Superstar graphic designer Chip Kidd has been putting his distinctive stamp on DC Comics over the past few years, not only as a cover artist for such projects as “Final Crisis” and “Trinity,” but also serving as writer and project lead on a number of stunning illustrated books like “Bat-Manga!” and “Mythology: The DC Comics Art of Alex Ross.” Most recently, the New Yorker contributed the introduction to “Absolute All-Star Superman” and now he turns his attention to Captain Marvel.
In “Shazam!: The Golden Age of the World’s Mightiest Mortal,” Kidd joins award-winning photographer Geoff Spear in an exploration of a superhero that outsold his biggest competitor, Superman, by 14 million copies a month, following his debut in “Whiz Comics” in 1940.
Arriving in bookstores on December 1 from Abrams Books, the 246-page hardcover collection includes 300 full-color illustrations of rare and sometimes one-of-a-kind Shazam! toys, including secret decoder rings, figurines, buttons, paper rockets, puzzles and an official Captain Marvel cape.
Kidd shared details with CBR News about what long-time fans of the Marvel family will discover inside this celebration of Shazam! ephemera and artwork and also teased a few revelations about his upcoming “Batman” graphic novel, which is being edited by DC Comics Art Director Mark Chiarello.
CBR News: We know all about your life-long passion for Batman, but have you been a fan of Captain Marvel just as long?
Chip Kidd: The Batman thing started so early because I was born in ’64 and the show came on in ’66, so that kind of infused it into my consciousness at a very early age. With Captain Marvel, it was delayed a bit. But that was due to basically DC Comics buying the character and jump-starting it and then the Saturday morning TV show. That’s the power of the media.
The other thing was, when DC started their program of the big tabloid-size comics, “Shazam!” was one of the first, so they reprinted a lot of the old stuff. I remember looking at that and saying, “Well, I don’t now who that character is.” But it just looked kind of cool or at least interesting to me, so I got that and that was really my introduction to it, in terms of the comic. I loved those tabloid editions of things. I thought they were so great.
Is there a reason why you believe Captain Marvel hasn’t gone on to achieve the same level of prominence that Superman or Batman have?
I would say it’s a combination of factors. First of all, and I don’t think that I have any great, unique insight into this, but I think the character was very much of his time, that is to say the forties. The whole idea of being a radio reporter and being one as a boy and fighting the war, I think those are some of the factors that made it so huge in the forties but also kind of, how do I say it, maybe handicapped it a bit in the seventies. It seems to be a concept that I would say, the right writer/artist has not been able to successfully either update or adapt to the times, or what have you, which is partly why, when I did this book, I wanted it to be very much about the Golden Age period. I did not want to introduce from 1974 on. Mainly, because I think it just makes for a purer book. There was so much of this really cool stuff they made back then that I wanted to collect, basically.
Getting back to your first question, as sappy and Pollyanna as it sounds, with these kinds of books that I do, there would be no way I would devote the kind of time and attention and hard work that it takes to do them if I didn’t truly love the character. That is the short answer to your first question.
You’re an award-winning designer; are there elements of Captain Marvel’s look that attracts you artistically?
Definitely. I love the design of a lot of the stuff that’s in the book. I think a lot of the typography is great. What’s so interesting to me is the dichotomy between how C.C. Beck drew Captain Marvel and the way Mac Raboy drew Captain Marvel, Jr. It’s truly fascinating to me from an artistic point of view. Try to imagine, if Batman was drawn in one style and Robin was drawn in a different style. It would be really, really strange, and that’s basically what you have [in Captain Marvel stories].
As far as Golden age creators go, C.C. Beck is certainly not an unknown, but he’s also not at that same level as Will Eisner or Jack Kirby. Is that because Captain Marvel isn’t held at the same level as The Spirit or Captain America?
That’s a really good question. There are so many different kinds of hierarchies for this stuff. I mean an Eisner is very unique. Frankly, he was very good at getting recognition for what he was doing. You know, a lot of the Captain Marvel stories went uncredited, at least in the forties, during the height of it. It wasn’t Captain Marvel created by C.C. Beck. It was Captain Marvel. Period. Even [Jerry] Siegel and [Joe] Shuster, as screwed as they got, at least they got their names on the damn thing. Certainly, Will Eisner did too. And Bob Kane.
As a graphic designer, people keep asking me, what’s your secret for success or whatever? Right away, the answer to that question is, “Well, if you’ve got to ask…” But I do point out as a book cover designer, which for the most part is what I’m known as, I get credit for what do. It’s right there on the flap and it’s relatively easy to find. There are other graphic design jobs where you get credit for what you do, but I think they are harder to ferret out. This is sort of a prime example of that.
We’ve know the book is titled “Shazam!: The Golden Age of the World’s Mightiest Mortal,” but for folks unfamiliar with the character, specifically his early history, explain what they’ll see in the book.
Basically, if you’ve seen “Batman Collected,” this is “Captain Marvel Collected,” for better or for worse. For instance, there is no Mister Mind in this book, and there’s no Talky Tawny either. The reason for that is the book itself isn’t really about comic book stories. We run one, very early one, because it’s an extremely rare case of [Joe] Simon and [Jack] Kirby doing a Captain Marvel story, which I find historically pretty fascinating. It’s sort of really charmingly crude. You can certainly tell it’s Simon and Kirby, but you can also tell why they didn’t pursue it. There was a brief time when they were doing “Captain America” by day and “Captain Marvel” by night, working themselves to death. They certainly found a greater facility with Captain America than with Captain Marvel. They did, I think, three short stories that appeared in “Captain Marvel Adventures” #1, and then that was it. So that complete stories [is in the book], but other than that, it’s all about toys and ephemera. My feeling was, they archive all of the stories and if you want that you can get that, so it’s all about the stuff. For example, they didn’t make a talky Tawny stuffed tiger. If they did, he’d be in there. They did make a stuffed Hoppy the Marvel Bunny, and they also made a stuffed Captain Marvel doll. Both of which are extremely rare. I was able to get a hold of good examples of both, and an advertisement for them, so you can see who made them and all of that.
