Anticipation for this book is pretty high because there isn’t anything else like it. I mean honestly, when was the last time you saw a Batman story take place in the 1930s with artwork of pure graphite and the whole thing had a Golden Age Hollywood feel?
So Much More
It’s a book with a lot of promise and as a result its greatest weakness is that it promises too much. It’s a book that’s been three years in the making, but in the end still feels very rushed. I interviewed Chip Kidd last week where I brought this issue up and even he admitted that it is a story that could have been much, much longer. The first quarter of the book is a glorious homage to the old school storytelling of Bill Finger and Bob Kane and a love letter to early 20th century architecture. But after those first 30 pages or so pass the pacing begins to move at break-neck speeds, desperate to squeeze in as much as possible within 104 pages. The book’s original draft dealt with Gotham corruption only, but after DC alerted Kidd that he could use any of Batman’s rogues gallery, Joker was shoehorned in needlessly, much like Penguin who has a one page cameo that disrupts the story’s flow entirely. Important information is delivered via huge dumps of exposition by television broadcasts and over-long monologues. Worst of all, as the book goes on, frames grow smaller and smaller to cram more story into each page so that it can all wrap up by page 104. It’s a damn shame. There is a good story here, but it has been condensed far too much to be fully enjoyed or remembered long after you’ve set it away on the shelf.
Emphasis on Design
However, while the story might not be particularly memorable, but the imagery is likely to stick with you forever. When you think of well drawn Batman stories, this will be one that comes to mind. Dave Taylor did it all in blue pencils then “inked” it in graphite and enhanced it with very subtle lighting effects and as little color as possible. Since it’s a book that heavily focuses on architecture, you’ll want to take special note of the backgrounds because these aren’t a bunch of silhouetted rectangles– Gotham City is the greatest character of this entire book and every building is painstakingly detailed. Everything is so, so incredibly rich! Many of the characters have even been modeled after actors from Hollywood’s golden age. Montgomery Clift is Bruce Wayne (although these pencils are admittedly inconsistent and Bruce looks different from chapter to chapter), Cyndia is Grace Kelly, the Joker looks like Conrad Veidt (who starred in “The Man Who Laughs” the original inspiration for the Joker), and even the book’s author, Chip Kidd, plays a starring role! The page layouts aren’t very exciting, and as I said some of them are far too small and there’s too much happening on one page. The book is horribly paced, but the imagery within those tightly knit panels is still quite beautiful. It’s a very impressive looking book and any Batman fan in love with this era and its architecture would be a fool to not check it out.
One of the best things about buying a graphic novel has to be all the supplemental material and “Death by Design” has some really great stuff. As I said, the book’s great strength is its art and the bonus material shows Dave Taylor’s early blue pencil sketches of everything from Batman’s grapple gun, the Batchopper, and even a few early designs of Bruce Wayne. There’s also a brief glimpse at how Chip Kidd scripted the book, which is pretty unique. Since it was his first time writing a comic, Kidd used Quark rather than simply write a traditional screenplay-like script for Taylor to work off of. Each page of the script had the panels already blocked off with the dialogue and action descriptions written within and sometimes these perfect squares were even accompanied by a doodle. It’s fascinating stuff, but with a book as visually powerful as this, I would’ve liked to have seen even more.
The art is wonderful, breathtaking really, and you’re not going to find another Bat-book that looks anything like this. It’s a one-of-a-kind visual feast for the eyes. But even though it has a great look and feel unlike anything out there today, “Batman: Death by Design” falls way short on storytelling and isn’t the sort of book you’ll find yourself re-reading. If you collect comics more for the art than the story then “Batman: Death by Design” is an absolute must-have, but if you’re like me and want the story and art to better complement each other, it may be better to wait for this book to come out in cheaper, paperback form.