Moderator Chip Kidd opened the “Art of Design” panel at Comic-Con International in San Diego by appropriately renaming it “Comics and Design.” Once he had taken care of that bit of business, Kidd went on to introduce his guests from the world of comic book graphic design, along with interesting factoids about each of them; Mark Chiarello (born on Halloween 1960, vice president and art director of DC Comics, author of “Heroes of the Negro Leagues”), Seymour Chwast (co-founder of Pushpin Studios in 1954, now director of the Pushpin Group, author of the graphic novel “Dante’s Divine Comedy”), Craig Yoe (AKA C.E. Yoe, worked on toys like “Cabbage Patch Kids” and “My Little Pony,” was creative director of “The Muppets,” now director of “Yoe Studio”) and Michael Gross (art director of “National Lampoon,” consultant to “The Muppets,” producer for films and television shows, including “Ghostbusters,” for which he created the iconic “No Ghosts” logo).
Kidd then explained the format of the panel: he had selected five examples of each panelists’ work to discuss. “None of these guys know what I’m going to show of their work, so it’s going to be like a little game,” Kidd told the audience before turning to the assembled artists. “I will just show an image and then you just talk.” Not planning to put anyone on a hot seat he wasn’t willing to sit on, Kidd kicked things off with his own work.
Opening with his “Batman: Year One” cover, Kidd called it, “One of my favorite comic books/graphic novels of all time. It was quite an honor to work with David Mazzuchelli on doing this ultimate compendium of ‘Batman:Year One.’ DC [Comics] let me go out on a limb and completely slice off the jacket; the red piece of paper there was cut like that. It was sort of a metaphor for Batman cutting through the corruption of Gotham City.”
Moving onto “Alex Ross Mythology,” Kidd simply offered, “This was a book that I was able to put together on the work of Alex Ross,” before shifting to his “Bat-Manga” book, which he also wrote. “This was a great sort of passion project of mine, collecting and recovering these Batman Japanese comics from the 1960’s which had sort of fallen into obscurity.”
Next, Kidd discussed his covers for Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s award-winning “All-Star Superman” which he described as “one of my favorite comic series from the last 20 years. I think it is truly amazing. And also I should say that there has been a video online of me sort of like making fun of this, which was purely done for fun. I mean, this is one of the things that I’m most proudest of in the last 10-15 years of designing comics which is a great honor.”
Finally, Kidd showed the cover for his “Shazam” book, simply stating, “this is the Captain Marvel book that I worked on last fall, which you can see at the Abrams booth, downstairs.”
Mark Chiarello was the first panelist to see his work appear on screen, starting with a slide of a cover for “Terminal City,” to which he simply stated, “That was a cover that I illustrated for Vertigo series called Terminal City created by Dean Motter.” The cover was replaced by Chiarello’s Cannonball Redding baseball card from his “Heroes of the Negro Leagues” book, which brought out the humble side of the art director.
“I really want to blaze through these pretty quickly, because I have no reason to be on stage with these guys,” Chiarello told the audience. “These are the genius’ of design, in comics, illustration and fine art, I’m astounded that they’ll let me sit up here with these guys.”
Kidd quickly responded, telling Chiarello, “You’re way too humble. The one thing that I should say about Mark is that as wonderful a designer as he is, he’s really a terrific illustrator. Look at that painting, he didn’t just do the typography, he painted the damn thing. I hope you do more illustration work, it’s beautiful.”
Kidd then moved on to Chiarello’s ENLIST NOW Star Wars poster. “That was a piece I did for Lucasfilm for the celebration for convention a couple years ago. That was a limited edition print, it wasn’t digital, it was painted. Some people still do paintings, which is cool.”
Next came two of Chiarello’s DC Comics projects, “Solo” and “Wednesday Comics. About the former, Chiarello shared, “I’m the art director and design director at DC, but I edit stuff from time to time. Each issue [of ‘Solo’] focused on one great artist and let them do any genre, not just superhero, westerns, romance and all that kind of stuff.” Speaking about “Wednesday Comics,” Chiarello said, “That was a project I put together. I pitched for about 6, 7, 8 years at DC, and Paul Evans kept saying no, until finally one day he said yes. A take off on the old Sunday funnies (which the guys on this panel know a lot about.)”
Kidd then asked Chiarello about his role in the redesigning of DC’s titles for the September relaunch. “I’m brilliant” replied Chiarello to audience chuckles, “because I hire guys like Chip Kidd. Most of the stuff Chip showed you, I hired him for, so I’m really proud of that. So to answer your question; I hired my boss Jim Lee to redesign everything, so that was easy. I hired the right guy. Kenny Lopez oversees the logos — he and I work together. This [‘Wednesday Comics’] was done by a phenomenal British designer named Rian Hughes, a genius. I just hire the right guys.”
