A Review of Batman: Death by Design

Batman: Death by DesignBatman: Death by Design by Chip Kidd

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’ve always had a sort of bittersweet relationship with alternative takes on the Batman mythology. They interest me enough to explore, but I just can’t consider them canonical to the Batman universe in any way. Still, these stand-alone stories show the way in which this hero resonates with nearly all of us in some way or another, and are often worth the read.

Death by Design was an unknown to me, but the premise was enough to grab my attention. The author, in the preface, indicates that his inspiration came from two historical events: the demolition of the original Pennsylvania Station in 1963, and the construction crane collapses in Manhattan in 2008. Weaving these events in to a “glorious, golden age” in Gotham city, Chip Kidd draws us into a noir-ish mystery featuring a young Bruce Wayne who is early in his career as the Batman. The Dark Knight must solve the mystery of industrial neglect that has resulted in lost lives and that is connected far more intimately than he cares to realize to the Wayne legacy. Along the way he meets an anti-hero, Exacto, that is taking the situation into his own hands in a way that he views as impossible for others.

Besides writing the Batman into an entertaining mystery, Kidd uses Exacto to call into question the line that Batman walks between hero and vigilante. Exacto crosses the lines that Batman will not, drawing a contrast to the police’s perception of the Batman, who view him as an out-of-control vigilante, even though he adheres to his personal code of not killing those who are guilty, despite the fact that they are guilty. Exacto has no such hesitance, yet the Batman’s heroism is not seen in any favorable light by the authorities.

Kidd brings technology into the story that feels to be too far-flung and science-fiction-like to have a place in the mythology of Batman, especially if we’re to see the story as a period piece in a “glorious, golden age.” The grappling gun is one thing, but a small device that emits a stasis field in order to prevent harmful impacts? My suspension of disbelief is broken at that point.

The Joker is written poorly by Kidd, but I have trouble holding this against him. This is an extremely nuanced villain who is difficult to get right, as difficult as the Batman in his own right.

Bruce Wayne’s introspective voice, however, is significantly out of character, something else that broke my ability to completely inhabit the story on more than one occasion. He feels too flippant, too eager for the disturbed, fractured, traumatized man that is the Dark Night Detective.

And yet, for all of my misgivings, there is the art….

The art…

Dave Taylor draws us into this noir world with black-and-white art work that is nothing short of stunning. A two-page spread of Batman sailing across Gotham’s skyline is worth reading the book in itself, and the close-ups of Cyndia Syl’s face are breath-taking. There is just enough color to make these panels pop without breaking the murder-mystery feel, and Taylor draws your eyes across his pages masterfully.

This is an entertaining mystery with fantastic art, but it just doesn’t connect with the Batman story as we know it. The departures are simply too drastic to ignore at times, but the capturing of the genre into which our hero is placed makes the book at least somewhat worth reading. I wish Kidd would have spent more time exploring the contrasts between Batman and Exacto, because there is potential to have saved this story here, instead of simply encountering another custom-written villain to balance the story. I would have difficulty recommending this for a dedicated Batman fan, unless you’re just looking for a quick weekend read.

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The Writing (Re-) Process

I’m oversimplifying a bit perhaps, but I see two general schools of thought regarding how to be creative and make a living.

And I’m reminded of the poet (whom I can’t remember) who said that the only thing worse than having a job is not having a job.

I can only speak for those of us who write, but I imagine its the same for anyone with a creative bent. I used to complain a lot. The reason was that I worked in a profession that didn’t permit a great deal of creativity. It was also a profession that was better suited to extroverts (I’m very much the introvert by nature). I came home quite exhausted at the end of the day, and it was all I could do to force myself to put down any words somewhere between dinner and bedtime. One of the reasons for my career change, I reasoned, was to allow more creativity into my day-to-day so that I would be more creative in my free time to write.

Now, I am essentially a creative problem solver Monday through Friday. I write the code that makes things on the web work. The issue is that the technologies with which I work require a great deal of time to remain current in one’s knowledge as they’re always evolving, and thus I do the same work a lot in my free time, as well. I know, you’re thinking “all work and no play.” Sometimes, though, the work is the play.

That creates its own set of problems. How does one know when to stop working, to take time off? How does one switch gears between the creativity that is work and the creativity that is play? In my case, when do I stop writing code and start writing fiction?

In retrospect, I was very wrong to complain back then. Being able to think outside the box and solve problems creatively each day is great, especially when I get to do it in the context of something as socially, politically, and interpersonally transformative as the Internet. Sometimes, though, when I have free time at home and want to get the latest short story idea out of my head and onto “paper,” I find myself with a very different problem: my creative juices are tapped, the muscles sore from being put to good use all day.

So, all that to say that each day job held and holds its own challenges. Both make me just as tired, but in different ways. The moral to my brief account, if there is one, is to not complain about one’s circumstances, because, as Karen would be quick to point out to me, the grass isn’t always greener.

And, while I’m not complaining at all about my current field of grass, the other moral to this story is that writing (as well as any other medium, I’m certain) takes just as much discipline now. I have to be intentional about making the time, intentional about practicing the discipline. That intentionality is key, and my impulse to think that the need for it would be offset by a new career was very misguided.

Anything creative is work. Hard work.

Here’s to those doing the work.

Playful Recollections

G.I. Joe action figures

When I was young, I played with action figures. I had both a Transformers and a G.I. Joe collection that were quite impressive. And they weren’t the only ones: my geekier friends will remember the likes of M.A.S.K., and the Super Powers collection.

There was this room in our home that experienced multiple reincarnations during the course of my childhood. It was a den, it was a guest bedroom, it was other things here and there. At one point, it became the secret mountain headquarters for the G.I. Joe team. I filled most of the room with just the good guys. There was difficulty finding somewhere else in the house to put the bad guys.

