Though best known for countless award-winning book designs, logo designs and book editing projects, Chip Kidd may immediately call to mind a different form of accolade for superhero comic readers: that of Batman fan #1.
For years, Kidd has drawn on his extensive collection of Dark Knight memorabilia for a number of praised book projects including the behind-the-scenes “Batman Animated” book looking into the iconic ’90s animated series, the cultural phenomenon-exploring “Batman Collected” and the recent revelation of Jiro Kuwata’s lost Batman comics amid the Japanese products on display in “Bat-Manga!” But despite brief work on comics such as a backup strip in the “Mythology” coffee table book he did with Alex Ross, Kidd has never actually written a fully fledged Batman comic — until now.
Announced at DC Comics’ Batman panel this past weekend at New York Comic Con, Kidd will team with artist Dave Taylor (“Batman & Superman: World’s Finest”) for a new original graphic novel called “Batman: Death By Design” to be released in 2012. CBR News is happy to share an exclusive first interview on the book with Kidd as part of THE BAT SIGNAL — our ongoing discussion of the Batman’s universe. Below, the writer talks about how film and architectural design of the 1930s influenced the look and story of the book, how he created new foils to fill in the story of the Wayne family’s Gotham legacy and how his first major Batman writing project hopefully won’t be his last.
CBR News: Chip, there may be some glaring gap in my knowledge of your work, but to my knowledge, we’ve seen you design books and logos about comics, we’ve seen you curate comics media and ephemera for projects, and we’ve seen you write your own novels — but this is the first time you’ve really written an actual comics project of this type, isn’t it?
Chip Kidd: I would say so, yes. I mean, I’ve had a little bit of a head start. I wrote those two stories for the “Bizarro” anthologies for Tony Millionaire years ago, but I think they were each six or eight-page stories. And I co-wrote a story with Alex Ross for the end of our “Mythology” book. But those aside, this is definitely a first — to be able to do a long form Batman graphic novel. And I have to say, it’s very exciting to finally be able to talk about it. I was frankly surprised [to hear it was being announced] because their policy has been to hold off on promoting this when it doesn’t yet exist.
Everyone knows that you’re a major Batman fan and collector of Batman memorabilia, but how long has that love of the character been percolating as a desire to write the comics themselves? Did you carry this story around a while, or is this a more recent development?
Well, it was really interesting. The short answer is that it is a recent development. It grew out, of all things, an interview I’d done with Neil Gaiman at the 92nd Street Y [here in New York.] I believe it was three years ago for the anniversary of “Sandman.” DC had asked me if I would consider interviewing him on stage, which of course I jumped at the chance to do. When I came backstage after we’d done it — and it went very well as Neil’s a friend — basically Dan Didio came up to me and said, “I didn’t realize you were such a Batman fan. Would you want to do a Batman story for us?” And I said, “Of course I would! But please don’t say that unless you really mean it.” That was the start.
It really was not as if this was some story I’d been dying to tell since I was eight years old or something like that. It actually became a case of “Be careful what you wish for” because all of the sudden I had permission to do this. And because I’m primarily a graphic designer, it then became a case of problem solving. I am more than fully well aware of the entire history of this character, so what could I do to bring something forward that hasn’t been brought before? That was very, very intimidating.
What was your draw into Batman in terms of this project? I’ve heard artists over the years talk about their love of the design element of the character — how he’s essentially composed of triangles rather than rounded shapes. Is that what you tap into on a primary level, or does it start with the character’s story for you?
Even though I would say I very much art directed the project, I’m not the artist. So this became an issue of working with somebody who had a like-minded vision of what I wanted to do and could really devote what turned out to be two-plus years of his time to it. I had a sensibility in mind, and I had a kind of milieu in mind. Then I started thinking about a plot and a beginning, middle and end and taking it from there. The artist on the book is a gentleman named Dave Taylor.
Although from your point of view, the name “Death By Design” certainly does conjure up a picture of something in your visual wheelhouse. How did you develop the hook for the story and then shape it to be handed to Dave?
I actually came up with the title first. I thought, “If it’s me and you know who I am and what I do, then I’m going to come at this whole thing from a design standpoint.” I’ve said for many years that Batman himself and especially the way he’s evolved is brilliant design. It’s problem solving. And we get into that in the story. Beyond that, it became about me going “What if?” What do I want that I haven’t seen? And really, the overall Art Direction for the book is “What if Fritz Land made a Batman movie in the late 1930s and had a huge budget? Go!” There’s the visual platform.
I also — and I’m certainly by no means the first to do this — drew on an architectural renderer from the ’20s and ’30s named Hugh Ferriss, who I know Bruce Timm also referred to quite a bit for the look of Gotham City [in “Batman: The Animated Series”]. And Ferriss did most of his things in pencil. They were [these] massive, monolithic buildings that were lit up from street level at night. They really are, to me, the ultimate Gotham City images. So that was something that I very much used as a reference to give to Dave. And he did an amazing job.
