Chip Kidd on Chip Kidd: Book One, Work: 1986-2006

Chip KiddThe occasion for my third conversation with famed graphic designer and New York personage Chip Kidd (talk #1 / talk #2) was his recent charm initiative in support of his career retrospective monograph, Chip Kidd: Book One, Work: 1986-2006.

Kidd, who is variously and arguably credited with revolutionizing book cover design (a claim which, if creditable, he will point out, applies more to the entire Knopf design department under the direction of Carole Carson Devine), is a lad of many parts. As has been acknowledged previously, he is a published novelist (The Cheese Monkeys), superhero and comic book devotee, book editor (Pantheon’s graphic novels), tchotchke collector, New York bon vivant, and well-traveled and frequent speaker to the global graphic design community—to speak with the voluble Chipster is to engage in a joyful and far-flung cultural conversation.

This time around Chip and I mull over commercial art, his work at Knopf, the nature of the cover design problem, John Updike, artists’ monographs (including his own), graphic novels, his burden as a novelist, Stanley Milgram’s landmark psych experiment, ballroom dancing, being big in Japan, his middle initial, and lots of witty, brainy, and urbane stuff.

Off camera (so to speak) we were talking about how much my son loves the superhero book that Chip edited.

Robert Birnbaum: You’re one of Cuba’s heroes.

Chip Kidd: Ah. It’s not me—that whole book is about another person. I just put it together.

RB: You personify the book for him, since you inscribed it to him.

CK: How old is he now?

RB: Almost eight.

CK: Wow, he’s like the perfect audience.

RB: Yes, he is. Let’s talk about you.

CK: [laughs]

RB: Does it seem to you that in our time the line between commercial and fine art is more and more blurry?

CK: Hmm.

RB: It’s almost non-existent.

CK: Oh, it exists. It exists big time. As is exemplified by the sale of Damen Hurst’s, the resale of Damien Hurst’s Pickled Shark for $8 million or whatever it was.

RB: A rare piece of comic art, a so-called collectible, never approaches that price?

CK: I see what you are saying. No, the record, for what it’s worth, for an original piece of comic art was reached this summer when the original art, the pen and ink drawing for Batman # 11 sold for $175,000.

RB: What about Disney stuff?

CK: That’s a good question. Those I don’t keep up with as much. Christie’s and Sotheby’s used to do one of those auctions at least once a year. I haven’t seen one in quite some time.

RB: That would be one way of understanding the divide between commercial and fine art, but what about when it is critiqued? Part of what I am thinking is that fine art has always been commercial art to a greater or lesser degree.

CK: I totally agree.

RB: Many of those old masters painted by commission.

CK: Sure, it was all commissioned work, portrait painting and all that stuff. But the divide is between what is perceived as fine art to go into a gallery. For instance, I am having a show in conjunction with this book. And Cooper Union is great and I really like them a lot, but the options for having it elsewhere are pretty slim.

RB: I just did a round-up of coffee table books for Boston Common and in addition to your book I noted a book about Manolo Blahnik’s shoes. If Armani can have a show at the Museum of Contemporary Art and Ralph Lauren’s cars can have a show at Boston’s MFA then—

CK: Right, where does it end? I don’t know. This may sound cynical but they have really great PR machines and—

RB: —plus they give money to these institutions.

CK: Right, there’s so much more money involved.

RB: Maybe we should think of commercial art as art that sells things as opposed to what is paid for by someone. That is, it’s not about being commissioned; it’s about the intention of the art.

CK: Right—the whole intention thing. It just all makes my head spin. One of my best friends is going into the gallery business, sort of a mid-life switch for him. He is going from being a banker to being a photography dealer. And he really wants to do it right. And he set up shop on 57th Street and it’s very fancy and very expensive and I hope it works, but I just don’t know how that stuff happens. He’s doing it because he loves that stuff.

RB: Frequently a bad reason to go into a business.

