimed Human Target (Vertigo/DC) has impressed many and built a loyal following.

I was lucky enough to get the opportunity to interview Mr. Chiang. And that interview is what follows.

The Nexus: Thanks for taking the time out of your schedule to do the interview. How would you describe Human Target and its lead, Christopher Chance?

Cliff: Human Target follows the adventures of a master of disguise named Christopher Chance who, for a fee, will impersonate people who are in danger and dispatch their pursuers with his handy Glock pistols. But he’s done this so much, and he gets so deep into the characters he plays that he’s forgotten who he is. The series is ultimately about examining the many facets of American culture and how that reflects Chance’s own splintered psyche. Chance is a deeply flawed hero, but you can’t help but root for him to get himself together.

The Nexus: Now I know that Human Target is an amazing book, but here is your opportunity to sell someone on the book; why should everyone be reading Human Target?

Cliff: The book combines thought-provoking drama with elements of slick crime and over-the-top action movies. It’s cool and it’s smart. The second collection, titled “Living in Amerika,” comes out this month, and I’m glad to see it. Even though it’s the second volume, it’s still a pretty good jumping on point, as most of the stories are short and don’t require any previous reading to appreciate them. It’s also got a substantial bonus section detailing my art process from thumbnails to finished ink artwork. I wanted to give the readers more than just a few random sketches, so I’m happy they let me put the material together. Check it out.

The Nexus: I completely agree. What was up with Chucky and company (from 100 Bullets) popping up in Human Target #10?

Cliff: As an assistant editor, I worked on that arc of 100 Bullets, so I thought it’s be fun to throw them in there. I’m glad someone noticed them!

The Nexus: Are there any other “Easter eggs” in your work?

Cliff: If I told, wouldn’t that take away the point of “easter eggs”?

Okay”¦ Writer Peter Milligan mentioned that he was a fan of Curb Your Enthusiasm so I dressed one of the minor characters in “Chet’s shirt.” There are a few others, I think, but you’ll have to look for them yourself!

The Nexus: How did you get into comics?

Cliff: I knew Joey Cavalieri from my internship at Marvel Comics one summer, making lots of copies and staring at original art. When I graduated, Joey pointed me towards Heidi MacDonald at Disney Adventures Magazine, who was looking for an assistant. We handled the comics section, doing a mix of Disney properties and new characters. One of Heidi’s big accomplishments was doing the first color reprints of Bone, and I was there for that.

The Nexus: I need to know, you used to be an assistant editor for 100 Bullets, do you know how the story ends?

Cliff: No. But I’m sure it’ll be good.

The Nexus: Were you the asst. editor on the Human Target Mini?

Cliff: Kinda sorta. I wasn’t officially Axel’s (Alonso) assistant, but I did a lot of the running around on that book. It was a good time, and you could feel the energy around many of the projects coming from Vertigo at the time.

The Nexus: What’s it like providing the art for a book you edited, and can you share your memories of Edvin Biukovic? What was he like to work with, and how did you take the news of his death?

Cliff: Eddie was enormously talented, and always pushed himself to do better. I didn’t know him all that well, but he serves as an inspiration to me for his skill and his artistic sincerity. He wouldn’t accept anything less than his best, so while it may have left us nervous about deadlines, we loved receiving a new batch of pages because they’d be phenomenal. I’ve tried to hold myself to the same standard, and while it can be grueling, I think you can see a definite progress in my work. To now be drawing Human Target is for me a kind of validation — I’ve come full circle, from assisting on the book to now drawing it, and I’m proud of that.

The Nexus: Since you were an assistant editor, do you have any advice for aspiring creators about getting into the comic industry?

Cliff: The more outside experience you have, the better. Comics can be terribly insular, and we need new ideas and approaches.

The Nexus: What made you decide to leave the editorial side of things?

Cliff: As much as I enjoyed editing, there was a part of me that could continue doing that without having taken a shot at drawing. Although I wasn’t really aware of it, that was the reason I got into comics, to draw. There were no guarantees, no steady paycheck, but if I didn’t take that leap of faith, it would have haunted me.

The Nexus: How long do you work on the average issue?

Cliff: The Human Target scripts are pretty dense in terms of story, so definitely more than a month to pencil and ink. I could work faster, but it hasn’t been necessary for the schedule, and I’m taking the time to experiment and refine my work.

The Nexus: I understand you have a background in film can you elaborate on that?

Cliff: I studied film in college, and was originally planning to become a filmmaker. While I enjoyed learning about film, comics allowed me more freedom in terms of storytelling. All the cinematography, set design, acting, and visual editing is done by me, whereas in film that’s a nearly impossible undertaking.

The Nexus: How does your film background influence or help your comic art?

