Batman: 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….
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.