CK: Yeah, we’ll see. I was approached—I guess it’s all right to say this…Who cares? I was approached about a year ago by Larry Gogosian, to completely remake all his stuff. And we sort of danced around each other for a while and then he decided he didn’t want to dance anymore.

RB: You mean redesign his collateral material?

CK: Yeah. He is practically an art book publisher in and of himself.

RB: His catalogues?

CK: Yeah, anyway, that didn’t quite pan out, which is probably for the best. But it was an interesting idea.

RB: Of the few art books that Knopf publishes, you don’t do them?

CK: In terms of covers? Some. Nothing that you would ever remember. Nothing that even made it into that [the book]. We did a book on photography by Philippe Halsman.

RB: It must have been a while ago, early in your career?

CK: The early nineties and we did one called American Primitive when outsider art was kind of hitting. But again with this book, the frustrating thing was that as big and fat and overwrought as it is there is still not everything in it. The most interesting foray into designing an art book was one that I did in conjunction with Chuck Close and John Guare wrote the text. It was about what happened to Close’s career during and after his accident when he became a quadriplegic.

RB: Who published that?

CK: Thames & Hudson. And that, I worked very closely with both of them and really was able to bring something to it design-wise.

RB: Do you—I was really tempted to ask you if you read the books [laughs] you design?

CK: Oh god. That, if nothing else, is worth the pain and suffering of publishing this book, is finally we can get past that [question]

RB: Is a cover design a literary or a design problem?

CK: There’s a good question.

RB: Or, let me add, does it ever happen to you that you don’t feel like you really grasp a book?

CK: My god, yes. It happens all the time.

RB: So?

CK: Then you sort of wing it or if it’s a freelance job and I think I am just not getting it or I would do a disservice to it by designing it, I’ll bow out. That doesn’t happen very often.

RB: The reason I asked you about whether it’s an art or a literary effort is that you may not have to fully grasp a book’s meaning—

CK: I truly don’t understand Ulysses. I tried to read it but I would love to do a cover for it.

RB: You could render it intelligently?

CK: I’d like to think so. Although, you could also argue that it’s been done and done really well about three times. I suppose I would want to design a cover for Ulysses because it is such a seminal work, and it would be a kick to put my personal stamp on it. That said, it’s not like it hasn’t been served well in the past (as opposed to, say, Catcher in the Rye.) It’s probably just as well to keep my paws off it. So what’s the point? I don’t know if you saw Updike’s piece in the New Yorker last week.

RB: Reviewing that Princeton Architecture Press book? I have something of a blind spot for Updike. I, of course, had to read the intro to your book—which was fine. But I don’t know why I haven’t been moved to read him.

CK: I am reading the manuscript for his new novel right now and I think it’s great. I was skeptical when I heard the premise but I am not at all now. Growing up, I perceived him as this total rebel that freaked everybody out.

RB: Really? I had perceived him as mainstream.

CK: Yeah, as it says in the book, we grew up in adjacent small, small towns in Pennsylvania and his dad was my father’s math teacher and I grew up—people would talk about Rabbit Run as that dirty, dirty book. I guess because they say "fuck" in it and there is sex in it. But yeah, I think there was this perception that everyone was glad that a famous writer came from our teeny little town but also he was a provocateur.

RB: Perhaps it’s just my taking for granted someone who is so prolific.

CK: Oh my god, I don’t know how he does it.

RB: Like Joyce Carol Oates. Though I do manage to read her work every once in a awhile.

CK: Well, she’s a space being, that’s how she does it.

RB: So this is a mid-career retrospective?

CK: Not if I die tomorrow [both laugh].

RB: In the normal course of events, in the visual arts, that’s what this book would represent?

CK: I would hope so.

RB: And the show at Cooper Union does what?

