Sometimes you just know, okay?
In comics, sometimes you read an issue and just understand that the book is going to be a classic. It hits the right notes in terms of tone, story, art, and visual language. It just feels timeless but also very present. It’s just damn great.
That’s the feeling I got cracking open the first two issues of Cliff Chiang’s Catwoman: Lonely City.
Now, I should be clear – Cliff’s a friend. I’ve known him since my days as a publicist at DC Comics. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing his star rise to epic heights – like co-creating the seminal Paper Girls series with Brian K. Vaughan, and crafting classic runs with writer Brian Azzarello on Wonder Woman and more iconic covers than you can think of. Cliff’s linework is to die for, echoing names like Toth, Mazzucchelli, and Risso while also adding something fresh and of the moment. So, he’s a friend – but inarguably a helluva talent who deserves all the praise.
Lonely City marks Cliff’s first solo writing work, at least on a full-length mini or series. It tells the story of Selina Kyle, the titular Catwoman, being released from prison to a Gotham that’s markedly different from the one she remembers, and one still reeling from the tragic events that propelled Catwoman behind bars. Harvey Dent is reformed and mayor of the city, Batman is gone, and the city’s become a militarized and “safe” police state that leaves little room for freedom of the marginalized. It’s powerful stuff, and while the book can be read as a fun “last heist” superhero romp, it’s also much more than that.
Cliff’s writing is sharp and witty, with a tight plot and enough Easter Eggs to keep the hardcores happy but also moving at a clip that will pull in casual readers, too. I don’t say this lightly, but I honestly believe this book, once everything is said and done, will be considered one of the best Batman family books of the last decade, maybe ever. It’s that good.
In many ways, the book runs parallel to another futuristic tale of a Gotham gone to seed by an acclaimed writer/artist – Frank Miller’s seminal The Dark Knight Returns. The similarities are clear, but the differences are much more important, in my opinion. While Miller’s Batman is an extreme, hyper-realized version of the Caped Crusader fans had come to know, Cliff’s Catwoman is a natural, smart extension of Selina – injecting his story with a heartfelt and winking nod that isn’t as evident in DKR. Which is to say, Lonely City stands on its own, and already feels like an essential part of anyone’s DC library.
I had the pleasure of chatting with Cliff about the book, his literary and cinematic influences, and what readers can expect as the series continues.
ALEX SEGURA: Cliff, can you talk a little bit about how this project came to be? You’re coming off a pretty impressive run with PAPER GIRLS. What was the pull – in terms of coming back to DC and work-for-hire?
CLIFF CHIANG: When DC announced Black Label – an imprint to showcase out-of-continuity stories for mature audiences – I was immediately intrigued and excited. It reminded me of 90’s Vertigo and the books that got me seriously interested in making comics, and I was incredibly flattered when Mark Doyle and Chris Conroy asked me to pitch a book that I could write and draw. With Paper Girls ending, it seemed like the right time for a new creative challenge, and getting to play with DC’s roster of superheroes was an unexpected gift. It’s always hard to get anyone to pay attention to a new book, especially from an untested writer, but the addition of well-loved characters would hopefully make my debut a little more enticing.
That era of Vertigo was formative for me, too. The idea of more mature takes on classic heroes is a sweet spot, for sure. Now, as someone who still longs to read your THE BATMAN series with Brian, I have to ask – what made CATWOMAN the right character for you? What is it about Selina and this version of her that really appeals to you, and makes you want to add a story to her mythos?
Initially, I was asked to come up with an epic story through which I could present a stylistic vision for the entire DC Universe, much as Darwyn Cooke had done so spectacularly with New Frontier. I spent months wrestling with it before finally admitting that my interests and strengths were in more intimate character studies. So I took a step back and asked myself what kind of book I’d like to read myself.
