Andrew A. Smith
Scripps Howard News Service
May 29, 2012 -- Award-winning book designer Chip Kidd loves design. And he loves Batman. And he loves comics. And he loves writing. Combine all that, and you get his first graphic novel, Batman: Death by Design (DC Comics, $24.99).
Kidd has written a couple of novels, several comic-book stories and some non-fiction books (two on Batman). But this was his first long-form comics work, and he described it in a phone interview as “a real learning curve.”
“I came up with the title first,” he said. “Because I thought ‘What are people going to know, or think, that I’m good at?’ And the title had not been used before, which is pretty amazing. And so I sort of took it from there.
“I’ve lived and worked in New York City for 26 years, which is essentially Gotham,” he continued. “What have I seen day in and day out that I think is … architectural injustice? And one of the things was the destruction of the original Penn Station.”
That led Kidd to creating a Wayne Central Station in Gotham City, an equivalent to Penn built by Bruce Wayne’s father that’s about to be torn down due for various reasons – not the least of which is a hidden history about which the plot revolves.
“The thing about the destruction of the original Penn Station,” Kidd said, “is the only good that came out of it was that it created such an outcry that it helped start the historical preservation society in New York. And … later on in the ‘70s they were talking about demolishing Grand Central Station and one of the chief figures that stood in the way of that … was Jackie Onassis. She literally led the fight to save it, and obviously did. So I wanted somebody like her to be a figure in this book.”
That led to Cyndia Syl, a preservation crusader who serves as foil, conscience and possible love interest for Bruce Wayne. But instead of resembling Jackie O, she vaguely resembles Grace Kelly – because, Kidd laughed, “you can do that in comics!”
Other familiar faces appear as well. Wayne’s features suggest Montgomery Clift. The Joker appears in a 1930s movie director’s outfit, and closely resembles the character played by Conrad Veidt in the 1928 movie The Man Who Laughs (appropriate, since that movie was a partial inspiration for The Joker.) And an architect named Garnett Greenside, son of the missing architect who built Wayne Station, is based on Kidd himself.
Given that the story is set in the 1930s, a lot of other pre-war influences add to the mix, from art deco to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Most important, Kidd said, was an early 20th century architect named Hugh Ferriss, who also influenced the groundbreaking Batman: The Animated Series.
“He was an architectural renderer in the ‘10s, ‘20s, ‘30s,” Kidd said. “His work is in MOMA [New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art]. It’s mostly all in pencil and charcoal on paper, but incredible monolithic buildings. Very urban utopia of the time. Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful stuff.”
Obviously, for Kidd’s vision to work, he needed an artist of uncommon skill. DC found English artist Dave Taylor, who – like Ferris – also works in pencil, doing his own coloring and reproduction work to obviate the need for an inker. Kidd said Stewart was the perfect choice.
“He had, I think, a very generous temperament when it came to me giving visual direction,” he said. “And that really meant a lot. And Dave’s father was an architect, which is kinda interesting, because the whole architect-fathers-and-sons thing is very much a theme of the book.”
Taylor's strength in drawing buildings, no doubt a legacy of his father, was crucial for a story that revolves around architecture. And Stewart accented his mostly black-and-white work with muted colors, resulting in an appropriately retro look, like a faded duotone.
“There’s faint color throughout,” Kidd said of the final art. “It’s like a great old black-and-white movie.”
Since Death by Design is set in the 1930s, it obviously isn’t part of the current Batman’s history – today’s Dark Knight launched his career an ever-shifting and eternal “five years ago.” But Kidd isn’t concerned that his story is “out of continuity,” as they say, which means it’s unlikely his creations will see life in any form other than a sequel. He had a great time, which is reflected in a great story.
“They really let me pretty much do whatever we I want,” Kidd said of his experience, “because they said from the get-go look we know you’re a fan, and we know you’re really respectful of the character so we don’t have to worry about you doing something that the Batman character wouldn’t do or would be against his moral code.
“You know, I created like five, six characters,” he laughed, “and that’s pretty cool.”
