The tyrannosaurus rex on the cover of Michael Crichton's 1990 novel Jurassic Park looks so hungry that it takes a split second to recognize that it's just a skeleton. By mashing together the way most of us encounter dinosaurs—as collections of bones—with their past as living, breathing beings, the image instantly communicates what the novel is all about. Chip Kidd's book-cover design had a second life not only as the poster image for Steven Spielberg's movie adaptation, but also as the corporate logo for the fictional amusement park within the film. A good graphic travels far.
The most visible of an iconoclastic bunch of graphic designers who began to rise through the ranks in the mid-'80s, Kidd made his name with his unexpected combination of typography, photography, collage, associative imagery, and unexpected detail. Kidd remains with his first employer, Knopf, for whom he's turned out countless covers for Cormac McCarthy, Elmore Leonard, James Ellroy, and many others; his relationship with those writers has made his covers as much a part of their new novels as their trademark prose style.
An enthusiast of pop culture in general and comics in particular, Kidd also works as an editor at Pantheon, where he's helped focus attention on modern talents like Dan Clowes, Alex Ross, and Chris Ware, while turning out a book paying tribute to Plastic Man cartoonist Jack Cole (co-written with Art Spiegelman) and a lovely volume on Peanuts creator Charles Schulz. Kidd's continuing obsession is Batman, as seen in Batman: The Complete History (part of a series of comics-history books written by Les Daniels), Batman Collected (a memorabilia survey), and Batman Animated (a tribute to Batman: The Animated Series.) He also regularly designs books for Vertical, Inc., a publisher specializing in English translations of Japanese fiction and comics, including Osamu Tezuka's massive six-volume Buddha series.
Kidd lives in New York with boyfriend J.D. McClatchy, a poet, critic, and editor of The Yale Review; McClatchy's book Twenty Questions came wrapped in a memorable Kidd sleeve. In 2001, Kidd entered the literary field as the author of The Cheese Monkeys, a clever novel that's part roman à clef, part manifesto. (It sported a witty cover, of course.) Recently, Kidd spoke to The Onion A.V. Club about his career, the Caped Crusader, misadventures in the film industry, and his aesthetic theories.
The Onion: What sets a good book cover apart from a bad book cover?
Chip Kidd: Well, the boring answer is, a good book cover makes you want to pick it up. End of story. It will intrigue you enough to make you want to go to second base, as it were, with the book. The silly answer is, "One with a big penis on it." It worked for me.
O: What would you want to avoid? What would make you say, "This will never work"?
CK: I've been doing this long enough that to even go there is a mistake. Let's limit it to designing covers for fiction right now. That's very much a theater of the mind. Personally, I enjoy casting people in the various roles as I read along, whether it's friends or celebrities or combinations thereof. It's like when people used to have a dream on Gilligan's Island, and they had that trial where Gilligan was Mr. Hyde, and the skipper was the judge, and all that stuff. I do that when I'm reading books, so I want to customize the characters to the way I think they should be, or who I think they are. I used to feel like, "Okay, we're not gonna show any of the characters full-on, frontal-face. You take something away from the reader when you do that." And then at some point, inevitably—if you've been doing this for 18 years, as I have—you're going to do that. One of the things I learned while majoring in graphic design in college, that I've always taken very much to heart… The teacher one day drew an apple on the blackboard, and then wrote the word "apple" underneath it. He pointed to the whole thing and he said, "You should never do this." He covered up the picture and said, "You either just have the word," then covered up the word and said, "or you just have the picture. But don't do both." It's insulting to the reader, or the viewer, or whoever. I think that's true. So what did I do on the cover for All The Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy? I showed a horse. I showed a pretty horse.
O: Part of a horse.
CK: Right. But, again, there I just completely broke that rule. Yet for some reason, it works, and that's one of the covers I'm better known for.
O: Exceptions aside, why is that a good rule? If you're designing the cover of Who's Irish?, why not just show a question mark made out of shamrocks?
CK: It's too easy. Another rule—which is breakable, as they all are—is that you discard your first idea. Many times, I've found myself going back to that first idea, thinking, "Hmm, the reason this is the first thing you thought of is that this is the best thing."
O: How many book covers have you done at this point?
CK: I wish I knew. That's going to be my first question after I die. Like, "What did I eat that I didn't realize I was eating, and how many book covers did I do?" Because I don't have a comprehensive list. I'm in the process of trying to do a much more definitive version of that Yale University Press book, in which I will attempt to get some kind of realistic figure. I've been telling people 1,500 for about six years now, so that can't be accurate.
O: How do you avoid repeating yourself?
CK: I don't avoid repeating myself. I rip myself off all the time. But you also have to try and constantly rethink the form. It's very important. Or everything will just get stale.
O: What's your process like?