Cliff: I think I tend to see comics as movies in my head. I “see” specific shots and I adapt them to go with the dialogue and pacing. While I think comics are more complex than mere “movies on paper”, there’s a shared visual language between the two media.

The Nexus: As an artist do you prefer a detailed script with exact shots, or a script that allows you some flexibility?

Cliff: More flexibility is better. Often a visually detailed script doesn’t synch up with my way of seeing things, and it actually makes it harder for me to draw and tell the story. I always put the story first, so I feel like I’ve earned that kind of flexibility and trust.

The Nexus: Is there one issue that you worked on that you are most proud of?

Cliff: Whatever I’m working on at the moment. The minute it’s done, though, it’s crap and it’s on to the next one.

The Nexus: Do you listen to music while working, if so what kind?

Cliff: It varies. Sometimes it’s rock, other times electronic. It depends on my mood and how close the deadline is. I like sleepy, drony stuff, but that’s no good at 2 in the morning!

The Nexus: Who are some artists that you admire?

Cliff: Alex Toth, David Mazzuchelli, Jordi Bernet, Frank Robbins, Frank Miller, Vittorio Giardino, Eduardo Risso, John Paul Leon, and on and on”¦

The Nexus: I saw you were at the San Diego Con this year, how was it?

Cliff: Surprisingly good. I’ve been going on and off for the last 8 years, and it’s incredible how much it’s grown. But it’s overwhelming, and the last couple years I find myself tuning out a bit when I enter the convention hall. This year, I was signing and sketching at the SplashPageArt booth, so I actually had a set schedule and something to do.

The Nexus: Do you have a favorite convention memory as a fan?

Cliff: I’ve only attended the con as a professional actually, but part of you always remains a fan. My first year, I had the opportunity to meet and show my work to a bunch of artists I’d long admired, like Paul Smith. And this year, I finally met Gilbert Hernandez face-to-face and he told me how much he liked my work. Can’t beat that.

The Nexus: How about your favorite convention memory as a professional?

Cliff: My favorite memory is probably of some late night partying at a suite in the Hyatt. I use the word “memory” quite loosely.

The Nexus: Got it. Is there one character you would love to work on?

Cliff: Not particularly. As long as the story’s good, any character can be worthwhile.

The Nexus: Are there any creators that you would love to collaborate with?

Cliff: I’d really like to work with Brian Azzarello and Brian K. Vaughan. I think we’d cook up some crazy stuff.

The Nexus: Is there any mainstream DCU work in your future?

Cliff: I’d hope so, but nothing is certain just yet. Peter Milligan and I are hoping to work on some Batman material next year.

The Nexus: Many editors become writers; do you have any stories that you want to tell?

Cliff: Yes, but I’d like to make sure other people want to read them first, and that it’s worth telling. There’s nothing more embarrassing than comic artists writing poorly, so I’ll have to work on it in secret until it’s ready to prime-time.

The Nexus: Lots of famous folks have gone to Harvard; did you have any celebrity classmates?

Cliff: Nah, I missed out on Natalie Portman”¦

The Nexus: Sometimes life isn’t fair. I was wondering which movie gives a more accurate depiction of Harvard; How High or Good Will Hunting?

Cliff: That depends what your crowd is! I will say that GWH caught the miserable vibe of the Cambridge college bar scene pretty well.

The Nexus: So, what comics are you really enjoying, as a fan right now?

Cliff: 100 Bullets, Y: The Last Man, Astonishing X-Men, She-Hulk, Runaways, Black Widow, Ultimates, etc.

The Nexus: Do you have a favorite comic of all time?

Cliff: Probably something I read when I was ten, like one of Paul Smit’s issues of X-Men. Books appeal to me on a different level now, and I’ll never love a comic more than that.

The Nexus: Did you have a favorite hero as a kid, and has that changed over the years?

Cliff: I think I’ve always like Batman and Spider-man. They seem the most human of all the superhero icons.

The Nexus: If you could have one superpower what would it be?

Cliff: It’s hard to pick just one, so I’m especially glad to have the combined powers of the Justice League. Muhahaha.

The Nexus: Has Axel tried to lure you away from DC when your contract is up?

Cliff: We’re friends, so of course we have discussed working together at some point. I think I’d do a mean Spiderman.

The Nexus: I was a huge fan of L.A. Williams, did you ever bump into him during your time as an assistant editor?

Cliff: Yes, nice guy. Still get emails from him about crazy house parties and such.

The Nexus: And the final question; since you used to be an editor is there some way you transform this series of questions into something coherent?

Cliff: That’s your job, dude!

Again, I’d like to thank Cliff Chiang for sharing his time with me. I also want to urge everyone to pick up the trade paperback for Human Target: Living in Amerika (which includes, in my opinion, one of the best stories to be published this year) available now, and Human Target #16 which hits the stands Wednesday 11/17.