It was a modest collection.

As I grew, I made a close friend with one of the neighbors. He was older than I was a by a few grade levels, and he won me over to the world of role playing games and other things that older kids do. One day, I was playing with some of my old toys having some of my usual imaginative adventures play out. Later, my older friend was visiting and commented on the toys still laying about. He was trying not to judge, but this just wasn’t the sort of thing that older kids did.

Last week I enjoyed the final of this year’s Reith lectures, which was about finding self-fulfillment through art. And while you might guess that, as powerful as I know art to be and as much as I love talking about it, I rolled my eyes at that title, there was an important point in the lecture about how we forget to play as children play, because that is what creativity and art are at their simplest impulse: play.

Life has a way of pushing us out of the playful mindset. All of that adult responsibility sort of stuff…working hard, staying late, dressing up for work every day. I’ve experienced my lot of that, especially over the last year (although I at least don’t have to dress up any more). Even when you have the opportunity to work in a creative profession, daily life is fraught with a specific set of resulting concerns that carry an overwhelmingly burdening load at times. It’s no wonder that our creativity suffers a blow from the constraints with which we deal.

And that’s to say nothing of the other aspects of a stressful but full life…say, having a two-year-old, for example.

Looking back on that evening years ago when my friend saw those toys laying around, my feelings of embarrassment regarding being found out were seriously misplaced. I should have been proud to have toys about, in the same way that I’m proud to wear comic book t-shirts now. It has nothing to do with being part of a subculture or being a geek. It has everything to do with remembering to play.

Because that’s such a very, very important part of life.

Photo Attribution: Lunchbox Photography under Creative Commons

A Particular Rear-View Mirror

In the Rearview Mirror, used under Creative Commons

Music always takes me places.

Now that I’m…well…of an undisclosed age, I find myself nostalgically turning to songs that are older, songs from when I was…well, not of such an undisclosed age. Now, lest I make myself sound like I’m of an undisclosed age, I won’t talk about how that music had poetry and passion that “today’s music” just doesn’t have. I’ll just say that…man, that stuff really takes me back.

On the drive home one night this week, I was rocking out to Meatloaf. Fascinating music, his…I’d love to see academic papers on the theology of his music, because it’s dripping with metaphor and a general questioning of life. One of his songs, Objects In The Rear View Mirror, is a powerful retrospective on the emotional events of one’s life. I typically relate to the third verse, which talks about that first passionate romantic relationship that we all remember from some point in our past. The first verse, though, is about a childhood friend who died far too young, and the fact that the singer is still haunted by the memories of that missed friend.

And the song takes me back…

When I was in elementary school, somewhere around third grade if memory serves, I had a friend. Well, I had more than one friend, several of whom remained my group of friends all the way through until middle school, but this one I vaguely remember. I’m not even entirely certain about his name, but I’ll omit it here, in any case. I know that he hung out with us and that our play was very imaginative. I remember that he was new to the school that year, and that he had clicked with us early in the new semester.

I grew up in a rural area, where there were a lot of farms and other rural vocations. I came to school one day to hear in hushed tones that our friend had “passed away.” I don’t remember all the details of how we were told, but I remember finding out that a large farm tractor had rolled over, trapping our friend beneath it and killing him quickly.

I also remember having only a very brief conversation with my parents about it, and moving on. It had left my mind by the end of that year, by the end of that semester. I’m sure that there was some intentional effort to let it drift from memory on the part of the school administration in order to avoid re-traumatizing us, but, overall, after the initial surprise, I really didn’t think about it again. My friend had died, and I moved on.

My first career after college, and the career in which I remained for over a decade, was behavioral health. Part of that career was spent doing emergency services work, in which I did things such as hospital consultations and the like. I met people at their lowest points, and tried to help them resolve their situations. I worked out of a satellite office for our agency most of the time (it was literally a five-minute commute from my apartment…that would definitely beat my current commute). One of our administrative staff worked every Friday in that satellite office, helping our regular office administrator catch up on what was always a backlog of paperwork. One afternoon, the regular front office person ran back through hallway calling for help. One of my co-workers ran to the side of the here-every-Friday staff, who had collapsed in the front office. I grabbed a phone to call 9-1-1. They were there amazingly fast (I remember wondering how they had arrived so quickly), but my co-worker, whose pleasant demeanor had always cheered us, never awoke. I didn’t see her fall, but I witnessed the failed attempts to revive her, the rushing her out to the waiting ambulance. Then I worked the rest of the week as I always did. I moved on.

I trouble myself sometimes with the way in which I can distance myself from tragedy. It’s not as though I don’t feel the impact of loss, or mourn. Certainly I have and I do. I remember, though, when my grandmother passed, that it took weeks for the emotional response to finally catch up with me. When it did, it passed and I found myself moving on. I miss her, I do. I wish that she could have seen our daughter. But, I’ve moved on.

Ironically, I have issues moving on that easily in matters of life that are of arguably much less importance.

Back in those days, back when I did that work in that career that required me to be able to handle what shocked most others deeply, I considered it a positive attribute that I could handle those sorts of stressors easily. Now, I wonder if my handling them so easily is healthy at all. I move on quickly…I suppose that’s a good thing. I just wonder if I’ve truly dealt with what’s happened in the past. One of our family values when I grew up was to put conflict behind us quickly and move forward. I fear sometimes that I’ve generalized that too much, and that I move forward too quickly, before I’m ready to do so.

And I wonder, at times, how this bodes for my future. Or, if it really is a healthy thing that I move forward, and only have nostalgic recollections on occasion.

Objects in the rearview mirror may, after all, appear closer than they are.

Image attribution: A Gude under Creative Commons.