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Chip Kidd and James Ellroy: Art and Literature

September 14, 2020

The cover art of James Ellroy’s novels and anthologies has become synonymous with the work of one artist – Chip Kidd. The associate art director at Knopf has designed the covers of practically all of Ellroy’s books since the Demon Dog became a Knopf author in the early 1990s. As a graphic designer, Kidd beautifully captures the often delirious tone and disturbing themes of Ellroy’s writing.

I’m going to take a look at one of Kidd’s most striking covers for Ellroy.

First Edition Book Cover of White Jazz by Chip Kidd

White Jazz was the first Ellroy novel for which Kidd designed the cover. Much has been written about how Ellroy creates an alternative history of the US, and of Los Angeles in particular, in the LA Quartet. Therefore, it’s easy to overlook the apocalyptic tone of White Jazz which is ahistorical. By the novel’s coda, the violence has spun wildly out of control even for the perimeters of the historical crime genre. Ellroy uses a fictional Herald-Express article to add plausibility to this rampant crimewave ‘The City homicide rate for the past month soared 1600%’.

The bullet-ridden LAPD squad car perfectly captures the anarchic breakdown of law and order in the novel, which mirrors Dave ‘the Enforcer’ Klein slow mental breakdown as its narrator. In fact, Kidd used a photograph by Robert Morrow of a squad car door the LAPD used for target practice, so in reality the cover is just showing an aspect of police work. White Jazz was first published in 1992, the same year LA erupted in race riots following the acquittal of four police officers who had badly beaten Rodney King. Although this is nothing more than a coincidence it does make the cover more powerful in its evocation of law and order and violence. Another little irony is that Robert Morrow’s photography was used for the cover art of Mike Davis’s City of Quartz, a book in which Davis does not hold back on his negative views of James Ellroy.

Check out this mini-documentary by Rachel Talbot about the artistic collaboration between Ellroy and Kidd.

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