The book cover master for Haruki Murakami on branding the Dark Knight and opening up his Batcave of sketches and Bat-Manga for a very special exhibition.
Do you remember the first time you saw the Bat? For me it was in a London library sometime in the early 1990s, when I picked up a book that featured the Batman on the trail of a chainsaw killer.
While I have never been able to find that book again – to the point I even wonder if it's just a false memory from my youth – it was a suitably moody introduction to the stark world of the Dark Knight, and one that saw me follow Bruce Wayne's adventures across the neon-choked vision of Batman Forever to the Art Deco artistry of the classic Batman Animated Series.
The artistry which Batman has inspired for his eighty years in existence has not only been responsible for groundbreaking cartoons and comic books, but also manga, computer games, prints and even inspired vinyl sleeves. There have been great covers for books of the non-graphic novel variety, too, like various Taschen anthologies and ephemera-related collections with jackets designed by the one and only Chip Kidd.
Chip is known for a variety of landmarks in the design world, ranging from the Jurassic Park logo to Haruki Murakami's most famous book covers. He's also celebrated in comic book circles as one of Batman's greatest fans and collectors, to the extent gems from his private collection are now on show for a new exhibition being held by the Society of Illustrators (SI).
Illustrating Batman: Eighty Years of Comics and Pop Culture will present original artwork from over 50 of the most accomplished and recognisable artists to work on Batman, including Frank Miller, Jim Lee, Brian Bolland, Paul Pope and Hellboy's Mike Mignola. Parts of the show include donations by Chip of various sketch covers and the wild manga art of Jiro Kuwata's 1960s Batman series.
"As a kid I grew up in a suburb of Philadelphia in the late '60s and early '70s," Chip tells me by email about his own discovery of the Bat, watching the classic Adam West Batman TV series. "Local cable television out of Philly was just coming into its own when it came to kids' after-school programming, and it was amazing, so many Japanese imports: Ultra-Man, Astro-Boy, Gigantor, Johnny Sacko, Prince Planet, Marine Boy, and especially 8th-Man, an obscure show but one which has a particular relevance to me (as you'll see).
"All of these shows were from the early-to-mid 1960s and I adored them, alongside Batman (of course), the Green Hornet, the Flintstones and everything else there was to see at the time.
"But the significance of 8th-Man — which I would only come to understand much later — was that he was drawn and co-created by Jiro Kuwata, who would then go on to draw the Japanese version of Batman comics in 1966 and 1967.
"If you get a chance to see any of the 8th-Man cartoons (above), please do; they are little masterpieces of design that were clearly done with no budget but with tremendous ingenuity."
Kidd would stumble across an incomplete collection of Kuwata's so-called Bat-Manga on a trip to Japan before releasing the strips for an edited collection over ten years back; DC Comics, home of the Batman since 1939, more recently released a comprehensive collection across three paperback volumes which are well worth a read.
The Kidd-Japan connection had always been a strong one before the Kuwata books, though; besides his love of 8th-Man and company as a child, the designer would soon conquer the market in his book designs for English translations of Japanese literature and manga.
This has continued to this day alongside his work for novels and non-fiction from the west, and it's fascinating to see how his style switches when working between the two. Take a look at Chip's cover for Gengoroh Tagame's manga novel My Brother's Husband for example, which puts the art front and centre, and separates the type out in white letters on red bands – very simple and matter-of-fact, and rather Japanese in style.
Out of his countless covers over the man's thirty-odd years in design (1,500 and counting for books, more when you include his ones for comics), there is one common motif, no matter the source country, and that's of half-hidden faces, so that one eye catches the reader's eye when looking at his jackets. It's striking enough to remind you of a certain Gotham vigilante who disguises half his face and often has white orbs for eyes. A subconscious influence on Kidd, perhaps?
"Yes, eyes!" Chip writes when I point out this ocular motif of his. "It's such a cop-out, I admit, but it works so well. 'Eyes are the window to the soul,' as the quote goes, and as a graphic they connect directly with the viewer. And the connection, if you do it right, is emotional, which is key.
"The challenge as with all designs," he continues, "is to figure out how to do it in a way that feels fresh and unique. With the the new Spider-Man #1 variant cover I did (below) for example, I had to make sure I wasn't stepping too hard on Alex Ross's cover for Marvels #4. Hopefully I pulled it off, as his depicts the left eye (hyper-realistically), with a reflection of what Spidey is seeing, whereas mine depicts the right eye (in a spray-paint abstraction), with its 'pupil' as the spider logo itself.
"The inspiration came from the storyline by J. J. Abrams and Henry Abrams; it is intended to suggest the passing the mantle of the wall-crawler from one generation to the next."
Chip's mention of comic book legend Alex Ross brings me back to the Batman and his dedicated exhibition at the SI's Museum of Illustration in New York (coincidentally, the city Peter Parker calls home.) Art by Ross like the below counts among the most popular pieces of the show.
"The times that I've been at the gallery, I've seen that people also really respond to the Jiro Kuwata art (probably because they didn't know it existed, and it's so amazing to see), along with the 'Black and White' cover drawings that I've collected over the years.
"Everything else too: Frank Miller's work, Frank Quitely's astonishing hyper-detailed pencil art for the entire issue of Batman and Robin #2, and all the work by the indie creators that I've commissioned over the years: Chris Ware (below), Dan Clowes, Charles Burns, David Mazzucchelli. The scope of all the work on display, over time and sensibility, is unprecedented."
"I think the most fascinating thing for audiences has been how the character evolved over time, decade by decade. I have never seen a comic book art show that covers this astonishing range of work in one place. It goes from 1942 to the present, and it really hits all the many, many bases: every significant era of Batman in actual pen-and-ink, and that is really saying something."
Chip himself has played a part in this rich history through his design work, having created an array of logos for Batman and other DC heroes over the years, adding his own mark to Frank Miller's All-Star Batman and Robin The Boy Wonder, Grant Morrison's All-Star Superman and the epic Final Crisis. He was also behind the 2000 redesign of the Batman titles trade paperback dress, along with merging the Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman emblems into one nifty logo for the 2003 Trinity series.
"I have been thrilled to do this work, and hope to do more," says Chip when I ask how it felt to add his own touch to the heroes of his youth, heroes who, I point out, are like designers themselves. After all, didn't Batman create his own emblem? And how about the on-brand stars and stripes of Wonder Woman's original uniform..?
"Well, this is a very meta-question," Chip responds, "because these fictional characters didn't design anything; their various creators did (obviously). And yet inevitably part of the storylines is that Batman created his own costume, Superman's Earth-Mother sewed his (with super-needles?), while Wonder Woman's was forged by her mother and the Amazons.
"Regardless, we are talking about branding here, and over time these have become some of the most iconic (and profitable, very important to note) symbols and branding systems of our time.
"I'd like to think that what makes them so resonant," Chip concludes, "is not only that they look cool, but most importantly what they stand for: tremendous power coupled with the pledge to SERVE mankind, not to RULE it."
Illustrating Batman: Eighty Years of Comics and Pop Culture is on show at The Society of Illustrators/Museum of Illustration in New York, having begun in June and finishing October 12, 2019.