In a world that judges a book by its cover, Chip Kidd is a visual genius in high demand. The author, graphic designer and pop-culture connoisseur is the art director for American publisher Alfred A. Knopf, but like many of the superheroes he adores, Kidd has a secret identity as a “Batman purist.”
The 44-year-old (who has designed memorable covers for the novels of Cormac McCarthy, James Ellroy, Larry McMurtry, Elmore Leonard and Michael Crichton) had a childhood fascination with the caped crusader that has turned into an full-fledged obsession. More than a collector, Kidd has been both an archival force and a sort of safari hunter when it comes to intepretations of the superhero throughout pop culture.
That leads to Kidd’s latest book, “Bat-Manga! The Secret History of Batman in Japan," now in stores and uncovering a nearly forgotten history: At the peak of the 1960s Batman craze, Shonen King, the weekly manga anthology, licensed the rights to publish its own Batman and Robin tales in which the Dynamic Duo brawled with aliens, mutated dinosaurs and immortal villains. But the yearlong run of stories were never collected in Japan nor translated into English … until now. The new release from Pantheon Books includes hundreds of pages of Batman manga comics more than four decades old alongside striking photographs of vintage Japanese Batman toys. There is also a $60 limited edition with a different cover and an adventure written by Jiro Kuwata, the manga guru who wrote and drew the 1960s material. All 7,000 copies of those limited editions are signed by Kidd.
Kidd will be in Los Angeles signing copies of his book at Meltdown Comics (7522 Sunset Boulevard) on Nov. 12 at 7 p.m. A new writer here at the Los Angeles Times, Yvonne Villarreal, chatted with Kidd the other day and put together this Hero Complex Q&A. Hope you enjoy.
YV: What is it about Batman that first captivated you?
Kidd: I was 2 years old when the TV show [starring Adam West] came out and so that was the main thing that got me into it. And, of course, it was a revolutionary show for its time so it had this massive appeal even to kids at a very young age just from the way it looked and the way it moved. And then, of course, as you get older, you start reading the comics. I got more into the story of it and the whole mythology around the character. It was well constructed as a piece of lore.
YV: As a graphic artist, do you find Batman aesthetically appealing?
Kidd: Definitely. I liked the whole design of the character and the way that he looked sort of like a demon even though he was a good guy.
YV: You’ve designed highly recognizable book jackets, including "Jurassic Park" and "The Road." Can you recall the first Batman cover that caught your attention?
Kidd: I must have been like 2 or 3. My brother was two years older. It would have been a Detective Comics from like 1966 or ’67. Definitely would have been drawn by Carmine Infantino.
YV: What was it like, as an artist, to see some of the illustrations from the Japanese comics that are included in the book?
Kidd: They’re very unique. What’s interesting about it … for Batman fans, the real surprise is that they’ll have never seen any of this or even heard of it. That’s pretty radical. That’s like somebody finding five new Beatles songs that no one has ever heard of.
YV: When did they appear in Japan?
Kidd: They started in April 1966 and ended May 1967.
YV: When did you first become aware of the Japanese comics?
Kidd: I became aware of them about 10 years ago through a collector named Saul Ferris, who is one of the co-collaborators on this book.
YV: Do you have any idea how successful they were in Japan?
Kidd: I can only surmise that it was ultimately seen as a failed experiment because certainly there wouldn’t have been any reason to stop it if it was doing well or attracting the readers that they wanted. I think, in a similar fashion, the Batman show itself burned out fairly quickly.
YV: Do you think the show’s initial success was what prompted Japan to buy the rights and release these comics?
Kidd: That’s definite. The artist, Jiro Kuwata, said so. The show was exported to Japan and they wanted to license the rights to do their own stories; to write and draw their own stories for their audience. And that’s what they did. And it was because of the show. Definitely.
YV: Do many of the story lines in Bat-Manga mimic the show?
Kidd: No. It’s interesting in that sense. It actually has almost nothing to do with the show other than the fact that … what links it to the show visually is the design of the Batmobile. He skews very, very closely to the design of the Batmobile from the show. Other than that, it’s much different. Robin’s much younger. Robin’s 10 years old again — which he certainly was not in the TV show; he’s in his 20s. And the design and look of the characters skews much closer to the American comics version of sort of the late ’40s , early 1950s, which I find very interesting.