Contact Andrew A. Smith of the Memphis Commercial Appeal at firstname.lastname@example.org.
FULL CHIP KIDD INTERVIEW
Captain Comics: You’re an award-winning book designer, you’ve written a couple of novels, done a couple of non-fiction books about Batman material. Are there other highlights I should be aware of?
Chip Kidd: I did DC: Mythology with Alex Ross, a Peanuts book, a book about Captain Marvel. In comics, three 8-page stories, two with Tony Millionaire, one with Alex Ross. I'm not sure you want all that.
CC: I'm just making sure you're not an off-Broadway playwright or something -- you've got a finger in a lot of creative pies. But this is your first long-form comics, right?
CK: Yeah, it was very much like starting over.
CC: Did you have to retrain yourself?
CK: Not re-train, train, period. I think the closest thing to it was writing the novels. The difference was I was given a finite page count for various reasons. As with most things like this, it’s like if somebody says to you, "Oh, write a thousand-word article on X," and you think "Well, how am I gonna think of a thousand words," and then you start and you get into it and all of a sudden you’re up to 1,200 and you haven’t really begun to say what you want to say. So it was that kind of thing. It was like "A 100-page Batman story? Really?" and then I kinda outlined it and set it up and I ended up squeezing certain scenes that were supposed to be four pages into one. So it was a real learning curve for me.
CC: But fun, right?
CK: Oh yeah. Amazing. It was pretty fantastic. It was a great opportunity.
CC: How did you come to work with Dave Taylor?
CK: He got involved because my editor, Mark Chiarello, at DC recommended him. And he recommended him for several reasons. He’s great at facial expressions, he’s great at buildings, both of which were going to be very important for this story, and he was available and willing to do it. I mean, this is three years out of his life.
And we worked together great. The only impediment is that he’s in Liverpool and I’m in New York. But through e-mail and being able to send images pretty easily through e-mail, we talked a bit off over the phone at the beginning and then really it was e-correspondence. I think one of the main things that at first threw me a little bit is that once we got the whole thing established, he really wanted the entire script before he began in earnest to draw the story. That threw me a little bit because I wanted it to get started sooner. But I think he had a good point in that he wanted to know where it was all going and how it was going to end and really overall what all was going to be required of him.
CC: Sure, he'd want to know what he was building to, what visual themes he might want to use. But you're an artist, too. How did that work?
CK: I think I was given far more leeway as a writer in directing the visuals than is the usual DC process. I very much would say art-directed it.
CC: Was it easier working with another artist, or was there a clash of visions?
CK: It worked very well, because he had, I think, a very generous temperament when it came to me giving visual direction. And that really meant a lot. And Dave’s father was an architect, which is kinda interesting, because the whole architect-fathers-and-sons thing is very much a theme of the book. And, yeah, there would be times that he would deviate from the script but it was always for the right reasons. And that was very interesting to see.
CC: Now who’s being generous?
CK: But it’s true! It was like, "Wow." And, not a lot, but a couple of times and a couple of key times.
CC: Can you give an example?
CK: The second double-page spread, where it’s the cityscape and Batman is sort of tethered on the grapple gun, and you can’t see the line and it looks like he’s flying, and it’s connected to the big old Wayne Central Station. While in my direction for that double-page spread Batman was supposed to very much dominate that picture. But instead Dave turned it around and made the city dominate and made batman a relatively tiny figure in it. And I think that was totally the right call. And to his credit that was a lot more work than doing a big double-page Batman figure and instead having to draw all those buildings. I think a lot of cartoonists aren’t crazy about buildings because they take a lot more time and skill.
CC: It almost makes Gotham a character in the story right away.
CK: Right. Right, exactly. That’s exactly the way it’s supposed to be.
CC: Did you go for a design-oriented plot because that’s your strength, or have you been carrying this idea around for years?