With that, the focus turned to Craig Yoe, with Kidd’s first slide showing the cover featuring Felix the cat. Yoe was more than happy to discuss his work, saying, “This is a cover my publisher hates and I love. I’m friends with the guy who owns Felix the Cat and I got him to buy off on it ’cause he’s a musician. I just had to say, ‘It’s going to be like the Beatles “White Album.”‘ He bought it, and there wasn’t much my publisher could do. It’s going to be reissued in paperback and they want me to do a ‘real’ cover now. Believe it or not, the names are at the top and bottom, but I printed them in spot varnish. My publisher’s least favorite cover, and of about 20 books I’ve done with them, my most favorite! That’s how it goes sometimes.”
Next was the cover to “Dick Briefer’s Frankenstein,” which led Yoe to discuss working with other artists. “I don’t know how Mark and Chip work with living cartoonists. They’re such a pain in the ass. I like to work with only dead cartoonists. They’re much easier.” The audience responded to Yoe’s comments with warm laughter, before he went on to say, “One of my favorite dead cartoonists was Dick Briefer, and he did this bizarre and wonderful character named Frankenstein. Tere were two versions of Frankenstein, and he liked this kind of whimsical, surreal version, but when horror comics heated up in the 1950s, [his publisher] made him do this more grizzly, gruesome, dark version. The eyes [in the cover] are actually holes, so you open it up and see the whimsical, funny version of Frankenstein inside. The die-cuts again made my publisher crazy, but that’s what I like to do.”
A “Popeye” cover was shown next, with Yoe explaining, “I’m a big fan of Andy Warhol, and many of my covers take something from him. I loved his Campbell Soup paintings he did, so for this cover, I just had a tin can. On the back cover, I had the back of the tin can with the UPC code on it. The top and bottom are silver foil, so it kind of looks like Andy Warhol’s painting of a tin can.”
“Krazy Kat,” a new Abrams book was next, and Yoe had nothing but praise for the feline’s creator. “The number one cartoonist and designer in any art form is George Herriman. There’ve been many Krazy Kat books, but I always wanted to do one. My publisher thinks that about 70% of the material in here is new. I found tons of unpublished paintings, drawings, photographs of George Herriman, personal greetings cards, for his family. I tracked down his granddaughter who wrote an essay for this book and we have an essay by Bill Watterson. I’m very, very proud of this book. I tried to be simple and evocative of the desert and Navaho motifs that Herriman put into his work. I have his paintings and drawings in my living room and this color scheme.”
Finally, Kidd flashed the cover for “Amazing 3-D Comics” on the screen. “This just came out. Another book hated by my publisher,” Yoe joked. “I kid my publisher, they’re really very supportive. This has six colors, a lenticular cover by Joe Kubert — who at 83 years old drew this, and he can outdraw anyone a tenth of his age. So, there’s a lenticular with 12 layers, a spot varnish. As a result, we’ll never make any money on it, but now that I had Kubert do a cover I can die happy.”
Kidd added “I think it’s worth pointing out if it’s not clear: Craig not only designs these, but he puts these entire books together, which I have the greatest admiration for. You’re obviously very passionate about these Craig, what do you want to do next?”
“What, in life?” Yoe joked before replying, “I guess the next book I’m doing is Bob Powell’s horror comics. I do write these and research these and put them all together. At any one time I’m working on 10 or 12 books, two are almost done, five or six of them are half done and the others are just incubating at the starting stage. I appreciate your question, but I’m very secretive about what I’m working on. But I’ll tell you about the next one, which will be Bob Powell’s horror comics. Frankenstein was the first in a series of horror comics where I’m collecting different artists from the ’50’s — Powell is next.”
Kidd then moved down the line to Seymour Chwast, starting with Chwast’s “Pushpin Graphic.” Chwast was, like Chiarello, less effusive than Yoe, simply saying, “[This is] the cover of the collection of ‘Pushpin Graphic,’ that was my studio’s publication for almost a quarter of a century.”
Next was an image of Nixon, with Chwast saying, “During Watergate, [this was] done for the ‘New York Times’ on the Op-Ed page. Those are hands that I found, typographic hands, some of them I drew to fill out his wonderful face. The best president to caricature, he was so easy to do.”
Next was a cover featuring the famous composer, Johann Sebastian Bach. “For his 300 birthday I did a book called ‘Happy Birthday Bach,'” said Chwast, “and this was the poster and cover for it.”
“The cover of my first graphic novel,” Chwast said as “Dante’s Divine Comedy” appeared on screen. “I loved doing it. These are things that I should have read when I was in school, but I had so much run doing it. My intention was to make it a little funnier, a little lighter than it had been done in the past.”
Kidd noted that it was nominated for an Eisner Award, asking if it was Chwast’s first experience designing sequential art in this format.
“Yes,” replied Chwast. “I’ve never done a whole book like that. I’ve done little comic strips for illustration. What I found out here that it was necessary for me to do these things in spreads. I found out what the material was that I had to illustrate and talk about and think about it as a little poster. Try to make it as easy and interesting as possible, thinking about pacing and such.”
“Did you storyboard the whole thing out? Did you thumbnail it all out first?” asked Kidd.
