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Review time! with Batman: Death by Design

There’s nothing more fascinating than … architecture!!!!

Batman: Death by Design is written by Chip Kidd, drawn by Dave Taylor, and lettered by John J. Hill. It costs $24.99, and knowing DC, it will never get released in softcover. Man, DC, what’s up with that?

While Death by Design is a solid read, it also sounds a bit better in the description than the execution. Too many little things hold it back from being a great work, but it’s well worth a read. Taylor, for instance, turns in the absolute best work I’ve ever seen from him. I haven’t read too many Dave Taylor comics, but those that I have featured serviceable but fairly workmanlike art. As usual, time is a factor – Taylor worked on this book for three years, so of course he could be a perfectionist, and it shows. His Gotham City is tremendous, for instance. In a book about architecture, it helps to have a good vision for the buildings in the story, and Taylor does a wonderful job with that. It takes a bit from Batman Begins, which featured the best Gotham City of Nolan’s movies (I haven’t seen the third one yet, but I doubt if Pittsburgh, as nice a city as it is, can surpass the cityscape of the first one), but it’s mostly Taylor’s own. The book is set in a strange non-time, kind of like Dark City (man, Dark City is a cool movie), where 1930s/1940s/1950s tropes exist alongside modern and even futuristic technology, which gives Taylor the freedom to have a bit of fun. He gives us classic old buildings, sturdy and powerful, dominating the city like ancient sentinels. He also dresses people in stylish clothing from that era, including plenty of fedoras, and gives Batman (or “Bat-Man,” as he’s referred to in the book – another example of the old-fashioned feel of the comic) an olde-tymey computer with all sorts of vacuum tubes and weird dials. One of the bold designs in the book is “The Ceiling,” a new night club that is simply a sheet of glass suspended above the city streets, a vertiginous experience if there ever was one. Taylor has a fun time designing all sorts of gadgets for Batman and Exacto, the vigilante who wants to save the old Wayne Central Station, which Bruce is in the process of tearing down. Curiously, Taylor never gives us a wide view of this supposedly magnificent building – we see a few panels of the interior atrium area, but nothing of what Cyndia Syl, a preservationist, calls “the single best example of patri-monumental modernism in America.” I guess Kidd and Taylor just couldn’t fit it in! Taylor also redesigns the Joker very well – his hair stands on end, he wears a white jacket, a purple bow tie (for part of the book – at a different time he’s wearing that Colonel Sanders thing he always wears), jodhpurs, and boots. It’s a cool look.

Taylor’s line work itself is very good. His pencils are lush and the shading thick and dense, which allows him a lot of nuance and subtlety in the work. He’s extremely precise throughout, so his large spreads (such as the first look at The Ceiling) allow us to drink in his details. In the back of the book, he puts inverted commas around “inked,” which makes me wonder how exactly he inked this – digitally, I would imagine, but at times it appears this is just raw pencils. He contrasts the sturdiness of Gotham City’s architecture very well with the characters’ fragility, using much lighter and thinner lines for the people as opposed to the surroundings. This makes something like Exacto’s explosive device on his belt, which he uses to force Batman to release him, all the more threatening – the explosion created is marked by thick, harsh lines, tossing Batman backward like a rag doll. One of the few problems with the artwork is that the characters often don’t look the same throughout the book. Bruce Wayne, for instance, isn’t consistent all the way through, and it’s often momentarily confusing. It’s not a huge deal, but it is somewhat strange. Plus, one character seems to have the ability to grow facial hair by force of will, which seems done deliberately so Kidd and Taylor can keep Exacto’s identity secret for far longer than they should be able to. It’s strange. Anyway, Taylor colors the book, too, and while much of the book is charcoal gray and white, the touches of color help immensely. Cyndia Syl wears a delicate lavender shirt when she meets Bruce Wayne for the first time, and the Joker’s pale green hair stands out when he tries to rob the patrons at The Ceiling. The eerie orange glow from the streets of the city adds a touch of surrealism to the book, because it reminds us that this story takes place far above street level. It’s a gorgeous comic book, and I’m glad that Taylor was able to take so much time making it so.

Kidd’s story is intriguing, too. Bruce Wayne is planning to demolish the Wayne Station to build a new one, part of his attempts to put his own stamp on the city rather than maintaining his father’s legacy. At the groundbreaking ceremony, a crane collapses and nearly kills him, and a reporter named Richard Frank, an architectural critic for the Gotham Gazette, just happens to be there to report about it, so he gets the story. Meanwhile, a woman named Cyndia Syl is trying to convince Bruce to save the station rather than demolishing it, but Bruce remains unconvinced. Finally, the architect of the old station, Gregor Greenside, has disappeared. Bruce comes across Greenside’s son, Garnett, and learns that the old station is decrepit because the corrupt union boss skimped on the materials so that his union would get to build another building once the first one fell apart. Meanwhile, the architect of the new station might not be as good as everyone (including him) says he is. Into this mix comes the Joker. It’s very unclear what he’s doing there, except so that he can put Cyndia in jeopardy late in the book. Seriously, I have no idea what he’s doing in this comic. Or how he survives an early encounter with Batman. It’s vexing.

It’s a pretty good story, and I like that Kidd takes an unconventional look at Gotham City and Bruce Wayne. The architecture angle is a good one, because Gotham ought to be a unique city in the DCU, and with some exceptions over the years, writers and artists haven’t done enough making it interesting. Kidd’s Bruce Wayne is interesting, too – instead of simply falling for Cyndia and fighting to save the old station, which would seem to be the way many writers would go, Kidd makes him sympathetic to Cyndia but resolute in his desire to move the city forward. This is a Bruce Wayne who doesn’t wallow in nostalgia, and it’s oddly refreshing. Kidd’s mystery vigilante, Exacto, is fairly interesting, especially as he seems to be ahead of Batman in technology – while Batman is fooling around with guns out of Flash Gordon, Exacto has perfected hologram technology. There are some problems with the narrative, of course – the aforementioned character who can grow facial hair very quickly; the Joker’s presence in the comic; Richard Frank’s abrupt disappearance from the story, which makes me wonder why he was there in the first place – but they’re not deal-breakers. They keep the book from being a brilliant piece of fiction, but not from being a very worthwhile comic to read.