CK: Everything in the book you can see it first hand and the sketches and letters and things like that. I had two back-to-back shows in Japan in 2001. And these galleries that are owned and operated by a printing company in Japan called Di Nippon. And they feature graphic designers in their gallery. Somebody had recommended them to me. They usually like posters, big things, but I sent them a bunch of stuff. They said, "Great, let’s do it." So putting that together, it dawned on me how much stuff there was. It was the first time I really attempted to collect it all in one place. And I had gotten nibbles from publishers ("Hey, why not do a monograph?") for the last six or seven years. I never really took it all that seriously and so I didn’t pursue it.

RB: Because?

CK: Because I didn’t think I was ready. Early thirties. It seemed crazy. Like I say in the back, the whole graphic design monograph thing, it was a real novelty. When I was in school there was Milton Glaser and Paul Rand’s book. That was it. And there was the History of Graphic Design [Phillip Meggs’s 1982 book] which was very important but something else entirely . . . and that was it and we clung to those and pored over them and studied them. And now there just seems to be one after the other, so I wanted it to be, I wanted it to feel like it was time for it to exist and it didn’t seem like it was time for it to exist. So I do the show in Japan and then I am starting to think, "Well, there’s a lot of stuff here now." Then that other thing came out. The Veronique Veine book.

RB: [laughs]

CK: So that came and went. And before that had come out, basically done but not out yet, Rizzoli contacted me. An editor at Rizzoli, Ian Luna, contacted me, "Do you want to do this? We think you should do it. And do it with us. In full color, large format—the whole nine yards." And that was pretty impossible to say no to. And [pause] I love the fact that they asked me to do it. I’m a sort of "wait to be asked" kind of guy.

RB: [laughs]

CK: But then I had to say to them, do you realize this other thing is going to be happening? And they said no. And I said it is and this is what it is and I sent them galleys or whatever. And they came back and said we think what we want to do is so much different.

RB: How did the Yale University Press monograph do?

CK: That’s a really good question. I have asked them myself several times. It was like an unauthorized biography that I cooperated with. And I guess I am glad it exists and it’s affordable to students, which is good, which is one of the aspects of this (the Rizzoli book) that I was mortified about.

RB: I don’t quite get the distinction between the soft-cover version and the hardcover?

CK: It’s very slim.

RB: The hardcover has hard boards, that means it costs $20 more?

CK: Yeah, it’s crazy. Rizzoli is not thrilled with that either. It’s just kind of how things ended up. Their editor-in-chief, once the books came in, said, "Wow, I wish there was a larger distinction between the paperback and the hardcover." Aesthetically there is a huge distinction, I think. Because of the whole objectness of it. But originally we were going to have a jacket on it. And then that seemed to be three more surfaces to deal with that I really didn’t feel like dealing with.

RB: The three surfaces being the—?

CK: Front, back, spine, flaps—I guess I pulled the number three out of nothing. Oh, and then the binding itself. And we were so late with it and then the other thing was, at relatively the eleventh hour, the guy that was working with me in this, a designer named Mark Melnick who basically—he was incredible.

RB: He curated the book.

CK: He basically gave up his life for two years. He worked so hard and he came to me at the end of January and said, "Not only can we not include everything, just to include the stuff we should include we are going to need a hundred more pages than we have the allotment for now." And being in the business for twenty years, I know what that means. And I went crawling back to Rizzoli and I said, "This is the situation, we need these pages, I will do whatever to make this work." So basically then we lost the jacket, which was losing some of the expense. They had budgeted for full cloth and I said, "No, no, no." At first they were bewildered and their production person was excellent. She got this from the beginning. The whole half-binding thing—which the editor-in-chief did not like. And they are still biting their fingernails that they are going to get a ton of returns because of damage. So as a result of all this, the paperback is virtually identical to the hardcover except that you don’t get that feeling from it. Which is a shame. Somebody shaved this dog [Rosie walks in].

RB: She had a mass removal operation. She is fine.

CK: Wow, that’s great.