CK: This project emanated from, of all things, me being invited to interview Neil Gaiman on stage in the fall of 2008 at the 92nd Street Y. It was on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of Sandman but we also talked about Batman on stage and we were geeking out and all of this, and afterwards Dan DiDio, the [co-publisher] of DC Comics, came backstage and said “You should do a Batman story.” Just completely out of the blue.
CC: So you were chatting with Neil Gaiman when Dan DiDio offered you a gig. What an awful life you lead.
CK: Well, someone has to do it. [laughter]
CC: We all appreciate the sacrifice you make. [laughter]
CK: Believe me, I’m not complaining. At all.
But that’s a really good question and it’s a really good point. Even though I’m a lifelong Batman fan the answer is "No." I didn’t have some great "Oh, this is the great Batman story that needs to be told that’s never been told before." That became the problem to solve. As a designer, everything is a problem to solve. From getting up in the morning, to tapping out at night, and everything in between.
And so I started thinking, like, "Well, all right, why does Batman exist?" I came up with the title first. Because I thought "What are people going to know, or think, that I’m good at?" And the title had not been used before, which is pretty amazing. And so I sort of took it from there. I mean, I’ve lived and worked in New York City for 26 years, which is essentially Gotham. What have I seen day in and day out that I think is … architectural injustice? And one of the things was the destruction of the original Penn Station. And as somebody who takes AmTrak a lot for various reasons, I’m in and out of Penn Station all the time, which is just a hellhole. It’s basically the fluorescent-lit basement of Madison Square Garden. and yet one of the largest transit hubs on the East Coast. And almost like a cruel joke, they have hanging around on various pillars, or trestles, or what have you, pictures of the old Penn Station. Almost like taunting us: "Yeah, like this is how beautiful it was, so suck it up."
So then I came up with the idea of the Wayne Central Station. And the thing about the destruction of the original Penn Station is the only good that came out of it was that it created such an outcry that it helped start the historical preservation society in New York. And that later on in the ‘70s they were talking about demolishing Grand Central Station and one of the chief figures that stood in the way of that, believe it or not, or easily believable, was Jackie Onassis. She literally led the fight to save it, and obviously did. So I wanted somebody lilke her to be a figure in this book.
CC: Speaking of Sylvia Cill. She's obviously a foil and a potential love interest for Bruce Wayne. Is she based on Jackie O?
CK: I call her an architectural suffragette. She’s trying to do what Jackie O did with Grand Central. But she looks like Grace Kelly. Just because. That’s what you can do in comics! I can put me in there and make me the quasi-villain.
CC: So you’re the son. Garnett Greenside. Do you look like that?
CK: Yes, plus about 20 pounds. [laughter] And that was the oteher interesting thing. Because I was very specific who the characters should look like, although Dave came up with Montgomery Clift for Bruce Wayne. Which I thought was cool. Of course, they’re not dead ringers because you can’t and really shouldn’t do that.
CC: Right, copyrights and trademarks.
CK: But for me, I wanted to be Garnett Greenside. And Dave did all that without ever meeting me and he said that was really, really hard. Because it would have been much easier, he said, if I could like sit with you just a couple of hours and get all the angles of your face. But he did it all from photos I sent him and that was a kick.
CC: I saw a lot of influences on the book, like Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, the movie The Man Who Laughs, art deco -- basically the same influences that fed Rocketeer, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, and other 1930s-based projects. Have I got those right? What else did I miss?
CK: I wanted The Joker to look like a great classic 1920s silent-movie villain because that’s what he started out as.
CC: Fritz lang. Art deco. What else?
CK: Architectural renderer Hugh Ferriss. If you Google him you’ll see. That, frankly, was not an original idea of mine, Bruce Timm also used a lot of Hugh Ferriss to influence the Batman: The Animated Series.
He was an architectural renderer in the '10s, '20s, '30s. His work is in MOMA. It’s mostly all in pencil and charcoal on paper. But incredible monolithic buildings. Very urban utopia of the time. Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful stuff.
CC: He works in pencil, which is unusual in comics. Was that a hard sell?
