Comic-Con: Book-cover designer, Penn State grad is one of the big draws

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The consensus on the state of Comic-Con International is that it's gone so Hollywood as it enters its 41st year, the comic-book lovers and genre geeks who began it all are left out in the cold.

Not so. They may have a small piece of the growing pie, but for the tens of thousands of fans invading the San Diego Convention Center from preview night tonight through Sunday -- when members of the cast of "Glee" will close out the Con -- the tough choices are not just competing panels of TV ("Chuck," "Family Guy," "The Simpsons") vs. movies ("The Green Lantern" and "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows").

Sure, the supersized programming has the wow factor of Angelina Jolie at the panel for "Salt," which opens Friday, and the anticipation of a surprise -- perhaps Brad Pitt joining co-stars Will Ferrell and Tina Fey for the "Megamind" gathering?

The schedule also includes a masquerade ball, video game demos, merchandise, expert panels and the opportunity to rub elbows with the superheroes of the comic-book and publishing worlds.

Folks like Chip Kidd.

If there's such a thing as a rock star book-cover designer, it's Charles "Chip" Kidd of Reading, Berks County, and Penn State, who has designed jackets for books by authors as diverse as John Updike, David Sedaris and Michael Crichton, including the dinosaur silhouette for "Jurassic Park."

"One of the things I've been continuously thrilled about," he said in a recent phone interview, "is to be able to incorporate comics into my, quote, day job. That I did not anticipate at all."

He's coming to Comic-Con this year as a two-time Eisner Award-winner for the book "Batman Animated" and as a publisher for Random House's graphic novel imprint, Pantheon, which will have a booth for the first time. Among his duties is joining other pros at the panel "Comics Design: How do pages of art become a book?" and promoting his fall release, "Shazam! The Golden Age of the World's Mightiest Mortal."

Even if he was not obligated to attend, he'd be there as a fanboy.

"I go because I love to see everything. All this other stuff is fine, but I love to wander around and see the original art."

Mr. Kidd's relationship to the world of "Peanuts" is a happy coincidence in the year that one of Comic-Con's themes is the comic strip's 60th anniversary.

He created the memorable cover for the biography "Schulz and Peanuts" by David Michaelis. Yellow with black cartoon-bubble type, it has one graphic element: a horizontal zigzag, immediately conjuring Charlie Brown's shirt. Michael Noer, executive editor of Forbes magazine, counted the book jacket among the four best ever.

At the request of Charles M. Schulz's estate and United Media, the comic strip's syndicate, Mr. Kidd was asked to create a tribute book soon after the death of the Peanuts creator. He eventually met with Mr. Schulz's longtime assistant, Paige Braddock, and had access to the archive before it was given over to create the museum in Santa Rosa, Calif. The result was "The Art of Charles M. Schulz," patterned after a trilogy he had designed for DC Comics characters: "Superman: The Complete History," and the same for Batman and Wonder Woman.

"[Mr. Schulz's] widow, Jeannie, who was great and very supportive, said to me our timing was perfect, because it was the summer after he died, and she said before that would have been too soon, but if we waited longer, the entire studio would have been disassembled because they had started to break ground for what is now the [Charles M. Schulz] Museum. So basically things were in the state of limbo where we just had the run of the studio. We just poked through everything. On the one hand, I felt horribly guilty, very much regretting that I never made the effort to try and meet him. But at the same time, it was great. In a lot of ways, it would be much harder to do that book now. You'd need the cooperation of the museum."

Mr. Kidd's work appears like a road map through popular culture -- in Vanity Fair, Entertainment Weekly, The New Republic, Time, The New York Times, New York and I.D. magazines. His awards include the International Center of Photography's honor for Use of Photography in Graphic Design, and he is a regular contributor to the op-ed page of the Times. He has been the design consultant for the Paris Review since 1995.

The sought-after writer and speaker on the subjects of graphic design and pop culture also has delivered two novels: "The Cheese Monkeys," about a freshman studying art at "a state university," and its sequel, "The Learners."

He said his time at Penn State continues to influence his work.

"Oh, hugely, and I go back to this day and stay in touch with my main teacher there, [professor of graphic design] Lannie Sommese. The emphasis was on concept. When I was there, it was all pre-computer, which, frankly, I'm very grateful for. We had to craft everything by hand, and I thought that was very important. The main emphasis was on conceptual thinking, and that's extremely important regardless of the medium you're using."

That's not to say Mr. Kidd doesn't take advantage of technology. He's an entertaining speaker at graphic design conferences and there are YouTube videos with the designer as interview subject or interviewer. For instance, he can be seen onstage interviewing author Neil Gaiman as part of the 92nd Street Y lecture series in New York.

He held a contest on his website to ask readers for questions, because although he knows the award-winning author, "fans know everything. I never would have known, for instance, that he does such a great impersonation of William Shatner."

Not to be outdone, Mr. Kidd can be seen on YouTube with a promotional video for "The Learners," in which he offers a few impersonations of his own, including Jimmy Stewart channeling Eminem. He created the video on a lark but noted the growing popularity of book trailers as a promotional tool.

While at Comic-Con, he's not sure which of his fans will show up for his appearances. It could be those interested in his revealing "Bat-Manga!," a book that chronicles the Caped Crusader as a phenomenon in Japan. Or it could be attendees like the guy who showed up at C2E2 (Chicago Comic & Entertainment Expo) in April. He brought 40 jackets from different books for Mr. Kidd to sign.

"It was very charming. But it's all over the place. Some people bring comic-books related stuff, some people bring novels-related stuff. I'm always just thrilled and amazed whenever anybody shows up."

Sharon Eberson: or 412-263-1960.


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