Chip Kidd is a book designer and Batman uber-fan – he previously curated and designed Batman: Animated, a guide to the design work behind the seminal 90s Batman TV series, and Bat-Manga: The Secret History of Batman in Japan, a beautifully-designed treasury and translation of bizarre manga Batman comics. It’s fitting, then, that he finally gets a chance to write the character himself, rather than just acting as a curator.
Batman: Death by Design is a stand-alone story set in the 1930’s, with an inexperienced Batman facing down The Joker, corrupt officials and a strange figure called Exacto, in a Gotham City that exists somewhere between the New York of the time and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. With characters that look like matinee idols, Death by Design is like an unmade 30s Batman blockbuster, and that notion alone will probably be enough to sell it to most right-thinking folks.
First things first: between Kidd’s design skills and Taylor’s illustration abilities, Batman: Death by Design is a stunning-looking book. Drawn entirely in pencils with the barest amount of computerised colouring, it looks like nothing else around at the moment. It’s unashamedly grandiose too – story can sometimes suffer at the temptation to throw in another beautifully-rendered cityscape. Close-up, and action scenes also look tremendous, with astonishing detail and a texture provided by the pencilled artwork that is unlike anything else in mainstream comics.
Sadly, the writing does not live up to the artwork. It’s definitely not bad, but it’s lacking in character. The central storyline – missing architects, corrupt unions and shadowy superheroes – is well-constructed and nicely paced, but the suffer. Despite being unique portrayals of well-known characters, Kidd relies on the reader already knowing them – The Joker, in particular, is badly underwritten. Batman himself is portrayed as a young, inexperienced crimefighter, but also someone willing to bring the resources of his alter-ego to bear on the on the root of the issues he faces. Exacto, as a new character, suffers the most from this lack of characterisation – he certainly doesn’t join the ranks of classic DC characters.
Despite some weak writing, Batman: Death by Design is such a beautful and well-made book that it’s hard not to be won over by it’s sprawling deco cityscapes and noirish mystery.