CK: It's extremely organic. The stock answer is that every book is different, or at least reasonably different, so the process is going to change from book to book, depending on what they are. Sometimes you hit it right away, sometimes you have to do eight different things, sometimes the publisher or the author or the agent will wear you down to the point where you want it to be over with, and what you end up with is kind of a mess. You just accept it and move on. The most tiring—and yet the most rewarding—experiences are when you have to keep redoing it again and again, but what you end up with is actually the best thing. A perfect example of that is something I just did for the new David Sedaris book [Dress Your Family In Corduroy And Denim]. I gave three ideas, and those didn't cut it, and then I gave two more, and I heard nothing, and I started doing photo research for a different job. Luckily, my design gene was secreting, and I saw an image that I thought would be perfect. It was great. Those moments are worth everything. They're some of the most pleasurable aspects of life—when you see something and the scales fall from your eyes, and it's like, "There it was the whole time. It just took until now to find it."
O: This is probably an insulting question, but do you read everything that you design?
CK: That is so fucking insulting. How dare you. [Laughs.] I'm morally obligated to say yes, and I almost always do, but I should probably 'fess up. I often don't have time. I'm a very slow reader. With the fiction, I try to read everything through to the end, because of the nature of it. I just did the cover for a biography of Bishop James A. Pike that we're going to be coming out with in the fall. My nose would grow if I said that I read every word. But I at least try to feel like I've read enough of something so that I understand it, and I understand what the author's trying to do, and what the expectations are. That's the most important thing. Now, with some projects, especially the higher profile ones, there simply isn't anything to read, or very little. With the last Donna Tartt novel, The Little Friend, I had half a manuscript. Of course, that book being the volume it is, half a manuscript is something like 600 pages. I didn't need to know how it was going to end, because you don't want to give that away anyway. That was enough. Others, you get even less. Like with Cormac McCarthy, or Michael Crichton while he was still at Knopf—I no longer work on his stuff—I wouldn't even get a title. Inevitably, somebody from marketing would call me up and ask if I had anything to show. Without even a title. Which is like something out of a bad TV show: "No, I'm not actually going to have a jacket until we know what the title is."
O: What was the first cover you designed?
CK: Technically, the first one I designed was for a photography manual by a guy named John Hedgecoe, published by Knopf when I started here in the fall of 1986. It's not embarrassing, but it's nothing great.
O: What was the first one that you felt really captured your style?
CK: It's a play by Don DeLillo called The Day Room. That was the first one where I really felt I was able to bring something to it that I thought was interesting, for an interesting project. It kind of went on from there.
O: Do you ever worry about how your covers will age?
CK: Yes, especially because of the nature of books. That's one reason why I love working in books—they are by their very nature archival. At least they're supposed to be. That very much appeals to me, and especially to the egomaniacal me that wants to live on after I've returned to the earth. So, yeah, not consciously, but subconsciously, I've got an eye for how covers will look in five years, 10 years, 15, 20. Which is maybe why I would say my design is more on the conservative side than a lot of what you see out there now. Not really in books, but in CDs and magazines and that kind of stuff. They're ephemeral. They're designed to be thrown away.
O: At the same time, things like movie posters and record covers and book covers do have a life of their own.
CK: Well, I'd say my experience with the music business has not been a terribly happy one. The last one I did turned out so well, I should probably just quit while I'm ahead.
O: Jon Spencer Blues Explosion's Plastic Fang?
CK: Yeah. That was just odd, it went so smoothly. The end product was so pleasing to me. He was great, the label was great. That was probably the only one that turned out that well. Every time I feel that I've had it with the publishing industry, I have to hearken back to my wonderful experience in [adopts mocking tone] music and film. It sobers me right up.
O: Can you talk about those experiences?
CK: Oh, God, not a whole lot. Nothing I could point to where you would look at it and say, "Oh, you did that." In a scene out of The Day Of The Locust, in the early '90s I was wooed out to Hollywood for two weeks to do work for an independent firm that did movie posters. It happened to coincide with my vacation. They threw a chunk of money at me, and I went out there and did it. One of the projects they were working on—this tells you how long ago it was—was the Batman sequel, Batman Returns. Of course I'm a huge fan, so I thought, "All right, I'll be able to go out and work on that." So I did, and really, every cliché sprung full-blown, and I high-tailed it back to the East Coast. The only idea of mine that they used was the concept of doing a triptych, making up three posters that are part of one giant one. One for Batman, one for Catwoman, and one for Penguin. Otherwise, it was all pretty grim.
O: On the Peanuts book, did you feel like you understood Charles Schulz better at the end of it?
CK: I think I'd have to be pretty arrogant to say yes. How can you know somebody you've never met or spent time with? I felt that I got to know his milieu, which I would say is a complicated one. I liked his widow a great deal, and we've remained friends. I have her to thank for allowing me to do it. Obviously, it would not have happened if she hadn't been supportive. I think United Media didn't know what to make of it, but as long as Jeannie Schulz was happy, and our hearts were in the right place, it was okay with them. We went back out for the opening of the Schulz museum, which is really great, to do the photo shoot for the book. Jeannie said to me that our timing was really uncanny, in that we did it in the summer of 2000—he had died in the spring—and had we approached them any sooner, it would have been too soon. Had we waited, the studio would have been dismantled, and his children probably wouldn't have allowed it. I'm not privy to all that went on, but I think there was a lot of divvying up of stuff, but we got there before they did any of that.