Kidd: It’s kind of both. But it’s similar to a much earlier phase of Batman and Robin than was going on in the U.S. at the time. It’s almost as if, somehow, [Kuwata] went back to where their adventures were much stranger, much weirder than they had become.
Kidd:The only U.S. villain that he used is called Clayface. The appeal is obvious; whatever he thinks of he can sort of turn into, which gave Kuwata an excuse to draw all sorts of animals. He loves to draw animals. So he’d be turning into a beetle, a bird, a dinosaur … I think, for an artist, that was the appeal of Clayface.
YV: How did you go about putting the book together?
Kidd: We basically put it together piecemeal through dealers of vintage Japanese manga. Once we had enough together to make a coherent book proposal, we had to then submit it to DC Comics to get approval and then we had to strike a licensing deal with them in order to publish it.
YV: How long did the whole process take?
Kidd: Technically, you could say it took 10 years from getting the first copy to publication. Now that, of course, is not 10 continuous years of work. God! Can you imagine? But, I mean, yeah, we started amassing this around 1998.
Kidd: [Laughs] You know what? I was terrified because that was our sales force’s idea and I, you know, anything they were enthusiastic about, I wanted to do. I was very trepidatious about it. But the head of our production department is a genius and he realized that the way to do that would be to get — before we went to the bindery — all of the front-end papers shipped to us flat from China and so I signed all of those and then they shipped them off and then bound them into the book. I was literally able to do it in two days.
YV: Do you think Batman has a future in manga form?
Kidd: Um, well … yes, in that, you know, there’s this DVD that’s an adaptation of "Dark Knight" called Batman Gotham Night where they got some of the hottest anime directors to do their own short Batman cartoons. I mean, that’s a total coincidence. One has nothing to do with the other. But, I think, certainly there is a larger audience for Batman now in Japan than there was 40 years ago.
YV: Do you have a favorite Batman item from the vast collection?
Kidd: Uh…no. There’s just so much. One of the things … I was able to purchase some of the original art from Bat-Manga, from the artist himself. So that was very exciting for me.
Kidd: I would have to say my favorite is "Detectives Comics" No. 31 from 1939. It’s this really classic … kind of scary image of Batman looming large over a moonlit castle in the foreground. It really emphasizes the way Batman originally looked in the comics — which I really like — which is the huge ears and his eyes were just white flicks. It’s just a really cool-looking thing.
YV: Do you have a favorite incarnation?
Kidd: My favorite incarnation of Batman in a “movie” is Bruce Timm’s “Batman: The Animated Series.” Various episodes of that. I think, in terms of Batman in audio/visual context, those definitely are the most successful.
YV: So … does that mean you didn’t like "The Dark Knight"?
Kidd: [Laughs] I thought it was very skillfully done. Personally, as a Batman purist, I feel in the movies he looks too much a like a commando with bat ears. They completely skew away from the classic costume. I’m not so crazy about that. But I thought the whole handling of the Joker stuff was great. It actually very much harkens back to the very original tone and feeling of the character from 1940.
YV: Which actor in the Batman role do you think did the best job?
Kidd: I think Christian Bale is my favorite. I think the thing people have to understand is that with Batman movies the bigger challenge is to play Bruce Wayne than to play Batman. I think, of them all, he by far is the best Bruce Wayne.
YV: What are your thoughts on Robert Downey Jr. reprising his role as Iron Man?
YV: Do you have any upcoming projects?
Kidd: Yes, I’m working on a bunch of stuff. I’m hoping that we’re going to be able to do "Bat-Manga 2" because we have another full volume’s worth of stuff and I’m doing a book on Captain Marvel and a paperback of my second novel, "The Learners," comes out in January.
BONUS YouTube footage of Chip Kidd’s Comic-Con International presentation on "Bat-Manga"
Credits: All "Bat-Manga" images courtesy of Pantheon Books. All book covers designed by Chip Kidd.