“No, I started with page one, doing spreads as roughs,” Chwast replied. “I roughed out the whole book full size, I had to show it to the editor. I got very few changes, then went into finishes.” There wasn’t a lot of editorial input from the book’s publisher, Bloomsbury. “Unlike doing a drawing for ‘The New Yorker,’ where they fuss over everything and they reject it all, then cut the fee. In the case of a book like this, you’re getting 75 cents an hour, but no one rejects it.”
Chipp then showed two posters. The first, “The Grand Game of Baseball,” elicited a succinct description: “This was a poster for a show of baseball art done for the museum of the borough of Brooklyn.” The second poster, for the letter “C,” resulted in a longer description. “[This was] a project for Champion paper. My wife Paula Scher art directed this. She gave out different letters for different designers to make posters for, and I got the letter C. It’s a mock circus poster.”
Finally, Kidd showed Chwast’s “Canterbury Tales” cover for a project releasing in September, 2011. “‘Canterbury Tales’ is about people going to Canterbury on a pilgrimage. Of course, they all road horses in those days, but I’m not very good at drawing horses. So I changed it — they’re all riding motorcycles which is much more contained, they’re more expressive, the scale is better. I hope nobody minds,” Chwast laughed.
The final panelist was Michael Gross, and Kidd opened his section of the presentation with what is perhaps his most famous work, showing the audience the initial sketch for the famous “If you don’t buy this magazine, we’ll shoot this dog” cover from “National Lampoon.” Kidd asked Gross where the idea came from. “There were only 4 or 5 of us at the magazine at the time,” Gross answered. “We had to do these sub-ads and this was one of those. First it was going to be a dog, then a cat and it was going to move through a series of animals over the months, but we never really went with it. We also had issues with themes; this was the ‘Death’ issue, and we didn’t have a cover for it, so we grabbed the ad. Stuff just flowed. In those days things were simpler, we didn’t have any money so no one told us what to do. I never had to approve anything.”
Kidd asked if Gross was on dope, to which Gross replied, “Nope, not me. I was one of the few who wasn’t,” to audience laughter.
â€¨”This is before Photoshop,” Gross continued. “We didn’t even have money to do a transfer to have it retouched. Every detail was thought out. You have to have a lovable mutt. I want the hand to look like a mafia hand, with a big .57 chrome magnum. The dog was very good at doing what they’re trained to do — they just sit or go from point A to point B. I realized that the guy would signal the dog not to move, so if we pushed him, we had a little bit of an angle on him. I said, ‘Pull back the hammer and maybe he’ll just move his eyes,’ and the second time, the eyes moved.
“I’m very proud of it. It’s been knocked off about 30 times — and they don’t work. Those little decisions you make as an art director, we do it subconsciously and it works once in a lifetime.”
“What was the reaction? Did the ASPCA freak out?” asked Kidd. “No, no. New York is a very insular city. Every publisher in New York was agog, because he wished he’d done it. It was big in publishing. I never heard any particular reaction from the public, it wasn’t the biggest selling issue.”
Kidd then showed Gross’ “Jesus: Magic Made E-Z” poster, to which Gross simply said, “That’s [magician] Doug Henning, dear old Doug. Brilliant man, rest in peace. Doug loved posing for the magazine.”
Next was a cover for “National Lampoon Magazine,” featuring “MAD” mascot Alfred E. Neuman asking, “What me, Lai?” “This is one of those ideas Henry Beard came to me and said, ‘Doesn’t Alfred E. Neuman look like [William] Calley? I want do a cover that looks like a cross between Alfred E. Neuman and Calley.’ I said, that’s not going to work, but I’ll cross my fingers and try. We went to [Frank] Kelly Freas, who did the original Alfred E. Neuman. He loved the idea. All I did was hire the right guy, it wasn’t even my idea.”
The final image of the panel, an image declaring “War Is Not Unprofitable for Poster-Makers and Other Living Things” elicited a laugh from the audience. “The thing I like about this is that everyone thinks [‘National Lampoon] Magazine’ was so, so, so liberal, but no, we thought everything was funny. Whenever you turn on most liberals, they would get the angriest. Do Bob Dylan, and we get hate mail. Same with this. The silliness of that movement at that time was so obvious.”
Mark Chiarello then asked Gross, “You used a lot of great, great illustrators. Where you a comic fan, do you know that world?”
“I was not a collector, but I had a dear mentor friend in high school who introduced me to original art in comics, like [Frank] Frazetta,” Gross replied. “I just loved the drawings. When I did ‘Esquire,’ I did all photography. It was all contemporary illustrators who were changing the view of illustration in the ’60s into the ’70s. But I had great respect for comics and their skills and the writers who were writing comics, so I had to figure out who’s good at this. Marvel was right upstairs from us and Stan Lee was very supportive. So I just used to run up and say, ‘Can anyone do this story?’ As time went on, I got to really know some of the artists and what their real specialty was and try and use them at their best. That’s where my relationship with comic art began and it followed through to ‘Heavy Metal’ and in particular all the way to ‘Ghostbusters,’ because when I was going to do all of the concept work for the ghosts and things, half of them were comic artists because I didn’t want to tap the special effects houses. So I have a great appreciation and love [for comics.]”