Mythology: The DC Comics Art of Alex Ross

by Chip Kidd and Geoff Spear

Published by Pantheon

288 pages, 2003

Buy it online

Chip Kidd

by Veronique Vienne

Published by Yale University Press

112 pages, 2003

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Kyle Cooper

by Andrea Codrington

Published by Yale University Press

112 pages, 2003

Buy it online




Marrying Art & Commerce

Reviewed by Tony Buchsbaum


As someone who works in advertising, I like to think that I am somewhat immune to the tricks of the trade. That is, I know what to look for in an a magazine ad or a TV commercial, what words and phrases that act as the product's get out of jail free card, the legal disclaimers built into the text that indicate this wonderful product is not necessarily as wonderful as you might think.

But when it comes to design, I am as much of a sucker as the next guy. That is, I react the way a layman would. I respond to color, layout, type and the other choices made by designers who want to attract buyers. That said, I have always been endlessly fascinated by book jackets, movie posters and the sort of movie title sequences that graced the James Bond films, the Pink Panther films and others of their ilk: films whose makers saw the value in setting the stage with the opening credits.

How lucky am I, then, that three new books celebrate these very things.

Mythology is essentially an illustrated biography of the comic world's current master, DC Comics artist Alex Ross. As a child, Ross and his imagination were held captive -- happily, willingly -- by comics and superheroes. Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman and others. These were his gods, and he dreamed of drawing them professionally one day.

As a very young child, he drew them in Crayon. As an adult he still draws them -- or, rather, paints them -- in watercolor. He does it better than anyone else. Hundreds of his paintings are collected in Mythology, and while each one is fascinating on its own, taken together they become an awesome, outstanding body of work. And it's all the more inspiring when you learn that Ross isn't yet 40.

What makes his work so remarkable is its realism. To gaze into an Alex Ross painting is akin to gazing into a photograph. Skin tone, texture, physiology are all rendered perfectly. Fabric looks like fabric. Plastic like plastic. Metal, amazingly, like metal, as if it would feel cool if you touched it.

Most striking, though, is Ross' use of light. He tends toward darkness, like the most effective cinematographers, using light less for illumination than for accent. (If anything, Ross enjoys the paradox, using darkness to illuminate.) The juxtaposition of action and light source are always at odds, going against what one might imagine or expect. The result is an image that's intensely dramatic, that manages to bring the hero's personality to the surface. It's almost as if by hiding the costume, Ross reveals the man or woman (and his or her powers) inside it.

As a fan, Ross tends toward the iconic, and as an artist, he translates this appreciation to every image. Heroism is everything to him, and no matter the pose, no matter the action, heroism is all-important. One instance: Superman in the air, frozen in Ross' photographic style, still has eye-popping movement to it in the angle Ross chooses and in the way the dazzling red cape has been caught by the wind. This is signature Ross, with much more in the frame than what's in the frame. Invisible forces like wind, or the object of the hero's attention, out of frame but causing the frame.

To say that his work is photographic is accurate, but it's not quite sufficient. After all, it's not a photo at all. It's all art, all graphic, all paint on paper. But it's also the crescendo of emotion that's built up in Ross, collected by him since he was a young boy and now released, little by little, in his work. Mythology is an apt name for this book, because he's redefined these myths by making these make-believe heroes seem all the more real.

The celebrated designer Chip Kidd has no less than four jobs. At his day job, at Alfred A. Knopf, he designs many of the publisher's best and most memorable book jackets. He also does this as a freelancer. He's also an author. And he conceives and designs books, of which Mythology is one.

And now Kidd himself is the object of a book called, appropriately, Chip Kidd. It's the first of a new series called Monographics, published by Yale University Press. The book collects many of Kidd's best jackets and offers a certain deconstruction of them, both as jackets and as works of art.

You'll find images of some of the things that inspire Kidd, along with a generous selection of his book jackets, including the ultra-minimalist Geek Love, the by-comparison-baroque Was, The Secret History (which featured design on the actual book and a clear acetate jacket), the beautiful and suggestive Seek My Face (featuring an ultra close-up of an Impressionist-style painted face), the iconic and now world-famous Jurassic Park, the startling Border Trilogy by Cormac McCarthy (All the Pretty Horses, The Crossing and Cities of the Plain) and dozens more. Kidd loves using photography, sometimes found and sometimes shot anew by his photographer-of-choice, Geoff Spear, to illustrate the title or the theme of the book. As often as not, the photograph is used in pieces, or upside down, or is distressed in some other way, all to allow Kidd to make his point more clear. Nothing is sacred; that is, nothing but the design he has in mind. Like writers, Kidd isn't afraid to use anything and everything at his disposal. He is a graphic vampire.

The effect of each of his best jackets is startling. With so many collected here, you begin to see that if one can't judge a book by its cover, then neither can you hold a cover accountable for its book.

The second Monographics title focuses on a different sort of design: film title sequences, specifically the ones designed by Kyle Cooper. The title? You guessed it: Kyle Cooper. Now, title sequences aren't like book jackets. They're not meant to attract you to the film: the trailer and the poster do that. Film title sequences are instead meant to put you in the mood and set the stage for the film that's about to unspool.

These sequences began to be noticed by people in the 1950s, when masters like Saul Bass and Maurice Binder did some of their early work for visionary directors. Bass was the genius behind The Man with the Golden Arm, Vertigo, North by Northwest, Anatomy of a Murder, West Side Story, It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, Psycho and Exodus. Hitchcock loved his work, and so does Scorsese. When you view Bass' work, it instantly becomes so much more than what it is: it goes from screen work to icon in a matter of seconds.

Binder, just as brilliant, was a different sort of designer. His iconic gunbarrel teaser -- white circle becomes a gun sight, man walks into range, spins and fires and then bright red blood drips into the sight, a signal that the would-be assassin is dead -- has been used in every James Bond film from Dr. No through Die Another Day, and it will likely be used forever. The sequence announces to every audience member that he or she is in for some serious fun for the next two hours. His 007 work uses bright colors, nude silhouettes, smoke, light and more to achieve the effect of sexiness, sophistication and tongue-in-cheek playfulness. Check out the title sequences of Thunderball, You Only Live Twice, On Her Majesty's Secret Service: icons all.

Kyle Cooper brings a whole new element to the world founded by Bass and Binder. He brings a stark, ugly reality to the proceedings. His first example, for the film Seven, illustrated the seven deadly sins to overwhelmingly graphic effect. Since then, he's turned his attention to Dead Presidents, Nixon, The Island of Dr. Moreau, Mission: Impossible, Twister, Flubber, Mimic, Sphere, Arlington Road and other films.

Where Binder objectified the people and things he used, and where Bass's playground was the color palette and spatial relationships, Cooper tends to do a little of both, juxtaposing type (often distressed) against sometimes harrowing but always effective images. Like Chip Kidd, he approaches his projects without fear, using any and all material and inspiration to almost overflowing effect, no matter the level of quality of the film that follows.

Both Monographics books are filled with drawings, key art and background information. For all the sexy imagery they contain, I wish the approach and the commentary were a little more inviting. The cleverness of the series' name aside, the books are a bit too much like actual monographs and not enough like examinations of pop culture phenomena. For all their texture, the text is too dry.

What all three of these books have in common is their celebration of the marriage of art and commerce. All three men have found a way to channel their passions into lucrative careers, but more than that, they've found a way to redefine their respective slices of the graphics world. | November 2003


Tony Buchsbaum is the author of Total Eclipse. At night he works on another novel and a screenplay. Days, he writes advertising copy in Lawrenceville, NJ, where he lives with his wife and sons.