Comics are, by nature, nostalgic. Look at Winsor McCay‘s work from the early 1900s and you’ll find that his Little Nemo strips aren‘t all that distant in spirit from the late 20th- and 21st-century comics of Chris Ware, or Daniel Clowes, or the Hernandez Brothers, or Seth, all of whom can evoke another time even as they’re telling thoroughly modern stories. Even the titles of some recent comics — Palookaville, The Golem‘s Mighty Swing, Louis Riel and Jimmy Corrigan: Smartest Kid in the World — are as wistful as their drawings are handsome. And lately, with the publication of numerous reprint and tribute collections (The Spirit Archives; Supergirl Archives; several volumes of Walt Kelly’s Pogo; and the upcoming Krazy Kat and Ignatz: The Komplete Kat Komics, a celebration of comics legend and L.A. native George Herriman), we seem to be enjoying a sustained interest in comics history.
At the heart of many of the more fetching recent projects is Chip Kidd, editor, author, graphic designer and creator of more than 1,500 book jackets for Alfred A. Knopf. Batman Collected is the latest product of the designer‘s well-known fixation with the Caped Crusader, and he and Art Spiegelman co-authored Jack Cole and Plastic Man: Forms Stretched to Their Limits. Kidd also edited some of the comics world’s best new work, including Ware‘s Jimmy Corrigan and Clowes’ David Boring. In Peanuts: The Art of Charles M. Schulz, Kidd rummaged through Schulz‘s studio in order to compile an intimate look at the late artist’s work. A little earlier in the year, Kidd and artist Tony Millionaire (Maakies, Sock Monkey) contributed an ironically dark story of the Dark Knight to DC‘s Bizarro, a zany compilation of alternative-comics artists riffing on traditional DC characters. And finally, though not a comics work, Kidd’s first literary endeavor, Cheese Monkey: A Novel in Two Semesters, was published in December by Scribner. Recently, I got a chance to ask Kidd about nostalgia, comics and good book covers gone bad.
L.A. WEEKLY: You have a keen sense and respect for Golden Age comics. When did you become interested in that era and its look?
CHIP KIDD: First, there was Jules Feiffer‘s The Great Comic Book Heroes [published in 1965]. But even better than that, what really woke me up to Golden Age comics was when DC did all those wonderful reprints [beginning in the early ’70s] of the first issues of their titles, but at tabloid size. “Famous First Editions,” they were called. I think I was in second or third grade, and I thought those things were the coolest ever, especially Detective No. 27, Batman No. 1, Action No. 1, Superman No. 1 . . . I just thought, “Wow, comics used to be so cool.” Especially Batman, because he had changed so much.
You‘ve said that you are “a sucker for the false promises of comic books.”
You could say that about any kind of escapism. But this promise of a world where it’s very clear who the enemy is, and after a certain amount of struggle you just defeat them — all of the rules and the way they‘re set up — it’s really very seductive, very addictive. Seductive to a, frankly, juvenile personality. Which is what I have.
What do you think about the direction in which Frank Miller took the Dark Knight?
I was a huge fan of the first one [Batman: The Dark Knight Returns], which was in four chapters. But I think a Pandora‘s box was opened. It’s not like he had any control over it, I don‘t blame Miller at all, just the bad imitators that he spawned. And it really seemed to take the fun out of it. That said, I think someone like Bruce Timm and the Warner Bros. animation people put the fun right back into it [cf. Batman: The Animated Series, ’92–‘95.]
I finished one of The Spirit Archives before picking up Plastic Man. I noticed that the artwork for The Spirit had been a cleaned up and printed on stark white pages, where you and Art Spiegelman reproduced Plastic Man from scans of the original pulp printing. In other words, you kept the look of the comics as readers originally saw it.
Certainly that was always the intent: to preserve the innate comic-ness of the comics. Both Art and I have publicly taken issue with this idea of bleaching all the color out and starting over — and what’s worse, starting over on a computer. It seems totally counterintuitive to the idea of archiving a comic. Why would you want to do that and not preserve the way the comic actually looked? Sanitized is what it ends up looking like.
What was it like to be in Charles Schulz‘s studio and have access to his archives when you were doing the Peanuts book?
It was bittersweet. I never actually got to meet him, which was sad. But it was exhilarating at the same time. The trust they put in us was extraordinary. When we were at his studio, they just left us alone for hours and hours to poke around. “Archive” is a generous term for what we found there. It was not organized in any way at all. Now they’re putting the Schulz museum together in Santa Rosa, so I can imagine that it‘s becoming archived in a way.
In contrast, when we went out to Warner Bros. animation to do the book on the Batman cartoon show, we would go down into their archive, which was staffed by three people, and we would say, “All right, I want the original background painting for Scene 3 of Episode 122,” and in 20 minutes we would have it. That was fantastic. There was nothing like that on Peanuts. It was more of a scavenger hunt.
I know that there was a problem with the cover that you and Dan Clowes were working on for Bizarro. What happened there? As much as I’m a fan of Matt Groening (who did the final cover), I just thought that a cover by you and Dan would‘ve kicked ass.
Obviously, I agree. What happened was, I was supposed to art-direct the cover of the Bizarro collection and contribute a story. There were a couple ideas I came up with when [the people at DC] said to me, “Would you consider approaching Dan Clowes on our behalf to draw it?” I said, “Certainly, but don’t get your hopes up.” So I asked, and to my surprise he did say yes.
We all assumed, wrongly as it turns out, that it was a fait accompli. And when I saw what he had done, I was greatly relieved because it was so, frankly, uncontroversial. He didn‘t have Wonder Woman mud-wrestling Black Canary and sticking her in the eye with a high-heeled shoe. Which, as far as I was concerned, was not out of the realm of possibility.
I sent it over to DC, and to my amazement they proceeded to look at it with the eye that it was too similar to an actual DC “Spectacular” from the ’60s. They thought people would get confused.
If you had to recommend a shortlist for people discovering or re-discovering comics, what titles might you include?
The obvious suspects: Chris [Ware]‘s book [Jimmy Corrigan], [Dan Clowes’] Ghostworld, certainly Maus by Spiegelman. I‘m a big fan of [Alan Moore’s] Watchmen, but I don‘t know if I would fob that off on someone who’s never read a comic in his life. Oh, and definitely Batman: Year One by Frank Miller and David Mazucchelli. It‘s as good as it got.