The word "epic" gets thrown around a lot in the comic book industry, but over the last three years of Wonder Woman, Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang have introduced the character of the New 52 universe with a series of heroic adventures that does justice to the term.
The creative team finishes up their run today, with Wonder Woman #35, tying up the loose ends of the latest story arc and revealing the answers to some mysteries that have been threaded through the series since it began in September 2011. Readers find out why Zeke and Zola are so important, what happens to First Born, and how the day is saved by Wonder Woman — or rather, as she sees herself, Diana.
Over the years, we've talked to Azzarello and Chiang quite a bit about their run — from the beginning (when the biggest question on fans' minds was whether she'd wear pants) to the creative team's announcement earlier this year on Newsarama that they'd be leaving the series.
There were some surprising changes to Wonder Woman and her world during their run, including the revamp of her origin to make her the daughter of Zeus, to their new takes on the New Gods of New Genesis, to Wonder Woman's choice to kill Ares, the god of war (and become the god of war herself).
Yet the title's critical reception has been overwhelmingly positive, motivated in part by the twists and turns of the plot, but also by the visual approach of Chiang's interior art. Not only has his design given Wonder Woman a new presence and strength (while rejecting any hints at cheesecake), but he's redesigned her pantheon of Greek gods to match their personalities and motivations.
Azzarello and Chiang's new spin on Wonder Woman has also apparently informed her on-screen interpretation, as Batman Vs. Superman producer Charles Roven recently referred to Wonder Woman as "a demigod" whose "father was Zeus" — insinuating that the film version of the character's origin is Azzarello and Chiang's.
As the pair finishes up their run (with Meredith and David Finch beginning their take on next month's issue #36), Newsarama talked with Azzarello and Chiang about their "epic" storytelling, the evolution of their characters, and why Ares looks a lot like Azzarello himself.
Newsarama: Brian and Cliff, as I was looking back over your run, it felt like the story was less about making story arcs and more about this long-form storytelling. Was that the plan from the start?
Brian Azzarello: I think we have story arcs, but they all hold together as one long story. I think each of the collections, there's an ending to each one of those things. We were ending a certain beat.
Cliff Chiang: They're like chapters in a novel. That's the epic structure. They're like books in an epic.
There was a larger, over-arching story, and they got broken down into little adventures and missions. So each trade has an arc of its own, but we're constantly being pulled back into the bigger picture.
Nrama: Because there's such a through line, it feels like many of these characters have evolved, because we could spend some time on them.
Azzarello: Yeah, some of them, it was important for their evolution, to make them characters that would work on their own, you know?
Creating her family, we needed to create three-dimensional characters.
Chiang: Yeah, I think Hera's a great example. I came to like that character quite a bit as the run went on, and drawing her became more and more fun. Like, some of those early issues, I didn't really have a handle on her other than her being a big villain. And then she became more and more relatable as she became more and more human. There was more personality to her. And it was fun to see that grow.
Nrama: Last week, we read the Secret Origins issue. Were there clues in there about the ending of your run?
Chiang: I don't think it ties in in the same way. It's great that we can see these early days on Paradise Island, and when it all gets collected, it makes for a great epilogue. But as far as teasers or tying in to the finale? I wouldn't say there's anything.
Nrama: I thought there might have been a clue about what's up with Zola's eyes. I thought maybe we saw a hint in the origin story.
Azzarello: Ah, maybe there is.
Nrama: I want to talk about Orion. I know we've talked before about how you were hoping he'd play against Wonder Woman, but looking back, what do you think he added to the book?
Azzarello: He was a great foil for her. I thought that when the two of them interacted, there were sparks. They had the chemistry.
Chiang: I liked Orion from the start. I know his characterization here is very different from the original Orion. But he was entertaining.
And getting to draw him and design the Astro-Harness and all the New Gods stuff was — I would have liked to do more of it.
If we had another issue to do on New Genesis, that would have been great.
That was issue #22. I think that issue, we covered a lot. There was more that we had to develop for ourselves, just as back-story. You know, what the situation is on New Genesis, what that culture's like. And it would have been nice to show some of that. But I think we got most of it in there.
