Chip KiddMost of us would be happy to succeed at just one of the many creative areas of art and publishing in which Chip Kidd seems to thrive.

Best known for his innovative, critically acclaimed work as a book-jacket designer, he's worked as a graphic designer for Knopf since he graduated from Penn State in the mid-1980s. A lifelong fan and serious student of American comics, he is also an editor at Pantheon, acquiring and overseeing a series of graphic novels by the likes of such previously underground comix artists as Chris Ware and Dan Clowes. He's designer-about-town, with a high-profile agent (ICM's Binky Urban); hobnobs with the best and brightest (poet J.D. McClatchy, editor of the Yale Review, is his significant other); and he's as much in demand as a party guest, raconteur and genial wit as he is as designer and editor.

And as if that weren't enough, the ebullient Kidd is now also a novelist. This month, Scribner publishes Kidd's The Cheese Monkeys, a tart and funny novel about a young graphic designer's freshman year of college, and the book is a tour de force for its multitalented author. The Chip Kidd checklist for October (he has four books coming out) encompasses the aforementioned novel from Scribner; Jack Cole and Plastic Man (Chronicle Books), a visual reference work and biography of the innovative and tragic cartoonist Jack Cole, with an essay by Pulitzer Prize—winning cartoonist Art Spiegelman; Peanuts: The Art of Charles Schulz (Pantheon), a comprehensive memorial compilation on the career and work of the late and popular cartoonist; and finally, a revised edition of the 1996 Batman Collected (Chronicle), Kidd's first book as author and designer.

The book on the late Jack Cole was developed from a New Yorker profile written by Spiegelman. The book is published to look very much like a yellowing but intact comic book from the 1940s—but printed on beautiful paper. "If you're going to show comics in a reference book, you should show how they looked, warts and all," Kidd says. This approach caught the eye of the Peanuts estate. Paige Radiff, Schulz's assistant at the time of his death and now creative director for the estate, knew and "totally dug" Kidd's design work and offered him full run of the Schulz studio. The cartoonist/designer Chris Ware, author of the graphic novel Jimmy Corrigan, whom Kidd edits for Pantheon, owns a rare scrapbook (he bought it on eBay) of the first three years of Peanuts beginning in 1950 and loaned it to Kidd for the book. "The concept was to make it as elaborate as possible, but also to make it affordable. I was astonished at how much free rein I was given—we were hauling out originals worth tens of thousands of dollars—and I attribute that to Paige and to Ginny, Schulz's wife."

Books on comics and graphics are to be expected from Kidd. But a novel about art school? "My dirty little secret for six years," Kidd tells PW, nestled in front of a drawing table in his mildly cluttered, book- and poster-lined office at Knopf. He says the novel was written during "evenings, weekends and extended vacations in a place faraway, in order to kind of steal myself away to do it. This is something I really want to seriously pursue. And I know it's going to be hard to be taken seriously at it, given what I normally do." The Cheese Monkeys is Kidd's paean to Penn State and to classmates and teachers from those years. In fact, the characters in the book are based on real people. "Everyone involved has read it and likes it," said Kidd. But it's "a novel, not a memoir," he emphasizes. "You can instantly make it a lot more interesting and just play God a little more. I was trying to capture the atmosphere, the feeling in that classroom."

Cheese Monkeys, which Kidd describes as "a screwball comedy about studying graphic design." is the story of Winter Sorbeck, a theatrically acerbic yet inspirational graphic design professor who manages to intimidate and enlighten his students at the same time. Although the book was originally conceived as a multigenerational saga, Urban told him, "This isn't one book, it's three; and the art school stuff is the most interesting," reports Kidd. "Limits free you up," Kidd adds, tossing out a Sorbeckian maxim. "So the more I limited myself, the more I kept paring it down, the better it became."

Hitting the Ground Running

Kidd arrived at Knopf in the 1986 with a degree in graphic design from Penn State and began working as an assistant to Sarah Eisenmann, the Knopf art director at the time.. "Of course, the pay was abysmal," says Kidd laughing, "but they said you can use your office to freelance on your own time and if your jacket designs get approved, your name goes on the flap. Naive as I was, I knew that was as good as money." A string of memorable book jackets followed—among them Katherine Dunn's Geek Love; Cormac McCarthy's All the Pretty Horses; Donna Tartt's The Secret History, Thomas Glynn's Watching the Body Burn—all notable for a bracing combination of literary and visual élan.

Kidd credits the recording industry's switch to CDs and the subsequent death of the album cover for the rise in prestige of book-jacket art. "The book cover became the last vestige for graphic designers to have a place to play." And he credits Knopf and Sonny Mehta for providing him with a special creative playground. "I don't go to marketing meetings. We don't have jacket meetings," says Kidd. "It's just one book at a time, let's see what we can do, not having any preconceptions. There's a great quote from Alexei Brodovitch when he was art director of Harper's Bazaar: 'Astonish me.' That's pretty much the implicit message from Sonny."