The overwhelming feeling I had while reading Batman: Death by Design was nostalgia.
No, not for the vaguely post-World War II time period in which the graphic novel is set, but for my teenage years of the mid-1990s. It was then that FOX aired Batman: The Animated Series, which remains the greatest iteration of the caped crusader.
Death by Design is written by Chip Kidd (he’s a book designer, which makes this all almost too clever). And one of the books in Kidd’s lengthy career is Batman Animated, a collaboration with Paul Dini (producer/writer of BTAS) that highlights the art of that show.
BTAS is most notable for its modernistic stylings and deftly written episodes that perfectly balance deep themes with superhero hijinks.
Death by Design is similarly set in a pseudo-historical Gotham, but its art (by Dave Taylor) is all deeply textured pencils with none of the harsh blacks and whites of BTAS. It’s stiff in spots and inspired in others.
Interestingly, it’s the tone of the story that meshes most closely with BTAS. Kidd pens a standalone tale that has all the hallmarks of Dini’s best episodes: old grudges, new dangers, human conflicts, a damsel in distress and a supervillain cameo. It also has an ending that some jaded souls might deem as schmaltzy, but that I enjoyed. (It’s odd, isn’t it, that happy endings in superhero comics have become the exception, not the rule.)
The story revolves around the planned demolition of the aging Wayne central station and construction of a new version. But as mysterious disasters plague both projects, Batman has to determine who he’s up against and what they’re after.
The book’s biggest weakness is the inclusion of a newspaper architecture critic as a pseudo-protagonist. Once the plot gathers enough momentum to move on its own without the cumbersome narration, the critic is set aside till the book’s end. Kidd would have been better served to pick one of the other many characters at hand and told the story through their eyes.
If the plot had been a bit tighter, this easily could have been made as a top-notch episode of The Animated Series. That sounds like some sort of backhanded compliment, but I did enjoy the book quite a lot. It’s nearly as good as the best-ever iteration of the character. Nothing to sniff at.