CK: It wasn’t a hard sell at all. Dave, he works in several styles, but that was one of them. I was actually a fan of his and did and didn’t know it at the time. He had drawn a Robin origin story in the mid-‘90s for the 100th issue of Legends of the Dark Knight. So I had seen that, and of course Archie Goodwin wrote it, and I just thought it was brilliant. Because how can you tell that story again in any kind of interesting way? And they really did, he really pulled it off. And that’s all done in pencil.
CC: And now I’m a fan without knowing it. That's the one with Robin swearing an oath in front of a candle on the cover, right?
CK: Yes, very good. That was really quite something. That was in pencil. I don’t know anybody who kicked about that.
CC: Well, pencils are usually inked for reproduction reasons. How was that handled?
CK: Here’s the thing: Dave draws, scans and colors his own work. So it’s one-stop shopping in terms of that.
CC: If any problems crop up, he can nip problems in the bud right when he’s there
CK: Yeah. And he really knows what he’s doing. So it’s pencil and he scans it in, and he’ll play with the contrast and stuff and do the lighting effects. The one thing I would say is that just today, I got a finished copy of the book, you really need to look … it’s so beautiful. The lighting effects, because a lot of it, frankly, I was seeing for the first time in terms of the final finished art. And the lighting is incredible. It’s luminous.
CC: Color is used sparingly, and when it is, it's muted. What was the thinking there?
CK: There’s faint color throughout. It’s like a great old black-and-white movie.
CC: Like a faded duotone. I hadn't thought of it that way. So who decided when and where to use color?
CK: We sort of went back and forth, and Dave was really great about sending us tests on everything, everything from, like, "This is how Bruce Wayne’s hair could look" in six different styles. And we’d all agree, "Oh, it’s definitely this one." And then he sent us color-tinting tests. And one of the great things he did really late in the process … one of the really brilliant touches that Dave did was he lit the streetlights in this kind of peachy color, and I don’t know if you guys have that, but New York definitely does. The streetlights are this kind of light peach. And if you’re up high in a building at night, which there area a lot of shots of in the book, you see this grid of these glowing peach lines. And he put that in. I don’t know if that made the galley or not. And there’s really nice touches at beginning and the end.
CC: Obviously, this book is out of continuity, right?
CK: Yes, that was the other really nice thing. They really let me pretty much do whatever we I want, because they said from the get-go look we know you’re a fan, and we know you’re really respectful of the character so we don’t have to worry about you doing something that the Batman character wouldn’t do or would be against his moral code.
You know, I created like five, six characters, that’s pretty cool.
CC: Any plans to use those characters again? Any chance of a sequel?
CK: It's way too early for that. Obviously they could if they wanted to. I do think that they’re set in a very specific time and place. But I’d like to think X-Acto is a very interesting character and could pop up again in something else.
CC: He had an interesting outfit. So did The Joker, with those jodhpurs.
CK: The Joker’s outfit when he makes his entrance is the best ever. Especially the little belt that goes across the middle of his chest -- that’s a really cool detail. And that’s all Dave.
CC: Last question: Tell me about you and Batman. What's your attraction to the character, when did you fall in love with the character? What’s the story of Chip and Batman?
CK: On the one hand it was the perfect conversion of events, I was born in 1964, the TV show started in ’66, I had my brother who was two years older who was really into it, and I was into whatever my older brother was into, so we were both really into it. And after that, I don’t know, there was just something about it, and I just thought,"Wow, this is just the greatest thing ever," and a lot of kids sort of got over that and moved on, and I just never did. Really as simple as that. I can’t think of any psychological reason or anything like that.
CC: But he's your favorite character?
CK: Pretty much. And I tried to get into that. There’s this scene where Batman finally finds the architect by accident by falling through the roof of the building. And I wanted them to have like a two- or three-page philosophical discussion of, like, design and architecture. But it was distilled down to the architect looking at him and saying "This is your solution to whatever problem you had, and whatever problem it was, it was probably a really, really bad one. But this is the form of that content."
And that’s very much me speaking. I think the whole concept of Batman as an image and an idea is really, really interesting, great design to me.