I love when superhero comics get mashed up with other genres. It provides a way for new readers to enter the world and gives longtime readers a novel way to reconnect with the characters. The prospect of a Catwoman heist book was so appealing to me, but I also needed to push it a bit further. Knowing it had been almost 20 years since Ed Brubaker and Cooke revitalized Catwoman, I wondered what an older Selina Kyle might be like: an experienced career criminal, no longer the nubile ingenue, dealing with the indignities of age and sexism. With that, I had my classic noir underdog, and all the pieces fell into place.
It does feel like at that point you had all the elements. But before we get too far into the crafting of Lonely City, can you give us a quick and dirty elevator pitch for the book?
After ten long years in prison, a 55-year-old Selina Kyle returns to Gotham City, intent on solving the mystery of Batman’s dying words. The only thing in her way is Mayor Harvey Dent and his army of militarized Batcops.
I know you’ve done a few special things here and there, but this is pretty much your first formal, longform foray into writing – but it doesn’t feel like it at all. It’s assured, complex, and propulsive. Was that part of the appeal of the project? The chance to do most of the heavy lifting? How did you know this was the book you wanted to write AND draw?
Many of my comics heroes have written and drawn their own work: Frank Miller, Jaime Hernandez, Gipi, Naoki Urasawa to name a few. Since the beginning of my career it was something I always wanted to do, but was never sure if I was ready for it. If I hadn’t been asked, if the Black Label editors hadn’t voiced their confidence in me, I’m sure it would have been another 20 years before giving it a shot.
But that also meant it couldn’t just be a creative exercise, it needed to be about something. It had to be personal to me. Beyond the heist story, it’s also about making comics, growing older, and about the cities we live in.
It’s such a layered story, Cliff, that I found myself going back to it just to make sure I recognized and appreciated all you wove into it. Now, I’m sure I’m not the first person to mention the parallels between LONELY CITY and THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS – both feature their respective protagonists being pulled back into roles they’d long thought abandoned. And while LONELY CITY is dark and full of danger, there’s a whimsy and knowing wink to it that I love, and a progressive, inclusive sensibility that feels very important right now. I guess this is a long-winded way of asking how you created the future Gotham we all see in the book?
In the same way I’m presenting Selina and the others through a “real world” lens, I also wanted to look at Gotham in the same way. Often, Gotham is presented with a dramatic Gothic sensibility but you never get a sense of what it’s like to live there and it’s usually pretty homogeneous. Showing a diverse and modern Gotham immediately makes it feel like a real city, with real problems. Having lived in New York for 15 years, I’m fascinated by its politics, the push towards gentrification and inequality under the veneer of progress. What if these things happened to Gotham?
The Selina we meet and see in the first two issues is world-weary and grizzled, but she’s not broken or needlessly grim and gritty. She’s confident and capable and…funny. It really boils down some of the best interpretations of the character into a really engaging whole. I know you love Batman and the mythos, so did you have to do a lot of research? Or was it mainly reading for pleasure? What runs inspired you?
I love dark deconstructions of classic characters (and I do think Lonely City is part of that tradition), but it’s also really important to balance that with some humanity. You need to keep a sense of humor about things, or else you veer into self-serious parody.
I didn’t do a lot of background reading, just the occasional dive into some old collections to learn more about the Batcave, for example. I wanted to evoke the memory of reading 80’s DC comics, particularly the mature readers comics I’d dip into, stuff like Vigilante or Grell’s Green Arrow.
One thing I really loved about the series is that it works on so many levels. At its purest, it’s a great “one last heist”-style story, featuring a wonderful lead and really fun, memorable supporting cast members. But it also caters to comic book lifers, as it’s loaded with fun nods to continuity and Easter Eggs galore. But the latter doesn’t detract from telling a sharp story. Did you have to strike a certain balance to tell the story you envisioned? Were there any things you had to pull back on?
The primary reason for any of the Easter eggs is to evoke history. Even if you don’t get the reference, you know it’s something from the past. And if you are familiar with it, it’s a blast of nostalgia that takes you back to when you read it. It leverages the long publishing history of these characters into something that feels like age. But none of it is foreground, so it can always be tucked in without overwhelming the story. It can be tempting to try and add more, but often I’m struggling to find the right reference anyway. Is it funny? Is it smart? That naturally keeps it at a manageable level.
