Batman: Death by Design is a recently released, greatly anticipated graphic novel. It’s easy to see why, Chip Kidd is a superstar in the world of design, and the previews for Dave Taylor’s art have been astounding. Furthermore, Gotham has become more and more of a character in recent Batman books, especially in Batman: Gates of Gotham and the recent Court of Owls storyline in Scott Snyder’s Batman. However, neither of those stories are as intertwined with the city’s architecture as Death by Design.
Writer: Chip Kidd
Artist: Dave Taylor
The story begins with Bruce Wayne announcing that he will be demolishing Gotham Central Station, which has become somewhat decrepit and under-used, and replace it with a more modern facility. This will also give Wayne a chance to install a secret transportation hub for Batman under the city. However, the idea is not without opposition. Architecture enthusiasts are not pleased to see the classic building get destroyed, and someone even goes so far as to sabotage the announcement by toppling a crane on to the press conference (miraculously Bruce Wayne is unharmed). The next hundred or so pages are of Batman solving a mystery and plenty of Gotham-ites get entangled during the whole ordeal. And of course, the Joker has something to say about all this as well. There is even the introduction of a new character created for this book, with a look inspired by the time that Death by Design seems to occupy.
Death by Design takes place in a time period that is from early in Batman’s career, so his gadgets aren’t as technologically advanced as they are in recent books. This time period actually comes through in the book’s pacing and aesthetic very well. The characters are styled very classically, and Dave Taylor’s art was even produced with this old-fashioned sensibility in mind. Everything was drawn with a pencil and then inked afterwards in graphite, which means that there were no do-overs. Mistakes either had to be covered up or the page restarted. This could be one of the reasons that the book took so long to be finished, taking about three years for the 102 pages.
Dave Taylor’s art is clearly the most impressive part of the book. So much attention to detail has been given to Gotham’s architecture. The city and its skylines feel real, livable and solid. It’s as if building blueprints have come to life and Batman is swinging in between and over them. Speaking of Batman, Taylor chose to go with a lithe and less muscular version of the caped crusader. This works really well as he navigates Gotham, from its caves to its sleek city rooftops. As Batman the character he is more relatable and this is done by cutting down on the traditional super-hero muscle and bulk. It is really a sight to behold, watching Batman against tremendously gorgeous and epic backdrops.
Despite its grand scope, there are flaws. Characters sometimes seem bland, there are crowd scenes where its easy to lose sight of Bruce Wayne and not because its too cluttered, but because not enough is done to differentiate our hero from other characters in the book. Facial expressions don’t always look natural, instead appearing forced or strained. These are minute but sometimes jarring details that force the reader out of the intricately detailed scenes that Taylor has arranged for us to be a part of.
The narrative never really coalesces as a whole. Sometimes the dialogue or narration is sparse, but at other times it fills the page and is a distraction. It doesn’t seem like Kidd and Taylor are adept at working together as a team to create a unified piece of sequential art. I could have enjoyed Chip Kidd’s story separate from Dave Taylor’s art and vice versa, and this isn’t a good thing. Maybe its the long development cycle, but the two talented artists never seem to gel in Batman: Death by Design.
The book is handsomely bound, beautifully designed and overall just gorgeous. There is even extra artwork included (sketches), which is great because the artwork stands out as Batman: Death by Design‘s greatest triumph. I was hoping for a memorable Batman story, one that would join the many other “Best Of” Batman tales of the past. But the story is too bland to be very memorable, it’s very run-of-the-mill and I feel more could have been done with the architecture angle. The artwork, on-the-other-hand, is amazing. Pretty much every page is a treat to behold from the level of basic design to the individual pen strokes themselves. Death by Design is a design-heavy meal and that’s no surprise, it just needed more narrative distinction to deliver a more substantial and fulfilling feast.