But yeah, I loved playing with those characters.
Nrama: When introduced First Born as a key villain, he originally came across as someone who was a good villain for Wonder Woman because he was so powerful. But I think, through your storyline, we've also come to see him as pathetic, because he's so filled with hatred. Was this another level of the character that you wanted to throw against Wonder Woman?
Azzarello: Yeah, it was like… write Wonder Woman, but then do the opposite. That was writing First Born.
Plus, his evolution was, he just got worse and worse and worse and worse. That was the evolution.
Azzarello: He was a good character to work on. He's her opposite. And her equal.
Nrama: In what ways do you think he's her opposite, besides the obvious good versus evil. And how is she the better character? Is it her humility? She has no desire for the throne.
Azzarello: She's the hero so she has to be the better character. [Laughs.]
No, that's what makes her better, Vaneta. Her motivations make her better. First Born is an awful person. He's completely motivated by hating everything. He's just her opposite. He's a brute force. She's finesse. He's a hammer. He takes what he wants. She kind of gets other people to do what she wants by leading by example.
I thought we created a really good villain for her with First Born.
Nrama: Cliff, can you describe how you came up with the design of First Born and how his look evolved so much over time?
Chiang: I had no idea what he was going to look like, and when we started designing him, he was kind of this Conan character with his armor from a dragon that he slayed. You know, he had this heavy metal look to him. And we liked it.
But as the story went on, it just ‘Chianged.’ You know, he ‘Chianged.’ He got worse and worse and we just had to strip him of all of that stuff, to the point where he was completely naked. And at that point, we went even further. He got burned. And we just burned everything away from him. And this is what's left.
I've had a lot of fun drawing him, actually, the last few issues. He's just this charcoal brick of hate, with this crown of thorns and a cape of veins. It's a striking look, and it's not something we would have come up with from the beginning. We had to get to this point through the story.
Nrama: So this ‘Chiange’ in appearance wasn't planned, but came out of the story?
Azzarello: Yeah, his look definitely evolved through storytelling.
Nrama: As his motivation and personality got uglier and uglier, he did too.
Chiang: Yeah. There's really nothing human about him anymore. He's just pure nihilism.
Nrama: We've talked before about your design of the gods, and you mentioned above about your design of the New Gods. I can't believe I didn't see this before, but as I was reading issue #34, I noticed that Ares looks almost exactly like you, Brian. Did your look inform the way Ares looks?
Azzarello: Not at all. I don't know what you're talking about, Vaneta.
Nrama: Cliff, what's the truth?
Chiang: [Laughs.] It started as a gag, when we were talking about the design. And I sent him a sketch where it looked like him. You know, because it's such a great visual. So I sent him the sketch and just waited for him to, like, rip me a new one. And he said, you know, that looks kind of cool.
So we went with it. I mean, we did some more stuff to it — you know, hollowed out his eyes.
But it's very distinct. And by the time we got to the Zero issue and gave him his full war regalia, I think it really works. It started off as, maybe, a joke, but it became pretty real after that.
Nrama: Did you end up writing your voice at all for Ares, Brian? He's such a mentor to Wonder Woman. Almost like a creator to a child.
Chiang: I think they're all his voice.
Azzarello: There's a lot of me in Strife. I'll tell you that.
Nrama: That makes sense. You've created a lot of strife in the comic.
Nrama: Well, it makes it interesting. Let's talk about the final issue. What are you guys hoping for with the issue?
Azzarello: I think our last issue is pretty fun. It's satisfying. It's got a nice emotional resonance. I'm happy with it. I'm very happy with the way this thing ends.
Chiang: But it's also been hard. It was hard for us to say goodbye to all the characters and all the stories, and to find a way to do it without drawing it out as well. You know? But I think it's a really satisfying end.
There's a lot of emotion to it. And I hope the readers like it as well. After three years, this is how we're going out. This is how it ends.
Azzarello: Some will love it. And some will hate it. And I wouldn't have it any other way.