You’re an avid reader and movie watcher – and I think some of the best comics are, of course, not just riffs on other comics. They pull from other sources to create something new for the medium. Were there any crime stories – novels, movies, TV – that stuck in your mind as you put this together?
I skipped reading a lot of back issues, but I had a pretty good list of heist/crime movies to watch. I wanted to see how the genre started, with classic films like Rififi and The Killing, then something sexier like The Thomas Crown Affair or Thief. Get Shorty, Jackie Brown, Out of Sight (Elmore Leonard!), and Soderbergh’s The Limey were movies I already loved and found resonated with the story I was crafting.
Can you tell us a bit about your process? Normally, you’d get a breakdown or script from the writer and create your visuals from there, but in this instance, you were your own collaborator. Did you write a full script and draw from that, or was it more organic?
With such a big project, I couldn’t leave it to chance. I started with a pretty detailed outline that the editors and I worked over, which I then expanded to a beat sheet to make sure I could fit it all into four 48-page issues. Once that was solid and approved, I went to script.
Unlike a lot of cartoonists, I like to write a full script for myself. It keeps me focused on the structure and story as an abstract concept. If I started by thumbnailing and dialoguing a scene – the fun stuff – it’s too easy for me to be swayed by it. For me, a full script is a great blueprint for a comic that can be quickly assessed and edited.
That’s really fascinating. I think a lot of times, when people start telling stories about “the future,” they tend to default to a really dour, toxic masculinity in terms of tone – and while the Gotham we see in LONELY CITY is definitely Not Great – a police state run by a “reformed” Harvey Dent (another meaningful echo to DKR, I thought), it’s not a place without hope. How important was it for you to tell this kind of story in a different way, and in my opinion, in a way that felt more bombastic and hopeful without losing the stakes? (Does this make sense?!)
Maybe it’s just superhero comics, but there is that desire to amp things up to raise stakes, or maybe it’s just to fit in with flying aliens and powered rings. That works great for satire, but as with most things on the book, I wanted to keep it at a ground level where it’s still believable and can be commentary on what’s going on now. If I pushed it too far, with a super-fascistic dystopia like Mega-City One, that can be dismissed as sci-fi window dressing. But my working title for the book was “Catwoman 2020” because I don’t see this as a future Gotham, but one we’re all living in right now.
One of the best parts of “Elseworlds”-type stories like this is we get to see beloved characters evolve beyond the short-term gear-shift of serialized, monthly comics. What resonated with me was how all of the choices you made – be it Harvey, Barbara Gordon, and, of course, Batman himself – all felt very organic and true to their origins and experiences. It felt very thought out – and it made me want to read the stories that got us here. Can you talk a bit about that? And, if we’re not getting too far ahead of ourselves – would you consider playing in this sandbox you created again?
I thought a lot about aging athletes or rockstars. For these characters, what motivates them and how would they move past their costumes when that’s no longer an option for them? What’s their second act? I loved trying to figure out new roles for them, and when I landed on the right ones it felt natural, like catching up with friends from high school.
There’s more backstory than I can fit into four issues, and certainly the magic trick of storytelling is knowing and implying that stuff without spelling it out. It’s a universe I would definitely play in again, but we’ll see if anyone wants that or if it even makes sense.
We’re two issues into your run and I’ve already decided this is going to be one of the perennial, classic graphic novels from the DC/Batman library. But that’s me. What can readers expect from the rest of the series? How do you feel about it as a whole?
Tragedy! Romance! Things get…complicated! The heist continues but pressure mounts as Dent loses control of the city and Selina suffers some surprise setbacks, leading to a final reckoning at stately Wayne Manor. It’s the most ambitious thing I’ve done, and I’m immensely proud of it. For me, writing feels like hubris – here’s a story I think you should read—so ultimately, I just hope it finds the right audience to connect with it, but I’ve been overwhelmed by the response so far. With the right story, I’d do it again.