O: What was your most surprising find?
CK: The most surprising find—and what was most surprising was that they let us keep it in the book—was his personal high-school yearbook. There's a legendary story that he had done a bunch of drawings for it, and only upon receiving a copy of it after it came out did he realize that they hadn't used any of them. He had gone in, and in his handwriting, kept tabs on the fates of his classmates, written in "died" or "cancer" or what have you.
O: Were you a Peanuts fan before this project?
CK: The thing that I came to realize was that Schulz is the great unifier. Here's the one cartoonist that pretty much everybody can agree on. Here's the cartoonist that's beloved by both Dan Clowes and my mother. I can't think of anybody else that could fit that description. It's edgy and neurotic in a timeless way, and it's heartwarming and sweet to other people—to the greater global population, I guess you would say. There's just some great common denominator. After doing this book, I don't think I encountered anybody who said to me, "Oh, I never got Peanuts," or "I wasn't into it," the sole exception being my boyfriend. If you knew him, you would understand. His exterior is that of a scowly academic. He's the editor-in-chief of The Yale Review and head of the creative-writing program at Yale. He was too busy with [19th-century novelist Anthony] Trollope to be all that interested in Peanuts. This fuels our discussions and keeps things lively.
O: You edit graphic novels at Pantheon. It seems like comics' eternal battle is to earn the respect of a wider audience. Does it still matter at this point?
CK: I guess yes, but that's a sad answer. Things like Chris Ware winning the Guardian Award for best first fiction are a sign that it will change, slowly. What it really comes down to is someone doing something truly extraordinary and then having it get recognized. You can say that about any kind of fiction or non-fiction. I'd rather talk about merit than whether it's a comic book or graphic novel or what have you. For example, one promising sign that I saw, Publishers Weekly has its review section divided into fiction and non-fiction. They used to review comics once a month, if that, and lump them all together, in fiction or science fiction or fantasy or what have you. And now, I noticed there are some comics reviewed in fiction, and there's one for Joe Sacco in non-fiction, where it belongs, thank you very much. Boy, what a quantum leap. You'd think, "Well, of course, how else would it be done?" But before, it wasn't done that way. Comics were comics. It's a category that has all these subcategories. It's not just one thing. That's very hard to get through people's heads, I think.
O: What do you talk about when you give lectures on Batman?
CK: Oh, God. It all depends. I was asked by the Museum Of The City Of New York to give a Batman lecture, so I made it into a "Batman In The City," like their relationship. Why isn't Batman in the suburbs? Why isn't he in the country? Why is he in Gotham? All this kind of hoohah. Really, it's just an excuse for me to show my little slides and ooh and ahh and do all this nonsense theorizing. I gave a couple of lectures on this book I did called Batman Collected—what it was, how it came about, why I did it. It's all very self-indulgent. It's not something I do unless I'm specifically asked to.
O: Why did you latch onto Batman?
CK: I think there was a timing thing, where I was 2 years old when the TV show came out, with Adam West. I used to think that 2 years old was too young to have any of that affect you in any way. But then I saw my nephew, at 2, memorize every single line of The Lion King, and it made me realize, "Yes, you can be affected by pop-cultural stuff in this way, that young." There was a connection then that never became disconnected. It's certainly not a sexual thing, as some people have rather unkindly put forward in my case. There's just some kind of primal connection to the form, to the story, to the many ways the character is adaptable. He can be goofy, he can be cool, he can be fascist, or he can be totally rebellious. It's a brilliantly adaptable character. The way DC Comics has, through the years, added to this whole mythology of the character, starting with a very solid premise and then building on it so smartly with the great villains and sidekicks and stuff—I find it endlessly intriguing. I'm not sick of it.
O: Do you have a favorite era?
CK: I have a couple. If I had to pick one, I would pick Bob Kane's 10 or 11 stories before Robin came along. Robin definitely changed the tone. They were so clearly trying to figure out what this whole thing was. Kane really wasn't much of a draftsman, to the point where it starts to resemble folk art. With Joe Shuster's original drawings of Superman, he could actually draw. Those are wonderful to look at, too, but in a completely different way. Superman is like looking at a beautifully styled Art Deco Chrysler or something. Batman is an autogyro that somebody built in their basement, but that actually works. Batman is Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
O: How did you decide to write your own novel? Had you written prose before?
CK: I think I've had an eye to that ever since getting hired at Knopf right out of school. You read manuscript after manuscript, and if you have even a shred of naked ambition, like I do, you think, "Hmm, maybe I could try this." I started writing for design magazines. I wrote articles for Print and Graphique and i-D, where, quite frankly, it was easy for me to get stuff published, because they knew who I was. Had I tried to do it the way normal people do it, writing for something other than a trade publication, I wouldn't have gotten very far. I could write about things like the death of photo-typesetting, because I knew them and understood them from a designer's point of view. I guess I cut my teeth writing for those publications, and that got me used to figuring out how something works on a page in terms of prose and sentences and that kind of thing. Like anything else, you learn by doing.