3 oct 01


I just finished reading a book called The Cheese Monkeys, by Chip Kidd. Kidd is probably the world's most famous book designer. He designed a few of the favored items on my shelf, including the hardback edition of The Man Who Ate Everything, a collection of articles by Vogue's old food critic—the jacket has a bite taken out of it, and the book title printed on the spine shows through. He isn't all gimmicks: Speak magazine invited him into its first issue to design covers for some books he'd probably never get to design in real life, such as To Kill A Mockingbird and Mein Kampf. They ran these faux covers in the magazine, like a fashion pictorial, and the last one was mostly a rough, gooey painting of a guy in clown makeup, spreading his arms to preside over the globe. The title text, in heavy Bodoni, read: THE BIBLE. Below the globe, the byline: BY SEVERAL HUMAN BEINGS.

Kidd is also an editor at Pantheon Books, bringing acclaimed comic-book authors such as Dan Clowes and Chris Ware into the fiction line there. He is also the editor-author of several coffee table books about comic book paraphernalia, of which Kidd is a rabid collector. The first, Batman Collected, had a strikingly photographed, preternaturally plastic Batman head, and that's all, on its cover. The whole book is similarly iconic, Kidd designing and curating as well as providing text. The whole thing wants to be a work of design applied to the cultural world, and that's pretty much how it was reviewed. I haven't read it, myself. He then did one on Superman, designed one on Wonder Woman I believe, and then co-edited and designed a tome called Batman Animated which pretty much succumbed to the feedback loop that started with Batman Collected: the book on collecting, actually a book about how we eat culture and how it eats us, finally evolved into something that only collectors are likely to buy.

I now think Kidd might have intended that loop. The prose in The Cheese Monkeys makes one think of comic books of the 50's, both because it's set in the 50's and throws around its slang and gee-whiz-ness, even through all the cynicism, and because the characters are stock and slapstick, at least throughout the first half. The narrating character's essential nebbishy-ness and unrequited pining for the female lead also add to the impression—he could be Peter Parker.

The second half doesn't change much, or rather, changes so slowly you might not notice. Despite the sudden change in the text's typeface, which I think is just there to throw you off. As are the loud details of the book's—well, the package's design. The images on the hardcover itself (which always make me suspicious of a book's quality: gimmicks again. All those people who print in-the-now designs right on glossy cover surfaces instead of using a jacket: how's that going to look in twenty years?), the thank-yous on the very edge of the cover, and most of all the bold slogans that emerge when you fan out the edges of the pages: GOOD IS DEAD one way, DO YOU SEE? the other. This is accomplished by printing an eighth of an inch or so of the tall letters on the margin of each and every page, so that the graphic effect brackets your view all the way through the book. You never forget you're holding a package, that was made. This also ties into the book's theme—it's about a graphic design class. (See also: Lawrence Krauser's novel Lemon.)

I recently read a short article by a game designer I respect, whose first love is film. He's getting into reviewing movies for a local paper, and wrote a piece to work out for himself how to approach writing reviews for people, rather than for film-criticism professors (an approach which, he claims, most film reviewers wrongly carry over into journalism). He says the demands of criticism, and of looking smart and trying to impress your peers and/or betters, are at odds with the demands of writing for people who are trying to decide whether to go experience a particular work. You can't write effective analysis without giving too much away. He's trying to walk the tightrope.

So am I. I've told you many of the iffy things about The Cheese Monkeys, many of the things that are going to try to throw you out of this experience, to arm you in advance. But if you are reading this to find out if you should read The Cheese Monkeys, then: you really, really should.

I'd tell you to be careful, but even that might be too much.

Today's Guest Mute brought to you by Mike Sugarbaker.