RB: If you weren’t in this business and somebody was doing a book on you, would you have just let them do it?

CK: It’s a strange—because it’s all about books. It’s all about being in the book business. The whole book is about being in the book business.

RB: I must say in sampling through it, it’s a sweet compendium. The commentary from the authors you have worked with and all the memoiristic tchotchkes. It has a good feeling.

CK: I hope so. I certainly didn’t want to write something and bitch the whole time. There is far more positive stuff to reflect on than anything else. The authors were great. They pretty much all came through. I was so emphasizing, please, this is not a eulogy, not a gushing testimonial. Maybe you had a bad experience or maybe a weird experience. And for the most part they really all held to that. I wanted to get their point of view of what this process was all about—what were they expecting.

kiddRB: My understanding of this particular part of the book business, these books don’t normally have large print runs—art books?

CK: It’s such a crapshoot because basically I am sitting here before you now hawking nothing. There’s none left in the warehouse, which I guess, is a good thing. They are all out. And we were trying to add some more events and Rizzoli said we can’t, there are no more books. They are doing a reprint.

RB: So that’s good, right?

CK: I don’t blame them at all but it’s such a crap shoot with a big full color, and I knew this from the graphic novels, the Chris Ware stuff and Dan Clowes, we sold out of Chris Ware /Jimmy Corrigan very, very quickly. And you can’t wave your magic wand—there’s a six-to-eight-week process. Rizzoli tends to err on the side of caution as opposed to overprinting—you try and get preorders but you just never know.

RB: So going back for another printing for an art book is not like going back for a novel?

CK: There’s no comparison. For instance we just published the Joan Didion [A Year of Magical Thinking] and it’s been a huge breakout success. And we have gone back to press five or six times in a month. So, that’s a whole other ball game.

RB: To keep up to date, you are still gainfully employed at Knopf as a book designer.

CK: Uh huh.

RB: Still an editor-at-large at Pantheon’s graphic novel department.

CK: I just call it Pantheon’s comix division. The whole graphic novel label is pretty much tattooed on our foreheads now. We can’t really cover it up too well. It seems to work for everybody as "serious comics."

RB: Was [Art] Spiegelman’s1 book a graphic novel?

CK: Technically no. I forget it how he describes it now. Uh—it’s more his op-ed pieces on how he experienced 9/11 through comics but through a broadsheet kind of way. Using old comics from the first two decades of Hearst newspapers.

RB: How do you edit a book like Charles Burns’s [Black Hole] book?

CK: You don’t. The whole label of editor, it’s more about—

RB: —deciding to do a book or not.

CK: Deciding to do it or not, meeting with the sales force and being a rah, rah, cheerleader, that it’s great and this is why. The sales force, by now, is pretty great. They get it. And there are design issues that have to be looked at. I’m not going to go in and edit pictures or what the people are saying. That’s not the kind of editing — it’s more like I am going help shepherd it through the publishing process. And help figure out—when the individual issues [of Black Hole] came out, he did full color—

RB: Speaking of which, you also do work for Fantagraphics.

CK: I do freelance for Fantagraphics for Tony Millionaire, his Maakies books. Those are really, really great. I would love to figure out a way to publish him at Pantheon—we keep talking about it. But anyway, when the Black Hole individual issues came out they all had full color covers on them, so then the question is, does Charles want to include them in [the one volume] Black Hole or keep them separate? And we decided, "No, let’s keep them separate." So it’s this uninterrupted black-and-white experience and I think it makes much more sense that way.

RB: So we have identified two parts of your life, and the freelance and you are a novelist—published and—

CK: —and trying to be a novelist.

RB: Where are you with the sequel to Cheese Monkeys?

CK: Where am I with the sequel?

RB: You don’t have to answer.

CK: Nooo. I like this public self-flagellation about it. Complaining about it is much easier than writing it. At the end of this year, I will have missed my second deadline. Scribner has been extraordinarily patient. And they are very nice and they say, "Okay, we just need to know when you think you can get it done." And I just don’t know what to tell them.

