08 September 2012

"Batman: Death by Design" by Chip Kidd & Dave Taylor

Batman: Death by Design
Story by Chip Kidd
Art by Dave Taylor
Letters by John J. Hill
Edited by Mark Chiarello
Editorial Assistance by Camilla Zhang
Publication Design by Chip Kidd
Batman Created by Bob Kane
Date of Publication: 30 May 2012
Cover Price: $24.99
112 pages
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Pretty much whenever I read any Batman story, the first question I consider is whether it would have been a natural fit for Legends of the Dark Knight during its heyday. LOTDK was/is my favorite Batman comic of all time, an anthology series wherein different creative teams of writers and artists would collaborate to tell the story of their choosing, free from the constraints of connecting with what anyone else was doing with the character. Most stories took place in Batman's early years, but some took place in the "present," some in the future and even some in entirely alternate universes and settings. These stories eschewed the typical base action of standard superhero comics in favor of crime noir yarns and psychological thrillers.

Batman: Death by Design could very easily have been serialized once upon a time in LOTDK.

In fact, no sooner did I get to the acknowledgments page than I was reminded of a story once told partly in LOTDK: "Destroyer," in which a guy with an architectural obsession has taken to targeting specific buildings in Gotham City to demolish in order to reveal the classic buildings that have become obscured over the years. In Death by Design, we're initially unclear who the antagonist is, and what his/her objective may be. Is it to buy a stay of execution for the Old Wayne Central Station? To destroy it? Is it somehow part of a vendetta against the architect, Gregor Greenside? Is it Greenside himself? Each character in the story has a plausible motive, and even once I had eliminated who may be Exacto, I was still left suspicious of a conspiracy. I'm usually more confident about who is and is not part of the plot, and while it's rare for me to be this off-balance, I appreciate it in a story like this.

There was some measure of synchronicity to me finding and checking out this graphic novel from the Oldham County Public Library today. Shortly before I sat down to read it, I found the text of Warren Ellis's keynote address from last night's Improving Reality event. In it, Ellis emphasizes the point that "we see the present through a rear-view mirror," arguing that we often fail to recognize the kinds of progress being made in science and technology (and, it could easily be extrapolated, social issues). I thought about that as Chip Kidd's story is set in the 30s but also features some technologies that would be out of the realm of the practical even today (the stasis field generator, for instance). Is Kidd being anachronistic? I don't think so. One could argue that the nature of the Batman invites such inclusion of what is now often called "spy-fy" technology, but I think in the grander scheme, Kidd is simply demonstrating what Ellis's argument looks like when applied to storytelling.

Speaking of how things look...the art by Dave Taylor? Amazing! In the back of the book is a brief collection of sketches with some commentary by Taylor. He informs us on page 111 that "All the work in this book is produced with good old-fashioned pencils, first in blue and then 'inked' in graphite. I made no corrections with an eraser; what I drew got published. The shading and color I overlaid on computer. This is my most 'honest' work!" Wow. Just...wow. I often have a difficult time commenting specifically on the artwork in a comic unless there's something especially noteworthy, but I have to confess that this is one of those rare instances where seemingly every page had something that made me pause and study before I could move onto the next panel or page.

There's the Bat-Cave on page 20! The Gotham Gazette newsroom on page 18. The Ceiling night club splash on pages 28-29 - are you kidding me?! Greenside's workshop on page 70. Character moments like Bruce Wayne reacting to the crane beginning to fall on page 15 (middle panel); the back-and-forth between Bruce and Cyndia Syl (all of page 23). There are the three panels on page 48 of Richard Frank reacting with determination and resolve to the threat not to meet with Loar.

One of my favorite shots in the whole book (and there are certainly many worth admiring!) is on page 63, panel #3: The Bat-Man raising his cape against the police spotlight. It's such a standard image in the Batman mythology that it's easy to overlook. Taylor's is particularly interesting because he has elected to show us Bats's hands. Most commonly, they're obscured, shown to be holding the cape from the inside. Taylor's is conspicuous, and all the more striking because of it.

I had no real compulsion to read this when I first heard about it in solicits earlier this year. I can't say why, necessarily, though perhaps part of it was that I had only just in December read "The Destroyer". A big part of it, of course, was that I just don't have the kind of budget to go around buying $25 graphic novels just to read them and find out whether I like them. To that end, I'm thrilled that the library had this. Death by Design has some missteps - particularly in the finale, where too much is implicit rather than explicit - but it was still a highly satisfying Batman outing and certainly leaps and bounds more rewarding than Batman and Robin Volume 1: Born to Kill.

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