Chip Kidd has been one of the most respected and noteworthy graphic designers working in the publishing industry over the past two decades. Many prominent best selling authors have it written into their contracts that Kidd will be the one to design their books. Some of his designs, like his cover for Michael Crichton’s “Jurassic Park,” have become inarguably iconic, reaching a level of audience recognition that goes beyond just the fans of the novel.
Kidd is also a major designer for DC Comics, where he designed the covers for “All Star Superman” and “All Star Batman and Robin,” in addition to the trade dress of many books, including recent editions of Frank Miller’s Batman books. Not a DC exclusive creator, Kidd also designed the hardcover edition of the just-published “Marvel Strange Tales” anthology.
Beyond being a lifelong comics fan and graphic artist, Kidd is also the author of two novels and has written and edited a number of books including “Peanuts: The Art of Charles Schulz,” “Mythology: The DC Comics Art of Alex Ross,” “Batman Collected,” and “Bat-Manga! The Secret History of Batman in Japan.”
Kidd is also currently the Editor at Large of Pantheon, the graphic novel division of Knopf which publishes Art Spiegelman, Chris Ware, Dan Clowes, Marjane Satrapi and others. This month, Alex Ross’ new book “Rough Justice: The DC Comic Sketches of Alex Ross,” which Kidd edited and designed, is being released. Kidd took the time and spoke with CBR about the book, his career and his upcoming Batman graphic novel.
CBR News: You’ve been working in publishing soon after graduating from Penn State. At what point did your interest in comics dovetail with your career in publishing?
Chip Kidd: That didn’t happen until the mid nineties. I started my job designing book covers at Knopf, where I still am today, in 1986. I started as assistant to the art director and it wasn’t too long until I was doing book cover design even though I was entry level. I started to gradually get this reputation as a book cover designer.
I met Jeanette Kahn at an art opening in 1993 or 94. I knew the art gallery owner and they introduced us. It was during the death of Superman. The gallery owner introduced me “to the woman who killed Superman.” She took my card, and then not too long after that, I got a phone call from a guy named Steve Korte in the licensed publishing division of DC Comics, which is where he is to this day. They were publishing a Batman novel by a guy named Andrew Vachss, and Jeanette had recommended me to Steve for that job. They hired me to do the cover for the novel, and that was something of a coincidence because Vachss is a Knopf author and I had been doing his covers at Knopf. What we ended up doing for the cover of that book was, I enlisted photographer Geoff Spear, who I do everything with, and we photographed a Batman doll. We lit it so that with select focus and the right lighting, it looked like it was a real person, as opposed to hiring a model and dressing him up. Everybody liked that, and that was sort of my foot in the door designing stuff for DC Comics. Steve and I really hit it off.
I said, “For years, I’ve wanted to do the definitive book on collecting Batman toys because it’s a great passion, and you guys haven’t done it.” Following the visual trope of the Andrew Vachss cover, we shot a bunch of Batman toys, and I put together the proposal that eventually became “Batman Collected.” That was my first foray into authorship. It was very much a make it up as we go along kind of thing. I knew what I wanted, but also at the same time didn’t know what I was doing. But it was great, because DC really kind of let me do my thing with it and it was a very idiosyncratic kind of book. Technically, it is about collecting Batman toys, but it’s also kind of a memoir and it’s very selective and quote arty. It’s not really a catalog at all. That was really what got the ball rolling. Eventually the comics division hired me in 2000, I believe, to redesign what they call the trade dress of the Batman comics titles. That got me into designing the comics themselves, because licensed publishing at DC is completely different than the comics editorial division.
Since you’re already working full time at Knopf, does DC solicit you directly for specific projects, or do you go after projects there that you hear about? What is your relationship with them like?
In terms of the DC projects, it’s all over the place. For the comics stuff like designing “All Star Superman” and “All Star Batman and Robin,” they came to me for that. For designing “Final Crisis,” they came to me for that. Something like the stuff I’ve done with Alex [Ross] – “Mythology” and the new “Rough Justice” books – those are projects that I initiated. Alex is a friend, and I’m a huge fan, so it was about getting him onboard with the idea of doing those books. I very much wanted to bring them into here to Pantheon, which is part of the Knopf group. Pantheon is really the comics hub of the Knopf publishing group dating back to the early eighties with Matt Groening and “Life in Hell” and, of course, “Maus” by Speigelman. With “Bat-Manga!,” with “Mythology,” it’s most important to me to bring those projects here to Pantheon.
That’s gives us a good segue into “Rough Justice.” A lot of comic fans remember “Mythology” very well. What was the impetus behind “Rough Justice” and what did you feel it needed to include?
