As a book jacket designer for respected U.S. publisher Alfred A. Knopf, Chip Kidd has worked with authors from Cormac McCarthy to Michael Crichton to Haruki Murakami. He is also a twice-published novelist, graphic designer, and comics fanatic hence Bat-Manga!: The Secret History of Batman in Japan. Kidd talked to TIME about his superhero obsession, why books will never die, and the almighty power of Oprah Winfrey.
So, you're pretty much obsessed with Batman, huh?
Yes, though I like to think in a healthy way.
Why him above all other superheroes?
I really liked the design of Batman. I liked the concept. There's a lot more you can do with Batman than most other superheroes. Like Superman. Superman's basically an omnipotent god. Batman is the flip side of that, which is a lot easier for people to relate to.
What's the story behind this crazy Batman/Japanese comic book you're putting out?
I've published several books on the lore and the toys and the this and the that of Batman. When the Batman TV show came out in 1966, it was a global hit. But Japan was the only country in the world that contacted DC Comics and said, "We want to license the right to write and draw our own Batman and Robin stories." These stories appeared for exactly a year, from April '66 to May '67. And they kind of came and went. They were never collected, never translated. They just appeared and then vanished.
How was it different than the American version? I noticed one comic where Batman was fighting a man who could change into a praying mantis, a drill bit, a pterodactyl...
They took it back to the '40s, where there wasn't any deep psychological exploration, just a slam-bang fun thing. There's this one villain called Lord Death Man, and his ability is basically to die. But much more importantly, he comes back to life and starts to haunt Batman's dreams. All kinds of wonderful weird things happen that don't get explained.
I've seen pictures of your place and you have tons of collectibles. What the oddest one you have?
There's a water gun from England, which is a figural water gun of Batman basically bent over...I don't know how far you want me to go with this.
No, keep going.
I was amazed that this thing got made. It's legit, too, not a knockoff. His arms are behind his back. The water comes out of his mouth and the trigger of the gun is basically...what you think it would be. The plug you pull out and put more water in is, well, the other end.
Which Batman incarnation have you enjoyed more, the campy '60s one or the grim, "I want to commit suicide if I have to watch half an hour more of this" Dark Knight from this past summer?
There are aspects of all the various incarnations that I like. The animator Bruce Timm, I think, got it best. He was the art director and designer for Batman: The Animated Series. The opening credits are the single best Batman movie that anybody has ever made. It's about 45 seconds and there's no dialogue or words on the screen. It's brilliantly done and looks like a 1930's German Expressionist movie.
Aside from ones you've worked on, what are some of your recent favorite book jackets?
The cover for James Frey's A Million Little Pieces. Since all that's happened with that book, the cover is the only aspect of it that has emerged with its dignity intact. The cover works regardless of whether it's a novel or a memoir or what have you.
Do you still work on as many book jackets as you used to?
I still have a steady stream of book cover work. I'm greatful for it. Viva le book! I often get asked, "Is the book dead?" It hasn't happened yet. It's different than music. Music was always meant to be pure soundit started out as pure sound and now it's pure sound again. But books started out as things. Words on paper began as words on paper. The paperback book is the best technology to deliver that information to you.
Do covers sell books?
I wouldn't buy a book simply because I like the cover. I would pick it up. The jacket can call your attention to it. But in that sense, Oprah Winfrey is worth all the jackets in the world. A jacket is basically trying to do what she does all on her own.