I was on a panel about this project this summer in San Diego with Michael Uslan, the movie producer. He was a huge Captain Marvel aficionado and knew Otto Bender personally, as a child. I joked that he actually would have been a much better person to put this book together than me. I also said, “This is so crazy that they made these stuffed toys – here’s an advertisement for them that appeared in a trade magazine, there are two of the bunny known to exist and there are three of Captain Marvel known to exist. Why? That’s crazy.” Even something like the Superman Ideal Wood Composition Doll is difficult to find, but you can find it. I don’t know how many exist, but if you want one, you can get one. This is simply not the case with these. Michael pointed out that the whole lawsuit issue, with National Periodical Publications suing Fawcett, started right away. One of the things that I sort of quickly re-recognized with doing this book, was that Captain Marvel, in the Golden Age, only ran for 13 years, so it’s really relatively short. It’s 1940 to 1953. That’s kind of, I don’t know if “sobering” is the word, but it’s surprising. It’s like on the one hand, “Duh,” but on the other hand, “Hmm. Wow. That’s short.”
Basically, what happened was during the course of the entire 13 years, National Periodical was lobbing lawsuits at Fawcett the entire time. Fawcett would win and they’d bring another one, and then Fawcett would lose and then they’d bring another one. They literally just wore them down, and by the early fifties, comic book sales were beginning to lag for a variety of reasons, not the least of which because of the crackdown on the horror. Basically, Fawcett just gave up.
Going back to what I was bringing up before, it’s like, why, if this was a mass-produced item, like these dolls, for a character that was hugely beloved, why is there only five examples of them, total? What Michael theorized, and I think sounds entirely plausible, was that this company puts out this trade ad, “We’re making Captain Marvel dolls.” Well, the first thing National Periodical does is send them a cease and desist letter. Now, we don’t have evidence of that, but it sure would explain it. He said, for a lot of this stuff, this merchandising, that is most likely what happened. A lot of these companies got scared, made a couple examples and then quit.
Another example that appears in the book is that they made an official Captain Marvel cape for kids in the forties, which is really charming. It says at the bottom: “This cape will not enable you to fly,” and to be very careful and this kind of thing. Well, there is all of one of those that I know of and we’ve shot it for the book, but why [could we find just one]? You would think every kid in America would want that, but there you go.
The subtext to all of this is really kind of depressing. I get into that at the end of the book, but the book itself is pure charm. The artwork is terrific. It’s all ancillary stuff that is either hard or impossible to find. There really was enough for a book.
Was the treasure hunting the best part of completing this project?
I’ll be perfectly honest. I did a little bit of my own hunting for some of this stuff, but for the most part, the reason this book exists is A) a guy named Harry Matesky has this huge collection, B) he was willing to let us photograph it and C) he lives in Middleton, New Jersey, which is about an hour by train from New York. So you have this great set of logistical elements that lined up to enable us to do it. That really was the secret that is no secret at all. In terms of the hunt, Harry’s been doing that forever. I think he either worked at Fawcett for a while or he had an extraordinary access to a lot of their product files, because we have prototypes – again why? – for things that didn’t get made, like Mary Marvel paper dolls, patches and badges and pins and stuff that they made prototypes of and then didn’t pursue. So, there are all kinds of that stuff that’s really cool. You’ll never see it anywhere else. Really, this was about us having access to this amazing collection that was relatively accessible. If he was in L.A., that would be different story. I’m not saying there wouldn’t be a book, but it wouldn’t have been as easy for us to do it.
Before I let you go, I want to ask you about the Batman project you were working on with Mike Chiarello. Is that still a go?
That is still in the works. All I can say about it is that it’s going extremely slowly, but it’s also going extremely well. Basically, the situation is that it’s taking a lot longer to draw than we had thought.
Is Mark doing the drawing?
No, he’s not. But once it’s scheduled, who’s drawing it will be announced and I’m hopeful they’ll promote the hell out of it. The good and bad news is that we literally don’t have a deadline.
What else can I tell you about it? It’s a long-form graphic novel that will be published in two parts and then published as one whole book, so it will be 96 pages. It’s going to be great. I just don’t know when it will see the light of day. I can also say a little bit more than half of it has been drawn. I’m totally in favor of taking your time and doing it right, but am I frustrated? Yes. But I don’t think the artist is slacking off. It’s just a massive project. There is a lot of detailed architecture and it’s very, very design-oriented, which is what I thought was the best thing for me to focus on.
So, entire specific buildings had to be designed from ground up because they are critical kind of stuff. So, we’ll see, but it’s very much alive and it was thrill to write. And it’s a thrill to see the pages come in. It’s just so amazing. I’ve had a little bit of experience with this, with short stories with Alex Ross and Tony Millionaire, and it never ceases to amaze me. It really is like magic. God knows what it must be like to write a screenplay and then see it come to life. So far, this is as close as I’ve gotten, but I’m going to have total control of it. Mark has been great. He’s made some editorial suggestions that were absolutely spot on that helped it. Stylistically, it’s going to be very unique.