Chip Kidd is an award-winning designer who also happens to love comic books. He’s produced a series of wonderful books about comics, including Bat-Manga, Jack Cole and Plastic Man andShazam: the Golden Age of the World’s Mightiest Mortal. I had a great time conducting this interview with Kidd via email just a few days after San Diego Comic-con 2011.
Jason Sacks: I’m a huge fan of your book Shazam: the Golden Age of the World’s Mightiest Mortal from last year. That book was clearly a labor of love for you. How did you and your team assemble all that obscure Captain Marvel ephemera?
Chip Kidd: Most of it was/is Harry Matetsky’s. The rest is mine, with some help from art dealers/collectors Joe and Nadia Mannerino. Part of being able to do the book was the fact that there were mercifully few sources and it wasn’t much of a scavenger hunt. I should also point out here that for the text I am incredibly indebted to Mr. P. C. Hamerlinck and Marc Swayze who passionately did a ton of interviews with the original Fawcett artists and writers in the 1970s and then published them in their “Fawcett Collectors of America.” That was utterly invaluable to give voice to these guys.
Sacks: How big is Harry Matetsky’s collection of this memorabilia? Was there stuff that even he didn’t have
Kidd: Harry has been collecting and dealing in all sorts of memorabilia for many years. His collection is as you see it in the book. There were some things he didn’t have (like the CM doll and one of the Cuban gum card books), but he is definitely the go-to guy.
Sacks: Do you have a collection of Captain Marvel toys and stuff yourself?
Kidd: Yes, I have a small but interesting CM collection, the centerpieces of which are the CM and Hoppy dolls.
Sacks: How did you approach designing a book like this, which was essentially a scrapbook of hundreds of different items? Was it different from, say, assembling your Jack Cole book?
Kidd: Yes, very different, because the Cole book grew out of an article by Art Spiegelman for the New Yorker. Which of course meant that I wasn’t the author. Which was fine, I am immensely proud of that book, but with CM I really was able to run the whole show creatively, and that has its pleasures and advantages for obvious reasons.
Sacks: I was really struck by the idea of how a character that was once a cultural icon can become almost completely forgotten. Ask anyone who Superman is and they know him, but Captain Marvel, or Shazam! if you prefer, has really drifted into obscurity. Did assembling this book make you reflect a bit on the how characters drift in and out of style?
Kidd: Yes, definitely. This is a very good question and very difficult to effectively answer. Basically the CM character was silenced (if that is the word) for 20 years, from 1953 to 1973. So he wasn’t allowed to evolve with the times the way so many other characters were. So it was literally like he was brought out of a hibernation that he never completely awoke from. I think the closest anyone came was Alex Ross and Mark Waid in Kingdom Come, which brilliantly depicted the epic conflict between CM and Superman. I think it’s sad and rather telling that the Marvel Family currently has no place in the new DC Universe.
Sacks: Were there any Captain Marvel items that you found which really surprised you?
Kidd: What mainly surprised me was that so many of the things we shot were one of only two or three known examples (or in some cases, the only one). And I found that curious for a character who was so overwhelmingly popular in his day. But as was later pointed out to me, the infamous lawsuit from DC (which is described in detail in the book) probably scared a lot of licensees out of wanting to be involved. That plus the willing were most likely met with “cease and desist” letters after producing a few samples. It definitely explains why so little was manufactured other than by Fawcett itself.
Sacks: Lots of people have tried and pretty much failed to revive Captain Marvel, including Jeff Smith of Bone fame. Do you think the character is just too dated to do right these days?
Kidd: Another good and difficult question. I’m convinced that the right person(s) could do it— a great and obvious example that it’s possible is Captain America. If there was any character who seemed strictly of his time, it’s him, but he was made relevant again (and again). As with most things these days super-hero-wise, unless a good (and popular) film is made, it’s very difficult to bring a character to a mass audience.
Sacks: I read that you’re a huge fan of Milton Glaser, who’s probably most famous for his “I Heart NY” logo; what about Glaser’s work or approach inspires you the most?
Kidd: Wow, I would hardly know where to start. I would suggest your readers find and read the interview referred to below.
Sacks: In your interview With Glaser in The Believer, Glaser makes the point that though design is a necessity, the economics of design, combined with the economic downturn, made design less lucrative. As a star designer in these tough times, do you feel there’s still the ability for a designer with vision to become a success?
Kidd: Believe me, there are days (and they are not few) when I feel as little like anything called a ‘star’ that you could imagine. I struggle all the time — with coming up with new ideas, with getting work rejected, with getting good work at all, etc. Everyone wants the magic formula, and here is what I tell them. You need three things. First, you have to have some talent — there has to be something there to work with. Second, you have to work like crazy to develop that talent, and never stop, even if and after you ‘make it.’ Third, and this is probably most important, you have to get lucky. You need someone to give you a break. Or several, preferably. Mine was getting hired at Knopf at the tender age of 22. It never ceases to amaze me how lucky I was that they took a chance on me like that, someone with next-to-no experience.
Sacks: What’s your feeling about the use of the computer as a crutch or tool for design? In your interview, Glaser talks about the necessity of a creator having a fuzzy stage in their approach to a project to allow for false starts and interesting tangents. D
o you agree with him? That’s a lesson that might also be applied to comics creators.
Kidd: Remember, Milton is an actual artist; that is, he puts paint to canvas, pen to paper, pastel to Strathmore, etc. And he is traditionally trained. So the idea of anyone doing that on a computer is anathema to him (and that’s not at all surprising). I am pretty much strictly a graphic designer and writer, and though I was trained in pre-computer days, my take on it is a bit different than his. I think I’m hardly alone when I say the computer allows me to do a ton more work in a tiny fraction of the time it used to. And saves a lot of $$$ in the process. It’s also allowed me to ‘stay small’, as opposed to having a staff and overhead.
Sacks: What is it about comics that attracts you to continue to create books about the field?
Kidd: I’d like to think the books themselves explain that. But I think with the Bat-Manga project especially, I was able to show fans something they otherwise would not have seen. They can own something that is very difficult or impossible to find.
Sacks: Do you take a different approach to developing comic related books than to non comic related books?
Kidd: Of course, because they’re such different kinds of projects. If I want to write a novel, I write it (during MANY years). If I want to propose a comics-related book, I make a substantial visual proposal of 40-some pages and pitch that. Regardless, it’s always “make it up as you go along.”
Sacks: What’s next from you that readers of Comics Bulletin might be interested in?
Kidd: The most exciting thing is my original long-form Batman graphic novel (I’m the writer), due from DC Comics in about a year. It still hasn’t been officially announced yet, so I can’t say more than that now. But keep your eyes and ears peeled, I think it’s pretty amazing if I do say so myself.