An interview with Chip Kidd

The one true Captain Marvel is finally honored in a new Abrams ComicArts book by the prestigious team of Chip Kidd and Geoff Spear. Titled "Shazam! The Golden Age of the World's Mightiest Mortal," the tome offers an exciting bevy of nostalgic feelings by showcasing the beautiful comics, artwork, mementos and goods that were produced during the Marvel family's time at Fawcett, from 1940 through 1953.

Much like their earlier effort, "Batman Collected," "Shazam!" allows its rich imagery to tell the exciting story of this superhero. Between Kidd's glorious layout and Spear's highly detailed photography, the reader can feel the excitement and fabric that would eventually lead Captain Marvel to outsell Superman during the glorious Golden Age of comics!

Pop!: There's a lot of romanticism to Captain Marvel.

Chip Kidd: Well, yeah, I mean, Captain Marvel's actually all about charm and merriment, and Batman's sort of not about that. I mean, it has something to do with it.

Well, it's something missing from today's marketplace, too. You just want something more hopeful today?

Yeah, interesting.

What inspired the creation of this book?

Well, all the ingredients were there. First of all, I'm a fan, which is very important. And then there was this amazing collection which was made accessible to me. And no one had done a book like this, also very important. And DC was up for it, and Abrams, the publisher, was up for it. So it was really all those things.

Now, that said, in terms of the planning, it was years, and years, and years. That was the only snag, if that sort of inertia took over on all fronts. This probably should have come out a couple years ago.

So, this was a hard pitch for the publisher?

No. You know, I don't really know exactly what it was. I think it was negotiations back and forth with DC and Abrams and what have you. All of that stuff can be very tedious and ongoing and whatever.

You don't collect Captain Marvel like you collect Batman, right?

Well, no, but I do collect it. I mean, I have my own small collection, which is represented in the book by the stuffed dolls, which are extremely rare, and that one Cuban card album. That's mine, too.

How did you find the collector, Harry Matetsky?

He's sort of well known in the collecting world, and a very affable guy. There was a Superman collecting book that came out in the early Nineties, and he was instrumental in that. So if one is into this stuff, sooner or later you cross paths with Harry. I mean, it's a relatively small world.

What's the process when you work with your photographer, Geoff Spear? Are you usually present when he photographs an item?

Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. Basically, what we do -- and by "we" I mean me and Geoff Spear, the photographer -- whether we're doing the Alex Ross book, or the "Peanuts" book, or whatever, we go to where everything is and we basically camp out for, usually, at least a week. We set up our own little studio and we just shoot stuff until we're done. It's a rather intuitive process, but it usually takes about a week, a week-and-a-half. Usually, we have enough room to do it.

When you're going through that, when you can see the book coming together, is it like, "This'll go in the middle, this'll go at the beginning?" Can you sort of see your book take form?

Yeah. Again, that's a very sort of organic process. Logistically, I have to set things up so that we're either going from extremely small items and then gradually increasing to large items, or vice versa, because that makes it easier for Geoff, so that he's not having to constantly change lenses and the tripod and all that stuff.

Adjust the lighting...

Right, exactly. And there's various different kinds of setups that are required. If something is going to be backlit or not, or if something is going to be freestanding, or if we're going to shoot it flat, overhead. That kind of stuff.

When you were looking at all these Captain Marvel things, did it seem like Fawcett had a general sense of direction where they were going with these products back then?

That's a good question. I think, yes, I think they had a good sense of direction. The thing that I didn't quite grasp at the time, and I have since come to basically understand, is that there's a lot of stuff in the book that is sort of rare, or one-of-a-kind, or one of two known to exist, that kind of thing, which I didn't quite understand. Like the official Captain Marvel cape, which is towards the end, that's the [only] one known to exist, and for a character as popular as Captain Marvel was, it makes you wonder why. If he's loved by millions of kids, they'd all want to have that cape. I've since come to understand that, because of all the lawsuits, which started almost from the very beginning of the character's creation, I think a lot of these manufacturers would sign up to make this or that, announce it, make a prototype and then DC Comics would hit them with a cease-and-desist. Now, I don't know that, it's just a theory, but it's an extremely plausible theory, because they were very litigious, and certainly litigious about this particular character.

There was a "newness" to this genre, at the same time. When you look at the items, you can feel that excitement, like they were trying all these products, different books, different toys and all these films.

Yeah! That was another part of why I really wanted to do this, because they did make so much cool stuff. With Batman, it's a bit frustrating, because I love the Forties era of the character so much, but they didn't really make much, if anything, and anything they did make was pretty much tied to the movie serials. Which is fine, but you have all these wonderful Superman things that they made. I love the Forties. And so the fact that they did make all this Captain Marvel stuff, and it was so closely tied to the comics in terms of the artwork, and the feel of it, and the spirit of it, that was exciting for me.

When you're looking at these things, do you often wonder how it still exists today? Who played with it, the history of the item?

Well, I think, obviously, it was all for kids. We found that wonderful vintage photograph that's in the front [of the book] of these kids and their homemade Captain Marvel costumes. It obviously was very big, and obviously all that would have to be homemade, because, like we said, you couldn't buy it. You had to make it.

Unlike Superman, Captain Marvel's had a tough time making it big in the present day. Why do you think that is? He hasn't really caught on with today's audience.

I know. Everybody asks that question, and I think there's all different kinds of ways to respond to that. I think, definitely, I could say that it didn't help that the character was basically shut down from 1953 for the next twenty years.

But he seems like the perfect character, because he's this little kid who becomes this superhero. He's accessible in so many ways.

Yes. The [characters] that survived were allowed to evolve, especially through the Sixties, and that obviously didn't happen with Captain Marvel. When DC bought the rights and then sort of "relaunched" the character in the Seventies, it was supposed to be as if nothing had ever happened. It was actually in sort of a time warp, and comics and popular culture were in a much different place. And, for whatever reason, artist C. C. Beck, and writer Otto Binder and whoever, didn't decide to try and evolve the character. Now, I don't know how they would have done that. I mean, that's what you have extremely brilliant, creative people for.

I take it you're not a big fan of what they're doing nowadays with Mary Marvel and that sort of thing?

Yeah, it's just -- I mean, frankly, the real reinvention of Captain Marvel for a modern comic book artist is basically what Alan Moore did with Marvelman in the UK. That's basically, I think, what you would have to do, or it would be one way to go about it. Which, of course, is very dark, and very sort of for kids, but not at all in the way that the original Captain Marvel was. I do think the closest anyone's come since then has been Alex Ross. I think his version of the character seems true to what it was, and also evolved at the same time. But there really isn't much of it. I think the whole concept of him in "Kingdom Come" is very well done, and shows an evolution that we've grown up, but he's just a tool of Mr. Mind, etc., etc. It remains to be seen for somebody to see the potential and how you could make it viable for an audience today beyond what's been done. I don't know.

You've mentioned doing a Superman Max Fleischer book. Is that still going to happen?

That would be a dream project that, as far as I know, is undoable, because there's no archive of Fleischer art for Superman that I know of. I know of a couple pieces that are around, but that doesn't make a book. That would be fun, but unless some sort of treasure trove is unearthed, or somebody comes forward and says, "Hey, I have this stuff, let's do a book," I don't think it's going to happen. Whereas the treasure trove for this book existed, and I was granted access to it, which is major.

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