As the story started developing around those ideas, did you gravitate more toward the dark Batman side of the character, or did you look at Bruce Wayne’s high society world a bit more?
That’s a very good question. First of all, this is not a brooding, self-doiubting or otherwise mentally unbalanced version of the character. For me, this is very much an old-fashioned, movie serial kind of approach. He does not have a problem being this character and is not a tortured soul. It’s more of an adventure, and it’s much more about problem solving. What I’ve always liked very much is that there are certain things Batman can do that Bruce Wayne cannot. But there’s very much a flipside to that because there are things Bruce Wayne can do that Batman cannot. You need both of those things — or at least I do — to make things interesting. A good part of the story and the plot goes into the building and design trade of Gotham City — how that works or doesn’t work and how it’s corrupted. There is a good bit of history with Bruce Wayne’s father. It’s not any kind of twisted, huge revelation. It’s about the design legacy of the Wayne’s in Gotham City.
The other side of the Batman equation is his great rogue’s gallery. How did you approach who or what to use in terms of threats to Gotham?
It was funny. I really made this up as I went along since I’d never done anything with this kind of scope even though I’ve written two novels. So I wrote up an outline and some character sketches. I created some characters. I created a villain. And so I presented all of this to my editor, Mark Chiarello, and we went out to lunch to talk about it, and he said, “I like this, and I think it can work, but I’ll just throw this out there: don’t you want any of the classic villains?” And I said, “Well, I don’t know what I’m allowed to do or not do!” [Laughs] Maybe this isn’t very obvious, but the whole project is very much out of continuity. And as it turns out, thank God! Because at the time we started, the New 52 wasn’t really on the timeline at all. So after Mark said that, I went, “Can I have the Joker?” and they said sure. So I threw him into the mix, which turned out to work very well. It added to the story, and I got to do my version of it, or rather, our version of it.
Now that you’re personally at the end of the scripting process, what have you learned that even after knowing so much about the comics you didn’t expect going in? Did you feel in over your head at points as you went, or did it come naturally?
I think with something like this that if you don’t feel in over you’re head, you’re probably not trying hard enough. I think it is good to try and do something outside your comfort zone — not just for the sake of it but to challenge yourself. I think the big challenge for me was that the page count was finite, and I found myself wanting to squeeze in more stuff than I had room for. There were certain subplots that I wanted to work in that I simply wasn’t able to as it was breaking down. That was kind of a drag and hard to work around, although I think we did it well in the end. We’ve still got to do lettering and sound effects yet, but it is all drawn.
The pleasant surprises for me were when Dave would frankly not do what I was telling him to do and break it down a little differently. The one thing I did that he said he really liked was that — and I don’t know how else to do it — I didn’t do a script that looked like any normal comic book script I know of. In other words, it doesn’t look like a movie screenplay. I diagram all the pages out. It’s very specific with me showing “This is how big this panel is, and this is what’s happening in the panel, and this is the dialogue.” Dave said he liked that because it did a lot of his work for him, and that was the idea — to put as little guesswork in as possible. But where he pleasantly surprised me was where he would deviate from that. There’s actually one big huge deviation at the beginning of the book that just shocked me, and it didn’t make me angry, but I had to go “Hmm. Wow.” I can go into more detail about it once the book comes out, but he did some really amazing things.
His characters look great. There’s a new female character who’s not exactly a femme fatale, but she’s kind of a romantic foil for Bruce Wayne named Cyndia Sill, and she’s absolutely amazing. She’s sort of a cross between Jacqueline Kennedy and Grace Kelly. She’s really fantastic. It all looks great, and is colored minimally. It’s all pencil with no ink, so it has a really distinctive look.
I think it’s interesting to see you do so much in comics from designing logos for books like “All-Star Superman” to editing the art comics for Pantheon, but has this kicked off a new phase for you where more work could be in the offing?
I’m sure it’s boring and predictable to say it, but I would love to do more of this. We just haven’t really talked about it yet because we really wanted to make sure this would be finished in a way that everybody was happy with. I would love to do more. I love these characters obviously, and hopefully the book will do well and DC will want to do more. But I think right now, we want to concentrate on getting this done. It’s been very, very labor intensive, and I think it shows, and I hope people enjoy it.
I’m very, very lucky. I get to do the books at Pantheon where we have a massive, massive Chris Ware project that’s coming out in about a year, and we have “Habibi” by Craig Thompson out now. It’s great. There’s no real set game plan beyond the fact that I’d love to do another of these whether it’s with Batman or somebody else. It really is like magic when you write all that stuff on the page and the artist goes out and just does it. It was intimidating to do my own Batman thing, but of course, being the narcissist I am, I also made myself a character in the story. [Laughter] That was really fun to see.
Well, I suppose we’ll all be waiting with baited breath to see if you kill yourself off then.
[Laughs] I only killed myself off artistically!
Stay tuned for more from CBR’s THE BAT SIGNAL!