More than a few Batman writers have played with the powerful notion that Gotham City is not just a setting, but a character. Seeing Batman’s hometown as a kind of organism that he must not only embrace in all its ugliness, but also protect and preserve, is always something thrilling for us hardcore Bat-fanatics. With Death by Design, Chip Kidd and Dave Taylor have embraced that idea in bold and surprisingly subtle ways, crafting a graphic novel that’s as beautiful as it is immersive.
As the story begins, Bruce Wayne is announcing his plans to demolish the iconic but crumbling Gotham Central Station in favor of an updated facility that will also allow Batman to construct a new underground transit system for himself. But the idea isn’t without opposition. Architecture enthusiasts who admire the original building don’t want it gone, and apparently someone wants it to stay so much they’re willing to topple a crane down on Gotham’s citizens.
With that single crash of twisted metal, a mystery is set in motion, and tangled in it are a Gotham architecture critic turned reporter, a sexy but determined woman trying to save the original station, a cutthroat union leader, The Joker, a mysterious costumed figure who calls himself “Exacto” and Batman himself.
It’s a different kind of mystery for the Batman to solve, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less effective than all the classic Bat-tales you love. Kidd’s having fun on every page, diving deep into Gotham’s shadows and leaping high into its light, trafficking in high society and low, playing with the city like a kid in a candy store. It’s not the most edge of your seat Batman story you’ll ever read, but it is extremely well-told, with crisp dialogue, smooth pacing and a compelling plot.
Obviously, with a name like Death by Design, the look of the book is going to be paramount, and Kidd and Taylor don’t disappoint on that front. You could easily spend an hour on every single page of this book. Taylor’s illustrations are instant classics, black and white pencils that recall both the original Bob Kane renderings of the Bat and the art deco noir shadows of Batman: The Animated Series. Every illustration is nestled into elegant and often stunningly intricate panel constructions that only enhance the reading experience. Too often as comics readers we zip through these pages, perhaps stopping for a moment to admire a well-drawn explosion or bit of superhero physique, but never really pausing to admire the construction of such things. With its images of Gotham’s elite partying on a glass floor suspended above the city and Batman’s winged silhouetted swinging through skyscrapers, Death by Design almost forces you to pay attention, and the result is a comic that not only proves deeply re-readable, but reminds us why we love graphic storytelling to begin with.
Batman: Death by Design is available in comic book stores today, and book stores everywhere June 5.
(Thanks to DC Comics for a chance to read this title in advance.)