RB: I thought you were working on it on your last trip to Italy?

CK: I did. And I was approached by USA Today to serialize it on their website. They had a program called Open Book. At first I said, no, I couldn’t figure out a way to do it and then I thought of a way to do it, so I said yes. What I worked on in Italy was this seven small chapter serialization of the core of the book. So that’s constructive and I got it done. The whole thing centers on Stanley Milgram’s obedience experiments. Which I may or may not have brought up last time. So I basically did the experiment itself. I am about 130 pages into it. It will be about twice that.

RB: Why do you want to do it?

CK: Because this is the book I originally set out to write.

RB: [laughs]

CK: All of a sudden, Cheese Monkeys grew out of the back of it.

RB: If you are so busy and it’s so hard to stay on track, it seems like self-flagellation is the least of your problems.

CK: No, you’re right. I just—I really feel like I—I definitely have the drive to see this through. And it’s not just to do it. It’s because this experiment to me is one of the most fascinating—

RB: The one where people were—

CK: —torturing other people because they thought it was okay. And that it was at Yale.

RB: And that it was just an experiment.

CK: Right.

RB: And that they weren’t really hurting the subjects.

CK: Even though they were screaming their heads off. Simply as a piece of theater, it’s amazing and I learned about it in freshman psychology at Penn State. They showed us the films that were made of the whole thing. I have never forgotten it. It’s set within an advertising agency milieu. So then—

RB: How is this the sequel?

CK: Same character and there is a scene in The Cheese Monkeys where he determines that his teacher had designed the Wrigley gum wrapper when he was a young guy and so he, Happy the narrator, determines that he designed it at this one particular firm in New Haven and he decides when he graduates that’s where he is going to go and try and get a job there because that’s what his teacher did. When he’s there he gets a commission to do an ad for the psychology department for Yale University.

RB: So your idea about the woman who moves to Florida and—

CK: Oh god—

RB: — and takes up ballroom dancing.

CK: On permanent hold. And then of course there was the stupid Jennifer Lopez movie. And there was a play and both of which were creamed. Some day I will go back to that.

RB: Could one surmise about your life that it is this endless list of projects and enthusiasms that you whittle down but there are always more? No real end to your aspirations?

CK: Yeah, I hope not.

RB: I don’t mean finality but natural breaks, ebb and flow?

CK: I don’t know the list is kind of organic and keeps growing. Now I’m trying to work on the screenplay of Cheese Monkeys with a director in Canada who optioned it.

RB: So you are big in Japan and big in Canada.

CK: Right.

RB: Like that Tom Waits song, "I’m Big in Japan."

CK: What about Alphaville? A new wave German band from the eighties that had a song called "Big in Japan."

RB: And you are a collector of certain kinds of deco tschotkes.

CK: [laughs] Hardly a career.

RB: Who knows? What if you stumble across something extremely valuable, like the piece that was featured in the New York Times, a deco bar refrigerator?

CK: Oh that. [laughs]

RB: What’s your middle initial?

CK: "I," Iacone. My mother’s maiden name.

RB: My middle initial is "I," too. Isadore, my paternal grandfather’s name. Have you taken up anything new since last we spoke?

CK I will be coquettish and say I have taken up something that I don’t really feel like talking about yet. [both laugh] How’s that? That will enable me to see you a fourth time.

RB: I’ll wheedle it out of you somehow.

CK: How many people get to talk to you three times? I feel totally honored by this.

RB: A few. I like doing that. Some people don’t come back to Boston—it becomes less desirable.

CK: Why?

RB: There is a less receptive press for fiction. Booksellers are—there are some fine reading series. But I hear from publicists that the Globe doesn’t do much and the Connection doesn’t exist and Chris Lydon does stuff but he doesn’t like being part of the book tour. I don’t either. I’m hopping off that train soon.

