Monday, 29 October 2012

Batman: Death by Design

I still haven’t decided whether being a Batman fan makes me more discerning in analysing the books, or more readily pleased. Fair warning though: there’s definitely some positive bias towards a character I’ve been reading since a child, but that doesn’t mean I’m placated by anything that DC see fit to put out. And let’s be honest- in terms of comics and the Dark Knight, the last decade or so hasn’t been anything memorable, unless you’re a Grant Morrison fan. Ideally (DC permitting) the beauty of characters like Batman and Superman would be the free rein they allow a creator: you can put them in any kind of genre or situation, build a story of any scope and imagination around them, safe in the knowledge that ultimately they will return to conventional super-heroics. This experimental factor was something the Elseworld stories did particularly well- Gotham by Gaslight, Nine Lives, Red Son, Riddle of the Beast amongst others- albeit to varying degrees of success. I love Batman in Scott Snyder’s solid bread and butter tales, but I’m always open to any new interpretations, angles and approaches to Bats, which is where Kidd’s stand alone story comes in.
In the build up to the release of Death by Design, much of the focus was on Chip Kidd’s decision to write a Batman story about architecture. It’s not as tenuous as it perhaps initially sounds. Arguably if any superhero is defined by a place, Batman is defined by Gotham: the alley in which his parents died, his empty, palatial mansion, the caverns under it, the buildings from which he swings, the Gothic gargoyles from which he oversees, the sewers and tunnels he peruses and installs, Wayne Tower. Gotham is the Batman’s city, one inexorably tied to the other (nice article by Adam Rogers on the relationship between man and city here) . In this context, Kidd’s choice makes more sense.
Set in the 1920′s, Death by Design sees Bruce’s desire to continue his parents legacy via the regeneration of Gotham lead him to reluctantly okay the demolition of the old Wayne train station. Precariously unstable, he hires an innovative architect from abroad to oversee the design and building of a new one. The closure, however, is being met with opposition from those who see it as a heritage landmark, a symbol of the period when Gotham was on the ascendancy, of better times and people. As Bruce ponders the conflict, buildings around Gotham begin to collapse, accidents with construction equipment occur and the Joker spies an opportunity to wreak random havoc. In addition to untangling this mystery, Bruce also has to contend with the appearance of a mysterious new costumed individual on the scene.
Death by Design is a beautiful book: Dave Taylor’s pencilled artwork expressively captures a cinematic, black and white movie feel, and has a pleasant atmospheric ambiance that you can’t help but be swept up in. I loved the opening sequence: Batman testing his new grapple, recounting his hopes and doubts, the panelling, the silent concentration, Taylor really nailing that sense of movement and motion in Batman’s actions- it’s all so sweetly done. One of the things I have always loved about Batman is the manner in which he is a creature of his own construct: quite consciously a large foreboding presence, a tall, imposing figure with cape spread or swirling, unable to tell where he begins and the night ends- a facet that doesn’t translate well onto celluloid, but works fantastically on the page. I’m a contrary sort of person, however, and I do also like the retro slimline look he sports here, simply because it makes such a refreshing change from the hugely bulking, costume-bursting muscular frames of superheroes today.
Some minor quibbles: the Joker’s appearance felt unnecessary. While his characterisation is spot on, his showy theatrics ad psychotic faux gentleman air nicely suited to the era, any other villain could have stood in for the minor role he plays here and the substitution would have made no difference He’s one of comics greatest characters, but his impact is weakened by the continuous over-use of him in this manner- for nothing, bit part appearances. The use of simultaneous speech and thought bubbles for Bruce and Cyndia when they’re talking is cringe-worthy in both construction and execution and violates the basic principle of storytelling- show, don’t tell. It’s especially puzzling (and a little insulting) as the reader is perfectly capable of inferring their thoughts from what they’re saying.
Death by Design is an enjoyable Batman story, and one that’s easily accessible for non-fans to pick up and read without having any great deal of awareness of Batman’s mythos and background. As a fan, much of the satisfaction I gained from it came from what I bought to the story through previous knowledge and acquaintance: I enjoyed Batman being totally alone and without Robin: as much as I love Dick Grayson (the others I can give or take), I have more recently been appreciating Bats operating on his own, minus any member of the ever expanding ‘Bat-family’ and the burden of brooding angst, and grim introspection he’s been burdened with since the 80′s. Snyder has recently been taking a lighter approach with him in The Court of Owls, where Bruce seemed more ready with that occasional dry wit, and generally more comfortable with his, ahem, work/life balance. That clearer voice of an actual person and not solely ‘the Batman’ is used well here.
Overall, Kidd delivers a perfectly serviceable tale with some outstanding attributes- Dave Taylor’s art being one of them.

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