I can’t remember who came up with the idea. Alex would probably remember better than I would. We did an expanded version of “Mythology” when it came out in paperback, and he was saying to me, “I’ve got all of these sketches.” Because he was doing the covers for Superman and Batman for that year, there was a wealth of really terrific sketch stuff that came substantially after “Mythology.” I think a big part of the appeal for him was that he had done several proposals for comics series to DC that did not get realized, and so this would be the one sort of “official place” where they could be published and at least see the light of day in proposal form. I know that was very very important to him and it was important to me. I think it makes the book very interesting.
The proposals, ranging from Batwoman, to Aquaman, to Captain Marvel are certainly fascinating to read, but how does one edit a book like this?
There is no real process. Basically he sent me, in batches, a ton of material. Again, I’m a fan. I have a really good working knowledge of it, so basically it’s simply a matter of going through it all and paring it down. It’s like a beauty contest. First of all, if it doesn’t go without saying, we didn’t want to do any overlap with “Mythology” at all. That said, there was “Kingdom Come” material that we did not include in “Mythology” that I thought was terrific. I basically just made a bunch of file folders – Batman covers, Superman covers. It just became [a process of] categorizing everything – yes, no, yes, no – and putting things into folders and trying to determine what kind of page count we were looking for. It’s a big puzzle. All of these things are like a big puzzle to put together.
How was putting together “Rough Justice” different from assembling “Batman Collected” or “Peanuts: The Art of Charles Schulz” in terms of taking the initial wealth of information and paring it down and deciding how to present it in a published format?
They’re all similar in that the initial stage is just pure panic. In all of these cases, there’s far more material to work with than you would ever have room for. The more you can organize it, the calmer you get, to the point where once you’ve finally marked everything out you can sit back and breathe easier. It’s a scavenger hunt. With “Bat-Manga!” DC Comics has none of that in their archives. None. Zero. I have hand it to Paul Levitz. He could looked at the “Bat-Manga!” proposal and said, “This is cute, but who cares – it was forty years ago,” and he didn’t. He said, “This is really amazing and I’ve never seen it before, but we can’t do much in the way of helping you put this together, because we have no resources for any of this.”
In some ways, “Peanuts” was something of a similar situation. We put that together the summer after [Charles Schulz] died, having the full cooperation of his widow and children, but they weren’t organized in terms of an archive yet at all. That only happened about a year later, when they were putting the museum together. They had things, it just wasn’t organized, but they let me go through everything, which was fantastic.
At Pantheon, you’re Editor at Large. You called Pantheon the comics hub at Knopf, but it’s also one of the hubs in the comics industry. Since the nineties, it’s steadily been publishing Chris Ware and Dan Clowes and Marjane Satrapi and many of the iconic books and creators of today.
We’re very lucky. That whole iconic thing, you can’t forsee any of that. Again, as with Alex, Chris [Ware] is one of my best friends, but aside from that, I know he’s a genius. I knew he was a genius. With that particular book, it was basically just getting everybody here at Pantheon to [think the same]. In retrospect, it doesn’t seem like a leap of faith at all, but it was, because here’s this person that nobody knows with this big complicated project.
I remember when “Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth” was released, it was in hardcover with an elaborate dust jacket, more expansive than the average hardcover.
When it first came out in hardcover, I think it was $26.95, which was a testament to our head of production, an incredible guy named Andy Hughes. The whole “Pantheon comics phenomenon” would not exist without him. He’s truly, truly amazing at figuring out how to get this stuff printed extremely well for reasonable amount of money.
I think it’s funny, when I go to San Diego in July, it’s like Pantheon doesn’t even exist. [Laughs] It’s a blip on all of that stuff that’s going on. In that sense, we’re just this tiny little speck, but I think we have been very, very consistent. We publish relatively few titles, but we pretty much hit the mark with what we do, the latest example being “Asterios Polyp” by David Mazzucchelli. I think luck has a lot to do with it. Having artists that really want to be published by us. We don’t take that for granted.
You can’t predict that something like “Persepolis” will take off and become something, well, beyond huge.
Not at all. I mean, I’ll be totally honest, I thought “Persepolis” was a great, worthy project, but I never ever thought that it would become as huge as it was.
What is your role at Pantheon, exactly, as far as selecting projects, editorially.
Technically, I’m an editor, but in terms of the comics themselves, I do next to no editing. By the time the projects come to us, they’re pretty much done. If an artist wants that kind of input, I am more than happy to give it. Mostly what I help with is art direction and design, and if you have somebody like Chris Ware or Dan Clowes, it’s really just about helping them achieve the production value that they’re looking for. They’re expert designers and they can see the book’s design as they’re working. Some people want more direction. We’re doing Josh Nuefeld’s “A.D. New Orleans After the Deluge” in paperback. He’s doing a new cover for it, and we’ve been emailing back and forth about the direction and design of that, so I’ve been giving him advice. It’s individual. It all depends.
A number of Pantheon books are reprints, like “Persepolis” or “The Rabbi’s Cat” and it would seem that a lot of what’s done is selection.
