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Chip Kidd vs Superman, pet peeves, and the advantages of obscurity

2011 March 12

Reading about the terrible earthquake in Japan (and the subsequent tsunami, and the nuclear power station…) yesterday left me at a bit of a loss, for a while. It sometimes feels like recent years have just seen a series of one disaster after another, and though I suppose that, for any one person, some of them resonate and some don’t, this one gave me pause.

I don’t know anyone personally affected, but all the same it felt like my usual online ditherings and ballyhoo just seemed awfully petty and self-absorbed in context.

Realistically, though, most of what I write here is always pretty trivial stuff, in the midst of a world where there are always bad things happening. Yet in the midst of that world, on most days, most of us try to get up and live life, which let’s face it involves more “sniffles” than anything else.

Still, if at present the trivial and petty nature of my writing, here, is brought home a bit more forcefully than usual, I actually feel like perhaps I should just go with that. As long as I’m obviously being petty, why not be really petty?

Which mildly perverse notion, then, forms the preface for some remarks on a controversy reported today by Rich Johnston’s Bleeding Cool web site. (Note: if anyone doesn’t want to read a lot of petty and self-indulgent tittle-tattle right now, I completely understand; otherwise, read on.)

So, by way of background, Chip Kidd is a graphic designer well-regarded for his book cover design and, within American comics, almost synonymous with the very concept of “graphic design” as a specialized art which it is possible to do well.

Which, over the years, has become an ongoing pet peeve for me.

I probably would not care especially much of course, if at all, if I were not myself a graphic designer, a book cover designer and someone with a deep interest in and appreciation for American comics. This I must imagine suggests at least the appearance of a degree of envy; if it does, it does.

I think of my complaint, however, more as an issue of fairness; I’m big on fairness. I’m well aware of the phenomenon known as “the superstar effect” and why it exists. But I don’t believe that I am obligated to accept its results as fair, or to be “above” feeling some frustration and annoyance about a specific manifestation of said phenomenon which from my personal perspective happens to seem especially silly and egregious.

Which, honestly, I think may be said for American comics publishers’ and fans’ myopic adoration of Kidd to the nearly complete exclusion of all other designers. So far as I can tell, at least, America’s comic book industry and comics fan community has a perception of graphic designers, as named individuals of noteworthy talent, which could be visually represented like this:

Chart depicting American comics community's perception of graphic design world

I don't think I'm really exagerrating

Which, given the fact that as noted there are quite a lot of talented graphic designers at work today, and probably even a sizeable number of graphic designers who are talented and like comics and live or work within a six-block radius of the New York offices of comics publisher Marvel, alone, seems just a bit unreasonable.

(Especially given that America’s comics community, when it comes to other creative fields, loves to beat its collective breast about big names seen as grabbing recognition at the expense of other talented but less well-known creators. Just look up the name “Bill Finger,” for example. Or try referring to one of Marvel’s flagship characters as the creation of Stan Lee without giving at least equal emphasis to Jack Kirby or Steve Ditko.)

Of course, I should note that yes, there is such a thing as keeping matters in perspective. I’ve never even met Chip Kidd; I know people who have and from all I hear he’s a splendid, entertaining fellow. It’s not Kidd, personally, but rather the repeated mentions of his name in comments on design of books and comics, almost to the exclusion of any other designer at least in the latter, which is really what annoys me.

And even that, believe what one will, doesn’t annoy me all that much. I think everyone has pet peeves and many of us really do, somewhat intentionally, love and indulge them like pets. I recall a college art professor who occasionally referred to some painter of bland, inoffensive but commercially-super-successful landscapes (whose name I forget); this artist annoyed my professor in some small way but it was an annoyance which raised a laugh rather than blood pressure.

Likewise me and Chip Kidd’s popularity, I think, and for that matter a lot of things which I find unfair in the world. I believe that, in considering the injustices of the world and other offenses, a useful standard to keep in mind is whether or not one’s frustration has a greater negative impact on one’s life and happiness than the actual source of frustration. If it does, it’s probably time to step back and re-evaluate.*

As for me and Chip Kidd, though, it appears that out of 237 published blog posts I’ve taken a gentle dig at him twice, in addition to probably a handful of comments on other sites. So, personally at least, I feel like I can afford to enjoy a brief moment of schadenfreude at the very comics community which has lavished praise upon Mr. Kidd turning around to mutter and shake their heads at Kidd’s terrible heresy.

To finally get around to what must be one of the most deeply-interred “leads” which even my burial skills have ever managed, then, Rich Johnston reported today that Chip Kidd recently said less-than-complimentary things about the cover artwork for All Star Superman #1. And, subsequently, various Twitterati have had some less-than-complimentary things to say about Chip Kidd.

Imagine my heartbreak. 😉

And on top of the basic irony, from my perspective, there is additional humor to the situation given my own opinions on the subject of Kidd’s criticism. Because, aside from Kidd’s awkward use of the term “gay,” I don’t personally see anything really objectionable in his comments. The cover art for All Star Superman doesn’t particularly strike me as good or bad, but I can understand the ways Kidd describes it bugging him.

What’s more, though I’ve not read the entire series, I did pick up the first issue of All Star Superman a year or two ago when it was reissued as a one-dollar promotion… and I’ve hardly felt compelled to seek out the rest of the story. If other people revere the work, that’s fine with me, but personally, based on the first issue I thought it was basically ridiculous.

And now, listen. Do you hear that…? The clacking of keyboards? The crackling of “flames?”

No, you probably don’t. Despite the fact that I just used the term “ridiculous” to describe a part of the venerated All Star Superman. And, I’m guessing, no one’s going to care. Because unlike “Chip Kidd,” they’ve never heard of “Matt Kuhns.” And so won’t feel the need to blog, comment or tweet about or even give the slightest attention to what I said about All Star Superman, unlike the well-known Chip Kidd. Funny, that.

Yes, given the opportunity I would probably very much like to design for some more-widely-read books, and/or for big (or any) comic publishers. But fame? Hm, yeah, at least for its own sake I’ve never really gotten particularly excited or envious about anyone’s fame. Which attitude, I think, continues to suit me perfectly fine.

* By an interesting coincidence, this concept is sort of the “moral” of a little gem of a Superman story I discovered recently, titled Mann and Superman.

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