NYC’s Society of Illustrators Shows Off Chip Kidd’s Batman
Maybe it’s just what happens when a young art-form loses its innocence, or maybe it’s about where we are as a culture, but comic books have become very Web 2.0: dynamic, free-associative melodrama has been replaced by knowing riffs and re-mixes of recognizable tropes and broad-stroke bullet points, with a vanishing distance between fan and creator. This isn’t an unalloyed good, but the exhibit at the Society of Illustrators, “Chip Kidd Presents: Batman Black and White: The Sketch Covers,” an exhibit of work done on comic book sketch covers, is fascinating because you see this new normal both in the art itself and in the way it’s presented.
Sketch covers are a relatively recent innovation. They’re regular comics published with covers that are blank, save for the logo and price, made for the express purpose of being used by artists for sketches commissioned by fans. They’re mass-market products meant to be personalized. Chip Kidd, award-winning designer, writer, and Batman expert (himself blurring the line between fan and professional), wrote a story in an issue of the comic, “Batman: Black And White,” and when it was published he gave sketch covers to various artists he knew, asking them for sketches of Batman. Or, more accurately, ‘Batman,’ because the sketches are less about the character than mythos surrounding him – city, shadows, sidekick, costume, gadgets, impossible acrobatics through an expressionistic night – filtered through the artist’s own interests and frames of reference. The comics are the bases of the sketches both literally, done on comics themselves, and figuratively, in that the character is the raw material for the artist’s variation.
So, for illustrator and alt-comics artist Peter Kuper, Batman is an icon and gets mashed-up with another icon whose own image long ago left behind what the actual man stood for. Depending on who you ask, Che Guevara can be Batman or the Joker or, for most people, just some cool-looking dude in a beret that covers up the water stain on your dorm room wall . . . It’s a good pairing: both Batman and Che are/were men on missions, easily misunderstood and misinterpreted, probably as narcissistic as they are concerned with the general welfare, with the former being the key to their effectiveness concerning the latter. It’s a sketch cover so of course it could just be a throwaway. But the more I stared at it, the more I saw in it, the more I could read in it, which is of course what happens with any good icon.
For graphic designer Paula Scher, Batman is not a person or character but a commoditized aesthetic, all scalloped arches and dark shapes, which she deconstructs and reassembles into a font.
Art Spiegelman is one of many artists to focus on the Batman-Robin relationship, showing them kissing, a variation on his own iconic 1993 New Yorker cover. Roz Chast treats them as an old married couple, Christoph Niemann sees pals goofing around, card-carrying genius Alison Bechdel has them as established, bougie, with good bods from yoga and the elliptical, not from fighting crime, and Maurice Vellekoop gives us an enviably hot couple, post-coital, faces flushed and happy. There are more than a few that focus on sexuality. Erotic-fantasy artist Olivia focuses on the dom-sub play inherent in the Batman/Catwoman dynamic as well as the fetish-feel of the costumes, and Japanese manga artist Gengoroh Tagame draws on the eroticism of Batman’s hyper-masculinity.
But ultimately, as a comic book fan of long-standing, with admittedly mainstream tastes, my favorites were those without irony, which hewed most closely to Batman as hero, of crime-fighter as expression of our own uncomplicated desire to do good.
My favorite was from veteran Daredevil artist Lee Weeks, a simple black and white, pen and ink shot of Batman, dropping from the dark – so cool, so thrilling – eyes narrowed in concentration, jaw set in determination, and chest out, as if that was all that was needed to beat any foe.