Friday, June 8, 2012

Recommended Reading for 6/8: Batman: Death By Design

Legendary graphic designer Chip Kidd is one of the world's foremost Batman fans. His works of non-fiction include Bat-Manga!, the story of the 60s Batman comics of Japan, and Batman Animated with Paul Dini, the definitive history of the best superhero cartoon ever created, Batman: The Animated Series. When I saw Mr. Kidd speak in Princeton a couple years ago, he mentioned he had been working on a Batman graphic novel, news which was greeted with excitement by the assembled crowd. That book, Batman: Death By Design, was released last Wednesday, and I am happy to say it does not disappoint.

Death By Design is a book that, a few years ago, probably would have been bannered as Elseworlds, DC's branding for titles that take their familiar characters and set them in unusual times or situations. In this case, the story takes place in the late 1930s, the time when Batman was introduced. It revolves around the demolition of the old Wayne Central Station and the building of the new one.

As this is a Batman story, there is a mystery involved, one that has to do with Gotham's trademark political corruption the disappearance of a legendary architect, an appearance by a certain white faced archcriminal, and a mysterious flying vigilante, but anyone with a basic knowledge of mysteries, or a basic knowledge of Batman stories, can pretty easily put the pieces together. The crimes are a mcguffin, to move forward the plot and to set up discussions about architecture and design. It's sad more time wasn't spent with the crime, since the corrupt union boss and his dealings with the construction of the original station were a part of the story I enjoyed that seemed wrapped up a little too quickly.

Kidd clearly loves Batman, and has a good understanding of who he is and how he operates. His Batman and Bruce Wayne ring true, as does his Alfred, and his Joker has a sinister quality that I enjoy. A lot of the characters who are dreated for the story, including a socialite who wants to save the old Wayne Central Station and the son of the architect who designed it, seem to exist for nothing more than forwarding the plot and don't really stand out as anything else.

I know this is a weekly recommended reading, and I seem to be more harsh than I've been in previous weeks, but I just want to point out the parts of the book I wasn't in love with as well as the stuff I did. Kidd does provide a very strong basic Batman story, and he knows how to write to set up some excellent action pieces that play to Batman's strengths as a character, both as a detective and an action hero. I did enjoy the thoughtful looks at urban change, and the questions it raises about the way we think about cities and their ever evolving presence.

More than anything else, though, this book is a tour de force for artist Dave Taylor. I remember enjoying  Taylor's work in Batman: Shadow of the Bat, but here he takes his game to a whole new level. As this is a new book and I'm not exactly at the point I can get exclusive art previews sent to me for the blog, I was left to search the internet for art samples, and I found a couple pages that are good examples of what I'm talking about.

The first page is uncolored, but gives you a clear look at not only Taylor's tremendous line work, and his Joker, which is one of the better ones I've seen in recent years. Taylor's work has a sense of motion that draws the eye from panel to panel during the action sequences. His sense of page layout and design are tremendous, and appropriate in a book written by America's leading designer of books. His cityscapes are breathtaking, and the amount of detail leaves you just wanting to stare at the pages for hours. The design of Batman's gadgets is also very clever; they feel like something out of a Buck Rogers serial, which makes sense if you were designing high tech gadgets in the period. I loved the little details like that, things that helped pull me into the Gotham of the 30s.
The colored pages, an example you see in the second page above, are soft and give the world the tones of old photographs at times, and those soft blues at others, giving it a very distinct look. DC Comics' Source blog had a week of pages from the sketchbook section at the back of the book (which is almost worth the price of the book itself), so I would encourage curious readers to head over their and check it out. Here is a link to one of the entries for those of you who want to check it out.

In the end, Batman: Death By Design is a fun Batman story. It's a love letter to Batman and to an age gone by. And to be frank, knowing how Kidd feels about Batman, I couldn't help but smile while reading the book. After all, he's living the dream that I've had since I was nine years old: being the fan who gets to write Batman. And to that I say, good for you, Mr. Kidd. I look forward to seeing what you'll do if you ever get to play in Gotham again.

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