Best known for reinvigorating book design with stunning jackets for books by James Ellroy, Michael Crichton, Cormac McCarthy, Haruki Murakami, and Donna Tartt, Chip Kidd has also quietly sustained a sideline as an historian of all things Batman. After overseeing a number of nonfiction volumes as designer and editor (Batman Collected, Batman Animated, and Bat-Manga! among them), Kidd has now written his first original graphic novel featuring the Dark Knight. Commissioned by DC and featuring evocative art by Dave Thomas, Batman: Death by Design concerns a plan to demolish Gotham City’s Wayne Central Station, and those who will do anything to put a stop to it. As Kidd explained in a recent phone interview, much of the story stems not only from his own design-oriented eye, but also from his fascination with the sad fate of New York City’s original Penn Station.
PWCW: What was the genesis of this particular project?
Chip Kidd: About three-and-a-half years ago, I was invited to interview Neil Gaiman onstage at the 92ndStreet Y on the twentieth anniversary of Sandman. Afterwards, backstage, the head of DC Comics, Dan DiDio, came up to me and said, out of the blue, “You should do a Batman story for us.” I was completely taken aback. And I said, “You know, you shouldn’t say that unless you really mean it.” And he said, “I mean it. Let’s follow up and see what happens.”
PWCW: There’s a sort of “Jane Jacobs in Gotham City” [Jacobs is the renowned urban planner and author The Death and Life of Great American Cities] aspect to the story you came up with. What inspired the urban planning angle of Death by Design?
CK: I started with the title, actually. That occurred to me first—and it hadn’t been taken yet, in seventy years. I was trying to figure out what I could possibly bring to this mythology that would at least approach unique, or that I had some particular expertise in. I started thinking about examples not just of bad design in the city, but of design crimes in the city—and the destruction of Penn Station has always been near the top of my list. I take the train a lot and am in and out of Penn Station in New York all the time. It’s the airless, fluorescent-lit basement of Madison Square Garden. Yet over 700,000 people move in and out of it every day. And it’s just horrible. [The demolition of the old Penn Station in 1963] is a classic case of urban crime. So, that’s a great component in [the story].
Also, in the ‘70s, certain forces were gathering to do the same thing to Grand Central Station. By that time, the Landmarks Preservation Commission had been put in place, but they were trying to do it anyway. And the most high profile and famous defender of Grand Central Station was Jacqueline Onassis. So I loved that idea of this great, high-profile socialite female character [Cyndia Syl] stepping in to try to save Wayne Central Station.
PWCW: Was the argument to justify the demolition of the old Penn Station similar to the argument used in the book to justify the destruction of Wayne Central Station?
CK: No. The idea of a corrupt union that was manufacturing planned obsolescence to keep itself working in perpetuity is part of Death by Design, but in real life the building was falling into disrepair because they had failed to do the upkeep. In the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, there was a surge of car commuter traffic. So the question was, “Why do we need two big giant behemoth train stations?” So, while collectively nobody was looking, they voted to get rid of it.
PWCW: Being a designer, was it strange to take part in a visual medium without providing the visual side of it?
CK: Well, I was more than just the writer. I was very much the art director. DC gave me a lot of leeway, and the artist gave me a lot of leeway, too. It was more than just writing the script, it was establishing a basic visual look and saying, “Okay, what if Fritz Lang was making a Batman movie in the ‘30s and had a huge budget and could cast Montgomery Clift and Grace Kelly in the starring roles?”
PWCW: How did you get paired up with Dave Taylor?
CK: I was paired up with him by our editor at DC Comics, Mark Chiarello. Mark said, “Look, I know of this guy who’s really good at facial expressions and really, really good at architecture, who I think would be willing to take this on.” And Dave ended up pretty much devoting three years of his life to it. To find someone who’s good and also happened to be available—we were very, very lucky.
PWCW:So, I take it your experience with DC was a good one?
CK: Yes, it was. Really, the only frustration is that it took about a year and a half longer than we thought it was going to. But it’s a classic situation and we just all had to be patient, so that Dave could finish it and do it right. There’s no point in trying to rush something like this. We also had the luxury of not being within the DC continuity at all. So we waited to schedule the book until all the art was done.
PWCW: I understand you have also designed a forthcoming book that documents the making of Christopher Nolan’s trilogy of Batman films [The Art and Making of the Dark Knight Trilogy, from AbramsComics Arts].
CK: Yeah, that will come out the day The Dark Knight Rises comes out. It’s about the whole trilogy but there’s a lot about the third film. And as we all know, they’re being very careful about how much of that is made public before the movie releases.
PWCW: Do you think you might do something like this again?
CK: From your lips to DC’s ears. I would love to do something again. There are so many possibilities – all sort of things you could do [with Batman].