You know how some things are just unfortunately named? Because Batman: Death by Design nails it in the title. This is a comic that is overly designed. Overly pretty. Overly conceptualized. Lifeless. A comic that is literally dead by design.
Batman: Death by Design is also yet another comic that shows that just because you are good at one thing, doesn't mean you are good at everything. And one thing Chip Kidd is really good at — the best actually — is designing books about comics. I've got several Chip Kidd books in my library, and they are all works of art, beautiful collections of beautiful things. But being a brilliant book designer does not a brilliant writer make.
The concept is a good one; Death by Design fuses architecture and black-and-white film noir wrapped in a 1930s and '40s aesthetic that borders on Steam Punk. Bruce Wayne is looking to blow up a building his father built, Wayne Central Station, a crumbling testament to the genius of architect Gregor Greenside. Wayne is going to replace it with an ultra-modern design (and slip in a few bat-tunnels unnoticed during constructions.)
What follows is a classic clash of aesthetics and urban landscaping. Do we preserve and retrofit structurally unsound old buildings, or take the easy route and smash them down in favor of something modern? Live in a city of any size, and it is an argument you will hear daily. I live in Seattle, and this kind of topic is always in the news. Cold-hearted developers with no more vision beyond their next dollar in legal battles with idealistic residents who don't want to lose the hundred-plus-year-old brick facades that give the neighborhood its character.
Props to Chip Kidd for trying to fold this real-life social issue into a Batman story, but in truth — unless you really, really care about architecture — this clash of aesthetics doesn't make for a thrilling superhero story. Even with the Joker involved, who seems to have been tossed into the storyline just because someone reminded Kidd that a Batman story needs a super-villain.
And the art. Holy moley but the art in here is gorgeous. Dave Taylor has delivered some of the prettiest pencils I have ever seen, with beautiful detail down to Batman's Buck Rogers inspired grappling gun. Taylor calls this his most "honest" work, with the artist's hand touching every line, every stroke on the page. Beautiful it is, but stagnant.
The effect is something like fashion illustration, incredibly designed and immaculate in execution but lacking any sort of vitality or movement. There is a scene where Bruce Wayne is talking to architect crusader Cyndia Syl, and it looks like a Barbie and Ken doll poised around a plastic table. Their faces are smooth, wrinkleless and shinning with a slight sheen. Their lips never move, nor do they change expression. They are perfectly posed. The light glimmers in their hair "just so." It looks ridiculous.
Is it the writer's fault or the artist's that Batman: Death by Design is so boring? I don't know. I try to imagine the same story by someone like Tony Harris who has an amazing art-deco design-sense but still delivers exciting, living art with every story. I think it could work. Or maybe Dave Taylor's elegant, stunning illustrations would be better served by a story that was less academic essay on aesthetic preservation and more film noir. Something with more deep shadows and danger to counter-point the clean lines. I think that could work too.
But sadly, as it is both Chip Kidd and Dave Taylor designed themselves to death. And Batman: Death by Design comes off as a pretty façade pasted over nothing. All form, no function.
Zack Davisson is a freelance writer and life-long comics fan. He owned a comic shop in Seattle during the '90s, during which time he had the glorious (and unpaid) gig as pop-culture expert for NPR. He has lived in three countries, has degrees in Fine Art and Japanese Studies, and has been a contributing writer to magazines like Japanzine and Kansai Time-Out. He currently lives in Seattle, WA with his wife Miyuki. You can catch more of Zack’s reviews on his blog Japan Reviewed or read his translations of Japanese ghost stories on Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai.