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Graphic Novel Friday: Interview with Chip Kidd

It's Bat-mania here at Omnivoracious as we gear up for next month's The Dark Knight Rises, the purported final  installment in director Christopher Nolan's Batman films. In preparation, we recently spoke with Batman scribe Scott Snyder, and then we had the opportunity to sit down with bestselling author, award-winning graphic designer, and now graphic novelist Chip Kidd. Mr. Kidd is an unabashed Batman fan, but this month's original graphic novel, Batman: Death by Design, marks the first time he's stepped into Gotham City as a feature-length writer. 

Omnivoracious.com: Given your background in graphic design, what’s it like to collaborate on a project where someone else is in charge of the visuals—where someone else is credited as the artist?

Chip Kidd: Well, if you’re with the right person it’s like magic, and this was definitely magic. The artist, Dave Taylor, was suggested to me by my editor at DC Comics, Mark Chiarello, and at first I thought, “I’ve never heard of this person.” But then I realized that I had—Dave had done a visual retelling of the origin of Robin in the 100th issue of the now-defunct Legends of the Dark Knight comic. This was in the mid-1990s, and I remember at the time thinking, “Wow, this is absolutely amazing,” but not really paying attention to whom the artist actually was—which I’m not particularly proud of. It turns out it was Dave, and it was great. Mark had suggested him for several reasons, but not the least of which is that he’s great at facial expressions and he’s great at drawing buildings—both of which would be key to this particular story. Not only that, he was willing to devote three years of his life to it. Pretty amazing.

Getting back to your original question: I guess I’m still new enough to this, the idea that I write down just a little bit of prose on a page in terms of what I want to see, and then you wait two weeks and then you see it. It’s incredible.

Omni: I wonder if we can delve a little bit further into that collaborative process. There’s this wonderful collage of images on page 96, where the rubble crashes down on Batman, and there’s a sequence of descending panels highlighting all the players in this book. How much direction are you giving Mr. Taylor on a page like that?

Batman_dbd_rubbleChip Kidd: I actually gave him a lot of direction, and that’s the other thing: he welcomed that [input]. I haven’t worked with too many comics artists in this capacity, but I know some comics artists want as little interference in terms of layout of the page as possible. This was the opposite of that. That [page] was exactly what I ordered up. I would do a lot of the page layout as part of the script; he really liked that because, frankly, it gave him less to do but it also gave him more framework to work with rather than having to come up with it himself. There were occasions where he would deviate from it, and every single time it was for the absolute right reasons—where he would say, “You have this broken down into four panels here when I can actually do it in two larger panels, and this is why....” And I always deferred to him, because he’s been at this longer than I have and he knows what he’s doing. The collaborative part of it was really, really terrific.

Omni: What about Batman’s costume? It looks different here than in the current books. What type of direction did you give to Mr. Taylor?

Chip Kidd: When DC Comics gave me the opportunity to do a Batman graphic novel, it was a total dream job, We started talking about what was doable and what wasn’t, and they said, “Look, it can be completely out of continuity. It can be set in another time. We know you, we know you know the character. We trust you.”

So then I just thought, “Well, what would I want to see?” I’d want to see something that looks like it takes place in the 1930s, that could be out of a really great film from that time. I had this idea about Batman and Bruce Wayne and their relationship to architecture—not that it hasn’t been done before, but in this case: Bruce Wayne building a building, or having to tear one down and rebuild it, and it was one that had been built by his father. So, there’s all kinds of baggage around that. I wanted the look of Batman to be very similar to when he first appeared: the symbol on his chest is just two wings, which lasted for only one issue, Detective #27; the belt buckle is round; the gloves are full-on with the gauntlet. It’s an amalgam of what Batman originally looked like in 1939 and a little after that.

Omni: In the front matter of Death by Design, you say that this is a “Golden Age” for Gotham. What type of story can you tell in this era as opposed to a more modern one?

Chip Kidd: There’s all kinds of logistical things, like people actually have to talk on the phone, and if you want to send somebody a message you have to write it down on a piece of paper and somehow get it to them. All the stuff we take for granted now, that can help the plot along, I think. But then on the other hand is this faux technology that I kind of invented, like what if you could project a holographic image of yourself somewhere? All of that falls under the trope of “You can do anything.” In the comics, the trick is to make it seem believable within its own context and hopefully we did that. You have to be mindful of “How outrageous can it be or should be, or does it fall apart if it becomes too over the top?”

Omni: You’ve stated in the past that you were a fan of the Adam West Batman TV series. Was there a little bit of that whimsy in Death by Design?

Chip Kidd: Oh yeah. Definitely. I like to think there’s a sense of humor to it in various bits. Yeah, I love the Batcave from the original TV show. I wanted an establishing shot: what does cutting edge technology look like in 1938? That was like my direction to [Taylor]. It should look like the most sophisticated thing from that time. Somebody remarked that it looked “steampunk” to them, and that’s fine. I prefer a little bit later than that. I’m very much—I don’t know if “obsessed” is the word—but I’m very much into industrial design from the 1920s and 30s and into the 40s. It’s streamlined and Machine Age and I wanted there to be a lot of that in this book. Dave really had to research all that. I gave him some reference but he had to come up with a lot of that on his own, which was really something else. I just think he did an incredible job.

Omni: I don’t want to spend too much time on the TV show, but I think it’s interesting that so many people first connect to the Batman character through the televised series. Yet, it’s so different from where the comics are now. Why did it click so powerfully with you, and why do you think it still resonates for so many?

