Alum Goes from Harvard Yard to Gotham City

Cliff W. Chiang ’96 knows dark and twisted.

Five years ago, this Harvard grad left his job as assistant editor for the Vertigo comics imprint—the branch of DC Comics responsible for publishing “V for Vendetta,” as well as many other mature-reader-oriented titles—to move back in with his parents and start from scratch.

The goal: become a comic book artist in his own right. The path: quite dark and twisted indeed.

Chiang was a trailblazer in his undergrad days as a joint concentrator in English and Visual and Environmental Studies (VES). Chiang entered college thinking that he would be an English concentrator, but wasn’t satisfied with what the department had to offer.

At the same time, he started going with friends to local comic book stores like Million Year Picnic and New England Comics, where Vertigo comics were just starting to show up, and taking classes in the VES department.

One in particular, taught by visiting lecturer Douglas Blau, ended up providing a foundation for what would become his career in the comic book world.

“It opened my eyes to ways of making pictures read in a certain way that you could take an image and parse it out into a sentence, and how it functions and how the reader takes it in,” Chiang says.

Three years of studio classes didn’t appeal to Chiang either, so he decided to take the bits he liked from both VES and English and strike out on his own.

The result, under the guidance of Bernbaum Professor of Literature Leo Damrosch, was a creative thesis titled “’If Answerable Style I Can Obtain...’: An Analysis and Account of Illustrating Paradise Lost” — a film noir-style graphic rethinking of John Milton’s classic poem, which won Chiang a summa cum laude reading and a Hoopes Prize.

Damrosch remembers Chiang as one of his all-time favorite students because of his “no bullshit” attitude and self-confidence, he says.

Not knowing how to apply his joint degree, Chiang applied to law school, and even though his transcript “didn’t look like a law student’s,” he was accepted at Columbia at New York University.

At this point, Chiang turned a corner that would prove crucial: he decided to put off law school for a year to see what he could make out of his renewed interest in comics. One year later he was assistant editing at “Disney Adventures” magazine, and one more year landed him at Vertigo.

“I needed to make decision either to edit, and draw from nine to midnight when I got home, or draw full-time,” Chiang recalls.

He chose the latter, which meant quitting his editorial job, moving in with his parents, and scraping for work as a full-time artist at DC. He kept up with his former colleagues there, and gradually, the jobs started to roll in.

According to Chiang, his style “lent itself to doing some pretty crazy stuff.”

One project was a “weird offshoot Batman story” that cast Bruce Wayne as a turn-of-the-century immigrant and explored the seedy world of New York politics in the time of Tammany Hall. He has moved into more mainstream work since, but still has respect for the books on the fringe.

“You often get some great stories when you break out of certain genre conventions,” Chiang said.

This idea, that creative possibilities explode once you get outside traditional modes of representation, sums up Chiang’s career so far, and is what has kept him trekking along the weary road toward the top of the comics industry.

To other Harvard students looking toward a career in the art world, Chiang advises keeping your eyes fixed on your goal and work steadily toward it, but detouring here and there along the way. Keep an open mind and be fearless.

“Of course,” Chiang said, “that’s easier said than done.”