Batman is comics’ most versatile character, suitable for all kinds of stories. You can find him fighting alongside Superman in a standard superhero adventure; going it alone in a crime story, beating up gun-toting gangsters; or solving mysteries as “the world’s greatest detective.”
Regardless of the story, he works best in his own world — on (and above) the mean streets of Gotham City. In the best stories, Gotham itself is a main character. And so it is for “Death By Design,” the exquisitely produced graphic novel written by the famed graphic designer and Penn State grad Chip Kidd with art by Dave Taylor.
This is a Batman in a universe separate from what you’ll find in the monthly comics or in the movies. Kidd and Taylor’s Gotham is a 1930s noir version of Manhattan, all towers and steel and smoke. Even Batman’s costume harkens back to his first appearance in 1939.
The story is inspired by real-world events. Bruce Wayne is planning to tear down the crumbling Wayne Central Station, echoing the demolition of the original Pennsylvania Station in 1963. At the press conference, Wayne is almost killed by a construction crane collapse similar to the Manhattan accidents in 2008.
A beautiful heiress (a dead ringer for Patricia Neal in the 1949 film version of “The Fountainhead”) seeks to preserve the station. The villains include a scheming union boss, a nicely rendered version of the Joker; and a new character, the architectural provocateur Exacto. Yes, like the knife.
There are a few fights and an explosion or two, but Kidd’s story is really about the role of architecture and what it takes to build something beautiful.
Take, for example, this book. The drawings are in blue pencil overlaid with graphite, with none of the lines erased and no inks added. You can see the grit of each pencil stroke. The coloring is minimal, with subtle splashes of gold, blue, and (in the case of Joker’s hair) green. It’s all lovely, but the panels depicting the city are breathtaking.
A year from now, it’s not the plot you’ll remember, or the characters’ speeches about architecture. Gotham, as drawn by Taylor, makes Kidd’s point: Artifacts as beautiful as Penn Station — and their fictional counterparts in this graphic novel — speak for themselves.