CK: Are you really?

RB: Oh yeah. I’m going choose my subjects more specifically, not because they happen to be in Boston—these days that’s too big a pool. Plus the book tour has become a whole other thing, a cannibalistic monster.

CK: Think it’s doomed?

RB: No, it no longer suits my purposes. It’s too intrusive. Plus as soon as I make it clear that I am not an annex to the tour business, it will save me a lot of fussing and irrelevant stuff—since I don’t like to ignore people the way I know many big city media types claim.

CK: I know how you feel because when the whole graphic novel explosion happened we got solicited all the time. And you keep having to say, trying to think up ways to say, "Please, no," in the most polite way possible.

RB: I already get wide-ranging and far-flung inquiries, which I love but there is a diminishing return in the volume of inquiries, requests and such. Speaking of which, as a veteran observer, what’s marking the changes in the book business, in the twenty years that you have been in it?

CK: Well—

RB: Are you even affected?

CK: I am and I’m not. Which is a non-answer. I am, in terms of budgets shrinking and what we can do and can’t do in terms of materials and full cloth binding is a figment of our imagination at this point. The stamping seems to get worse and worse. I guess what I am trying to say is certain technical things—but then of course, Dave Eggers comes along and gets everything printed in Iceland and it all looks sensational and they sell it for $19.95 and we all throw up our hands. But I am shielded from the whole kind of corporate thing in a big way.

RB: Because?

CK: Sonny.

RB: What about Carole Carson Devine?

CK: She is responsible for the list, which is a huge responsibility, but in terms of meeting whatever financial quotas Knopf is supposed to meet or whatever, Sonny has to deal with that.

RB: People don’t say, "That book tanked because the design sucked?"

CK: There might be a little bit of that muttered behind slammed doors. But no, we don’t really dwell on the past that way.

RB: Do you get credit for a successful book?

CK: My career is riding on the backs of Knopf’s authors— is how I totally see it. It’s not the other way around. This [the book] would not exist if I did not work at Knopf and I wasn’t working in a steady stream of really great books that became successes. It’s the consistency of my name being on the flaps of the Crichton books and Donna Tartt’s books, of Cormac McCarthy, et cetera. It’s like a logo. The AT&T is neither a good logo or a bad logo, but it so pervasive that it becomes a good logo simply by default.

RB: I guess you are a brand. What would have happened if your name had been Walter Piloski or something?

CK: I would be a total failure.

RB: [laughs]

CK: Really, this kicky, dopey name—everybody asked me if I made it up when I first came to New York. It’s like the name itself acts as this goofy logo.

RB: On the other hand, and I’m sure you have acknowledged this and said it in the past, your colleagues are wonderfully talented, also.

CK: They are. They’re great.

RB: And seemingly that department has stayed intact.

CK: Technically, I have been there the longest. I got there a year before Carol—and a year before Sonny, actually.

RB: Archie Fergueson?

CK: He’s the art director of Pantheon.

RB: Barbara De Wilde?

CK: No, Barbara left quite some time ago. To be art director of—I thought you read my book—o be art director of—

RB: Must I read every word?

CK: Yes, is that too much to ask? She left to be art director of Martha Stewart Living magazine [and now House Beautiful].

RB: Who else is there?

CK: John Gall at Vintage, who is a genius. Megan Wilson, she has been at Vintage for along time. We maintain a great level of camaraderie in the office .We all genuinely like each other, like each other’s work. Somebody will come in you office and say, "What do you think of this?" Or "I need a 19th century line drawing of a human brain." Or whatever. There is a lot of cross-pollination with stuff, but I do feel I get the majority of the attention and some of it I foster and some of it just happened.

RB: Well, you do a lot of public appearances, right?

CK: I get asked to come to a lot of schools. I get asked to do—I just came from the University of Georgia where I was artist in residence for three days. There’s lots of chapters of design organizations throughout the country—I am going to South Carolina in two weeks and I’m going to Texas and then I just cobble it together to a kind of ersatz book tour.