Chip Kidd: It certainly wasn’t the first primetime television show in color by a longshot, but I would say it’s the first to take full advantage of color. When you’re three, four years old you sit up and take notice of that. That’s strictly a formal concern. There was an emotional quality to it that really, really pulls you in, and it’s very easy for a child to figure out. Whereas Star Trek came out at kind of the same time and I couldn’t understand that. It didn’t make any real sense to me.

It’s much, much easier to figure out what the Batman and Robin concept is. Then, as a kid that’s what you want to be and what you want to do. It was all ingeniously conceived and designed to work for that time. Of course, I wanted to take it all very seriously, and I remember that I would watch it with my dad and he would start to laugh—and I didn’t like that at all.

I didn’t understand why anyone would think it’s funny, which is another function of it. Like the wonderful old Looney Tunes cartoons, you watch and appreciate them as a child but as you get older you understand that they worked on many levels at once. I think that’s hard to do, but if you can pull it off it’s pretty amazing.

Dbd_batman_flipOmni: Back to Death by Design, you highlight the detective aspect of Batman. We know Batman and Bruce Wayne’s capacity for vengeance and justice, but what makes him such a good sleuth?

Chip Kidd: I really wanted to play up the idea that Bruce Wayne becomes Batman because Batman can get certain things done that neither Bruce nor anyone else can. But the opposite is also true, that there are places that Bruce Wayne can go in broad daylight that Batman cannot. So he needs this duality in his mind to make up a complete person. I didn’t want to get into the questioning, “Should I be Batman? Is this the right thing to do, is this the wrong thing to do?” He just is. Bruce Wayne/Batman, he’s not this tortured soul. He’s a good old fashioned adventurer, and when he’s Batman and he has to talk to somebody he’s very much the authoritative gentleman. He’s just as to-the-manner-born as Bruce Wayne is; it’s just that he’s dressed up this way now. That appeals to me a great bit, as opposed to him being this common thug. That’s not what I’m really into.

Omni: I’m glad you brought up duality, because there’s certainly quite a bit of it in Death by Design beyond just Batman and Bruce Wayne. Gotham City is presented as this elegant, sprawling architectural wonder, yet there is plenty of destruction taking place.

Chip Kidd: Definitely. As someone who’s lived and worked in New York City for 25 years, I started to think about what sort of “urban injustice” I see on a regular basis. As somebody who has to take Penn Station Amtrak all the time—I don’t know how familiar you are with it, but it’s truly awful, like you’re in somebody’s airless, fluorescent basement. And it’s one of the biggest transit hubs on the East Coast. Almost as a cruel joke, they have pictures up on the walls of the glorious old station and how it used to look. It’s almost as if they are thumbing their noses at you. I feel like I’ve been haunted of the destruction of the original Penn Station, even though it happened years before I was born. Then the real-life crane collapses of 2008, and then there was one just a few months ago for which nobody was accountable or went to jail, or anything. It was all graft and payola, people greasing palms so they didn’t have to inspect the cranes. People died, and it’s just amazing to me.

I wanted to draw on things that were real and things that were not fair and that went unanswered for. That’s very much a part of the plot of this, that the Exacto character sees a plan to make these people pay for this, which includes trapping these people in their own murder traps. But that’s not the way Batman operates so there’s a discrepancy there, and that’s interesting to me. The story is influenced by The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand, Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront, and then Fritz Lang’s Metropolisin terms of the way it looks. But the union corruption stuff is a big, big part of it.

Omni: You’ve mentioned what a fan you are of Batman’s costume design. Where does it succeed where so many other superhero get-ups do not?

Chip Kidd: [Laughs] I’m not sure how to answer that. The basic form of it is very classical. You see gargoyles on the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris and, you know, just change one or two lines and there’s Batman. You have the demonic wings, the horned head—the difference is that usually those connote an evil presence, and here the content is the opposite of the form. It’s a do-gooder or however else you want to say it.

Omni: Back to the duality again.

Chip Kidd: Yes, exactly.

Omni: In the Acknowledgements, you say this project could not have happened without Neil Gaiman. Can you shed some light on this connection?

Chip Kidd: Yes, yes. I had been asked by DC’s publicity department if I would interview Neil at the 92nd Street Y here in New York on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the Sandman comic. I said, “My God, yes, I would love to.” Long story short: I did, and while we were on stage he had been talking about a Batman story he had written [Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader], and I was trying to get him to tell us as much about it as he was willing to do. We were both sort of geeking out about it there, and then the rest of the interview and evening went really well and the head of DC Comics’ editorial, Dan Didio, came backstage and said to me, “Wow. You should do a Batman story for us.” So that was the origin, if you will, of how this came about.

Omni: I hope I’m not putting you on the spot, but the character you create, Garnett Greenside, does he bear a resemblance to—

Chip Kidd: Gary Cooper.

Omni: And maybe a certain graphic designer, New York Times bestselling author?

Chip Kidd: Oh yeah, yeah. I mean, that’s part of the fun, casting people in roles. I’m such narcissist that I said, “I want to be in it!” I didn’t originally conceive it that way, but I as I was writing it I thought, “Oh, wait a minute, yes. He should be me.” Only, you know, ten pounds lighter. Dave very kindly obliged.

Omni: Mystery solved. Let’s end on the narcissism, then.

Chip Kidd: [Laughs] Thank you.

--Alex

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