I do wish that DC (and Marvel) would do more graphic novels like this. It’s a fascinating book, different from a lot of what’s out there, and it’s beautifully illustrated. Death by Design shows what an artist can do when you give him time to put his best effort into it and when you allow a writer to do some different stuff with Batman. For that, I can certainly Recommend it. Give it a look!

10 Comments

This looks cool, and I’ll probably get it out of the library if I see it, but Kidd is…problematic to me, let’s say. His stuff is good, but when I read his novel The Cheese Monkeys, there’s something that happens in it, oh, 2/3 of the way in that comes OUT OF NOWHERE, and it pissed me off. And after that, I started looking at his stuff with a different, more critical eye, and started to think that the emperor has no clothes, if you will. My personal view, and not to dissuade anyone else (as I said, I’ll READ it, since it is something I have an interest in), since Greg seems to think it’s decent, and with Taylor art it no doubt is purty to look at.

The facial inconsistencies were to my eye really bad. Wayne had a different jawline from one panel to the next, the bridge of his nose widened and narrowed at random. Just awful. And if you look at some of the technology (I’m thinking the bat console in particular) the perspective is actually wrong. It stands out (in part) because it’s usually right. This is all a shame because like you say, the art is often quite good.
The less said about the story the better, but I defy anyone to find something more cliche ridden.

Travis: This is the first thing I’ve ever read by Kidd, so I can’t say if I like him or not!

Nate: I didn’t notice the facial problems were that bad, but if I go back and look for it, I’m sure I can see it. Thanks for pointing it out, because I couldn’t quite pin down the inconsistencies, and I think you’re right.

I don’t think the story is that bad. There are some clichés, sure, but you’re going to get that with any story, especially superhero stories. I think the ideas carry the story quite often, and I enjoyed the ideas that Kidd was exploring. So I do agree with you that there were some clichés, but I expect that, so I look for what’s around the clichés. Perhaps I should demand more from my reading, but then I don’t know if I’d read anything!

I guess I should have been more specific when I said his stuff is good — I meant his design work (book covers and the like, as well as a bunch of comics related books, like a Peanuts overview and some DC stuff, including a book of Alex Ross DC art, iirc). His novel was decent up until it got to this out of nowhere part, and it was just SO out of nowhere it made me dislike the book immensely.

YMMV

I do find it amusing if the book does have a lot of cliches in it, as Kidd is one of those writers who give off the air of “well, I LIKE comics and superheroes, but in a wholly ironic way. I’M literary.” as he smokes his pipe and pushes up his hornrims.

Speaking of cliches….

But yeah, I’m sort of neutral towards him now — for a while after reading that book I was actively hating any book with his cover design, but now, partly because his “look” has taken over things in book design, it seems, I’m less concerned.

I’m a comics geek, I get worked up over stupid things regularly!

I definitely want to pick this up when I get a chance, just for the art really. It certainly looks unique compared to the other DC books out right now.

There are a couple of problems with the story in this, such as SPOILER!!! Exacto being a hologram yet somehow managing to weld a door shut END SPOILER but I think the art is really terrific. One of the most beautiful books I’ve got in fact.

I spoke to Dave Taylor when he signed my book at my local story in Manchester here in the UK and he said that while it took 3 years, he’s a full time father too so it was more like 1.5 years work on his part. Still plenty of time to produce a beautiful book. I love his Joker and I got a sketch of him in my book when I met Dave.

My problem wasn’t w/cliches… A genre is defined by the cliches it deploys as much as anything. But there were so many. Corrupt union boss? Check. Intrepid reporter. Check. The confrontational young woman/love interest/damsel in distress? Check. Son avenging the injustice levied upon his father? Check. City held hostage? Has that ever happened in Gotham before? I defy any reader of this story to find something original in it, or even a twist on one of the cliches. And in the case of Richard Frank, I’d say the reason for the cliche (and his disappearance) is obvious. A reporter is a convenient exposition device until you want to make Batman the hero. To do this, the intrepid reporter needs to get out of the way. The problem is that rather than writing him out of the story Kidd simply forgets about him. Here’s an example of cliche getting in the way of the story.
Look, I don’t think we need to ask that every story be wildly original, or even fairly original. But I expect it to be solid. Which this one isn’t. It’s like one of the shoddy buildings. It looks fancy but the plot is built on substandard materials that don’t quite fit together. If something is going to sit on your bookshelf, as this book is designed to do, it really ought to stand up to a bit of scrutiny.

Rory: Shoot, yeah, I forgot about that story point. That is a tad weird!

Oh how weird, I haven’t read this, but I totally read The Cheese Monkeys. I’d forgotten all about that, and didn’t realize I was familiar with this guy’s writing. Guess I’ll check this one out from my local library.

Based on what Nate is saying, it sounds like (another) case of no editor saying “y’know, this bit doesn’t quite work” because it’s CHIP KIDD!!! C’mon, you gotta get those NY Times Book Review readers to buy a Batman book SOMEHOW!!!

Buttler, what’d you think of The Cheese Monkeys? I liked it up to the one point, then it made me angry. And I don’t mean the change in the font of the book (which was kinda interesting). If it wasn’t egregious to you, it’s probably just me….

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