RB: Plus the huge audience for comics and superhero culture, which brings you—

CK: Believe me, a whole other—

RB: And your appearances in the New York Times Style section. All that creates this critical mass, which is your "brand."

CK: Up until this book I never hired a publicist and people will come up to me at parties and say, "Who is your publicist?" I honest to god don’t have one. But now I can’t say that anymore. For this book, I hired Goldberg McDuffie.

RB: Mark Fortier?

CK: Yeah, I took the plunge and hired them—I‘ve known them for years. I’ve loved them as people and also I have seen first hand what a great job they do. And I just thought this is my one shot at this and I want to make a go of it. So House & Home in the New York Times and a bunch of other stuff.

RB: Why is this relevant to the House and Home section?

CK: Because—well, maybe when you see the piece—it might make sense. All my books and collections and all this stuff—it’s like I try to make my apartment—when you walk into it, it’s like walking into my head. This is how I think visually. This is what turns me on. And it’s small, but I obsess over the details of it. The way these things work, I think, Mark pitched several ideas to them and that’s what they went with. Which was fine. Nowadays everything is shot digitally, so they could show me pictures as they were shooting them.

RB: So to quote Frank Zappa, this is phase three of lumpy gravy. Anything more to tell me besides the thing you are not going to tell me? Which I won’t beg for.

CK: I’m really not trying to be a tease.

RB: Okay, is there is any way in which the path of your life may loop in a different direction?

CK: I’m hoping so, but as I get older—

RB: Have you taken up ballroom dancing?

CK: I’d like to take it up again. I took it in college. I am getting to the point where I hope that in some capacity I will be at Knopf and they give me so much freedom as it is, but I am really hoping that the movie of The Cheese Monkeys is going to happen.

RB: How about teaching?

CK: I taught for six years at the School of Visual Arts with Barbara [De Wilde]. We taught senior graphic design, portfolio, and having just come from three days of it at Georgia—

RB: You’d rather do the short stints.

CK: Yeah, and you know what? I suck at it. I really do. I had some very good kids at SVA, several of whom have gone on to be really good prolific book jacket designers, probably the best known of which is a guy named Rodrigo Corral who does all of Chuck Palahniuk’s stuff. This guy is great. It just became too much like doing community service and we got caught peeing in public and in order to avoid jail time, you know, "We’ll give back to our urban youth." But on a lectern with slides and PowerPoint and an audience, I’m fine. And I turn it into stand up and it becomes a big joke and "Haha hah ha." Put me in front of classroom with kids and I go over an assignment and—I don’t know how Sandy does it. He’s teaching two classes this semester at Yale. He’s just amazing. But even by a certain time he runs out of things to say.

RB: Does he do it every semester or does he alternate?

CK: This year is unusual because instead of doing one class a semester, he is doing two one semester and then he will be free the next semester. He has an opera coming out. With Ned Rorem, based on Our Town and then a composer named Lowell Lieberman and opera based on Nathaniel West’s Miss Lonelyhearts. Sandy also has two more operas in addition to those this year, believe it or not: Grendel, by Eliot Goldenthal, to be directed by Julie Taymor (L.A. opera, summer), and then an English translation of Mozart’s The Magic Flute, also to be directed by Ms. Taymor, for the Metropolitan Opera in NYC (Winter ’06). So yeah, the teaching thing, I’ll do it in short bits but for an extended period of time—no.

RB: Okay, well, see you around.

CK: Hey.


I contacted Art Spiegelman for his view of his book: "I dunno. It’s all comics to me. When pressed I’ve said I thought In The Shadow of No Towers, considering its board-book format and scale, is more of a Graphic Novelty than a Graphic Novel…"

© 2006 Robert Birnbaum
Images by Red Diaz/Duende Publishing

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