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Chip Kidd. Chip Kidd. Chip Kidd. It’s a curious name, there’s no denying that. I first came across it when he was credited as “designing” the luxurious, oversize editions of Alex Ross’ Mythology and Dave Gibbons’ Watching the Watchmen. It’s the kind of name you expect to be ascribed to a supporting character in Peanuts rather than to a real, living person.

But real and living he is. He’s not a household name but his work in book design is legendary. Remember the Jurassic Park logo? That was him.

However I was unaware that he was a published novelist, with two books to his name. I picked up his first, The Cheese Monkeys, on a whim. Drawn in by the fact that it was billed as a “novel in two semesters”, I thought it would resonate somewhat with my own experience of two semesters at an American university. I was please to find that it did, although not in the way I was expecting.

The novel concerns a young man starting college at a fictional institution at the tail-end of the 1950s, majoring in art. Nothing could be further from my own vaulting academic aspirations.

However, the novel perfectly encapsulates the moment in everyone’s life when they discover who they really are and what they are destined to become. Beyond the gaggles of primary school-yard friends and the closed cliques of secondary education, my wilderness year in America was a time of great self-realisation.

This is partly due to the inspiring quality of the instruction at American higher education institutions. University in the UK is, in my opinion, utterly worthless. Successive governments’ pledges to get as many people attending has driven the value of an undergraduate degree into the ground. Beyond this, so many loathsome people use university as a finishing school, with no thought given to anything beyond the cold, small streets that trap them.

However, in America, there is such breadth and diversity in higher education. The fact that you can major in English and take classes in Astronomy is utterly beguiling to me. It’s a system that caters to the truly curious and rewards the small, mewling child in us all that constantly begs, “Why?”

I’m straying from the point a little but this novel did very much reawaken within me the moments in my life when I have felt truly inspired and certain of myself. Oscar Wilde wrote that the meaning of life is the complete realisation of the self. That’s fine for a fop-faced aesthete to say, and the fact that he was married with two children suggests he didn’t entirely follow his own dogma, but it’s the closest to a workable definition I’ve yet found.

In short, read this book! It doesn’t have the most satisfactory of endings (I believe the story is picked up by Kidd’s second novel, The Learners) but it is wickedly funny and richly rewarding.

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In most of my publishing-related posts, I’ve lambasted eBooks and eReaders for the primary reason that they fail at emulating printed books. But the fine people at Canongate, in partnership with Apt Studio, have developed a new kind of eBook: Enhanced Editions. Here’s a promo;

The Death of Bunny Munro – Enhanced Edition Promo from Enhanced Editions on Vimeo.

Granted, scepticism is natural given previous eBooks and devices that have promised to revolutionise reading, but this is different. Enhanced Editions is a programme that seems well-aware of the futility of emulating an existing medium. In creating this multimedia product, it adds considerable value and draws the reader’s attention away from the fact that they are reading an intangible novel; rather it immerses them more fully in the text.

I finished reading my hardback copy of the novel today and was listening to Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ superb soundtrack to The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford throughout. It was a brilliant experience and I am certain that a reading of the book coupled with new compostions would add considerably to Cave’s elegiac prose.

Incidentally, the book is wonderful and I wholly recommend a purchase in either print or digital edition.

McKeanJoker

“Hello. I came to talk. I’ve been thinking lately. About you and me. What’s going to happen to us, in the end. We’re going to kill each other, aren’t we? Perhaps you’ll kill me. Perhaps I’ll kill you. Perhaps sooner. Perhaps later.” – Batman, The Killing Joke

I love Batman. In a life that has seen much assimilation of pulp and pop culture, the figure of the Dark Knight is one that has remained a perennial favourite. Be it seeing the repeated camp 60s TV show and revelling in the ludicrous villains, or seeing Batman Returns as an 8 year-old and cowering behind the sofa at DeVito’s grotesque Penguin, I’ve always had a nostalgic sentiment for the characters and the story of the orphan who vowed to turn fear against those who prey on the fearful.

As I grew up, I turned my attention to the Batman comics, and was I in for a shock. When I was about ten, I read The Killing Joke for the first time. Drawn in by the art of Brian Bolland, who I had admired from his work on 2000AD, I read it on a whim. It was a short tale focusing on Batman and The Joker, what could go wrong? Well, I was in for an education as to why Batman comics are so very different to other mainstream superhero works.

Key to the Batman mythos is the idea that the world the characters inhabit is so awful that the only sane way in which to live their lives is for them to lose their minds completely. It’s telling that Batman’s foes, once defeated, aren’t interred in a prison, they’re held in a mental hospital; Arkham Asylum.

“All it takes is one bad day to reduce the sanest man alive to lunacy… When I saw what a black, awful joke the world was, I went crazy as a coot! I admit it! … It’s all a joke! Everything anybody ever valued or struggled for… It’s all a monstrous, demented gag! So why can’t you see the funny side? Why aren’t you laughing?” – The Joker, The Killing Joke

“Gotham City. Maybe it’s all I deserve, now. Maybe it’s just my time in Hell… Train’s no way to come to Gotham… in an airplane, from above, all you’d see are streets and buildings. Fool you into thinking it’s civilised. By now Barbara’s gotten her tests back. I only hate myself a little for hoping they came out negative. This is no place to raise a family.” – James Gordon, Batman: Year One

In recent years, the resurrected Batman film franchise has played to these central conceits to brilliant effect. Heath Ledger’s performance as The Joker in Christopher Nolan’s superlative The Dark Knight owes much to the characterisation found in works such as The Killing Joke and his final scene in which he suggests sharing a cell at Arkham with Batman is almost a word-for-word recreation of the story’s closing pages.

The reasoning behind this somewhat rambling post is the recent discovery of one of the year’s most pleasant surprises. Batman: Arkham Asylum was released last week and it is a terrific distillation of all the greatest qualities that make a fantastic Batman story. It is very rare these days to find examples of good (or even competent) storytelling in videogames but this really does excel. Furthermore, it reminded me of all the things I love about Batman.

“Hahaha. Y’know, it’s funny… This situation. It reminds me of a joke…

See, there were these two guys in a lunatic asylum… And one night they decide they don’t like living in an asylum any more. They decide they’re going to escape!

So, like, they get up onto the roof. And there, just across this narrow gap, they see the rooftops of the town, stretching away in the moonlight… Stretching away to freedom.

Now, the first guy, he jumps across with no problem. But his friend, his friend daredn’t make the leap. Y’see… Y’see, he’s afraid of falling.

So then, the first guy has an idea… He says, ‘Hey! I have my flashlight with me! I’ll shine it across the gap between the buildings. You can walk along the beam and join me!’

B-but the second guy just shakes his head. He suh-says… He says ‘Wh-what do you think I am? Crazy? You’d turn it off when I was half way across!’

Ha ha ha ha ha! Ha ha ha ha ha ha haaa… Fnff oh, do excuse me…” – The Joker, The Killing Joke