You’re absolutely right. You mentioned “The Rabbi’s Cat.” Any editor here, meaning at Knopf or Pantheon, could bring in a graphic novel project to the house. They can present it to our Editor in chief and say, “I want to do this.” I had nothing to do with “The Rabbi’s Cat.” I, frankly, had nothing to do with “Persepolis,” really. Our editor at Pantheon is Dan Frank and he works with Art Speigelman and he’s working with Craig Thompson on his upcoming project. He does far more actual editing than I do.
Besides “Rough Justice,” Pantheon’s other big spring book is Dash Shaw’s “Bodyworld.” What role did you play on that project?
Dash’s agent contacted us and I went online and I looked at it. At that point maybe three quarters of it was online. I’m reading it and thinking it was just okay but not wowing me and then by chapter five it all fell into place and I was amazed and really really impressed.
Did you have a role in the design of the book?
A little bit. We had meetings with him, but he had very specific ideas about how he wanted to do it. All of that was discussed before we signed it up so that nobody had any surprises.
Is that typical to have a detailed discussion about the design while negotiating, just so there are no misunderstandings further down the line?
Absolutely. It’s all on the table before we go forward. We have to do something called a P&L, a profit and loss statement, and that would include all the specs.
In addition to your work as a designer and editor, you’re also a writer. You’ve written two novels and I know you’re writing a book for DC, but I’m not sure how you can say or want to say.
I’m working on several for DC. At this point, it’s no secret that I am writing a full length Batman graphic novel. That’s pretty much what I can say. It’s not scheduled yet, so they would rather I didn’t elaborate. We have an artist. This person is working away on it very hard. I think it’s amazing, and I just hope that when it actually is scheduled and ready to be hyped that people still care. For me, it’s a dream come true.
You mentioned earlier that you’re something of a control freak when it comes to your own projects. How do you step back and hand off a script to an artist who is drawing what you’ve described?
It’s interesting. This person will send me a page and I’ll make comments on it. Already I’ve seen a dozen pages or so. There was one major major change that they made in a huge illustration that completely came out of left field, which was not what I had described in the script at all, but it worked. It totally blew me away. That part of the process has been really really interesting and great. I don’t mind being surprised if it’s a pleasant surprise. It’s also like magic. You write what you want to see and then you see it. It’s really really something.
Can you see yourself ever making a comic, even just a short one, on your own?
There was a guy at DC, Peter Tomasi and he was urging me to do that, which was very very flattering. If I could think of a way to do it that I thought wouldn’t be embarrassing, I would go for it. I haven’t yet, and I’ve got so much other stuff to do in the meantime, but never say never. I would love to figure out a way to do that, but I’m just not a good draftsman.
You have a book on the Golden age of Captain Marvel coming out from Abrams this fall. Can you tell us a bit how this project came about?
We had been in talks to do this forever. I’m a fan, first of all. I wanted it to be strictly about the Golden Age, 1940-53. I did not want to get into the seventies and beyond. There’s an editor at Abrams named Charles Kochman who used to be at DC and who was the editor on “Mythology,” actually. He wanted to do a Captain Marvel thing, but it took forever to put the whole deal together. I’m really excited about it. I’m curious to see if there are that many Captain Marvel fans. I don’t know. Anybody who’s a fan will be absolutely blown away by this book. I just don’t know how big this audience is.
So, what other books are in the pipeline at Pantheon right now that we can look forward to in the near future?
It’s funny, we literally just make it up as we go along. We’ve been very lucky in that the right projects sort of trickle in. We’ve got an amazing book by Charles Burns we’re going to do in the fall which is going to take everybody by surprise because none of it has been previously serialized anywhere. It’s all going to be new and original and it’s all going to be in color. That’s called “X’ed Out”
The following spring we’re going to do the collected edition of Dan Clowes’ “Mr. Wonderful,” which ran in the New York Times, and is great. Chris [Ware] is expected by the end of this year to deliver his big massive Building Stories project . Once we have that, we’re going to publish it as soon as we can. That could be Fall 2011, and it’s going to be a masterpiece.
Are there any people you want to publish but haven’t been able to, or projects that just didn’t come together in the end?
There are artists like Seth, Joe Sacco, Adrian Tomine who I think are brilliant and I would love to publish, but I would never dream of trying to poach them from where they’re being published now. I think Drawn and Quarterly is certainly one of the best, if not the best, single independent publisher of comics today, and Seth is one of their major artists. I would not want to hurt them somehow by trying to steal him away from them. These are not bad problems to have. Darwyn Cooke is another. I would love to work with him on something. I just think he’s an incredible talent. Just astonishing. We’ve talked about a couple of things.
With DC, I’ve been very fortunate. I don’t feel like there’s anything I ever wanted to do with them that they haven’t let me do.