by Jess Charlap
No masked superhero personifies their city as much as Batman embodies Gotham. The dark, brooding vigilante is regularly depicted perched on dark, deco skyscrapers, judgmentally viewing the streets the way only gods and modelmakers do. In Batman: Death by Design, well-known graphic designer Chip Kidd attempts to extend the relationship further by entangling Bruce Wayne in a fictional version of the destruction of the original Pennsylvania Station, which led to the modern architectural preservation movement.
When the book opens, Batman is testing out some new equipment on the skyline of Gotham, attempting to swing his way through the city. The infrastructure crumbs below him and he has to make an impromptu graceless landing. The author probably intended the scene as a foreshadowing of the decay of the city’s structures and social order, and the difficulty Batman would have combating entrenched rot. A critical reader would also see a foreshadowing of a disjointed plot with a deus ex machina ending.
20 years prior to the opening of this story, Bruce Wayne’s father hired Gregor Greenside to design a “Patri-monumental Modernism: a masterpiece of a train station, Wayne Central Station. The station almost immediately started falling apart, supposedly because it was designed with more of an eye for aesthetics than structural stability. The architect fell into disgrace and hasn’t been heard from in years. To revitalize the city (and build a Bat-Transport Hub) Bruce Wayne has held a design competition and hired international genius Ken Roomhaus to create a new station. Love interest and preservation advocate (but mostly love interest) Cyndia Syl tries to talk Bruce into a costly renovation instead of a slightly less costly demolition and new construction. She doesn’t get very far with her argument, but she gets far enough into Wayne’s affections to be the victim of multiple crimes.
Batman is mostly concerned with a new masked character in Gotham, Exacto, who shows up, makes statements such as “The stresses on this structure were improperly calculated!” and then disappears without helping. While the public seems happy to paint any additional masked weirdo as bad news (decent pattern recognition on their part), Batman isn’t sure if Exacto is friend or foe. Day-job Bruce Wayne tried to suss out Exacto’s agenda by playing a more active role as chairman of the Gotham Landmarks Commission.
In the background is an architecture critic turned investigative journalist, helpfully telling us all the clues the narrative doesn’t show. He would be a great candidate for the true identity of Exacto, a la Clark Kent/Superman or Peter Parker/Spiderman, but the journalist and Exacto are seen together almost immediately. Gregor Greenside’s son, Garrett, is also in the mix, slaving away in the cluttered office he shared with his missing father and a teleportation device stashed in a corner like last year’s redlines. Alfred the butler makes a pithy observation about the similarities between Garrett and Bruce and their tragic fathers. Batman ignores it in favor of watching exposition newscasts, losing the graphic novel an opportunity for literary parallels.
The book is a rushed hodgepodge of narrative elements, like a McMansion with 10 window styles (hat tip Kate Wagner). The chapters jump from a love interest to the Joker to a parody starchitect to corruption in the construction industry to the importance of historic preservation and back again. The book tries to get a lot of mileage out of Ken Roomhaus and his ego, but overreaches and the jokes fall flat. Key areas of action are solved with improbable toys like a hand size forcefield generator that would be more suited to Star Trek then the DC universe.
Visually, the novel is stunning. There are multiple pages you’ll want to be framed on your wall. The artists did a lot of research on building precedents from life and movies, especially the work of Fritz Lang. Illustrator Dave Taylor drew the artwork with a blue pencil, then “inked” in graphite, leaving nothing to be erased after the fact. This gives the book a raw, 1930’s feel. Additionally, the stylized use of color accentuates certain details to help the eye move across the panels.
The combination of text and images has a long history (see the works of Scott McCloud for more) and are increasingly being recognized as art forms worthy of respect, as epitomized by Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize for Maus. Beyond source material for the next summer blockbuster, comics have a unique potential to combine the best of visual art and narrative language. While Batman: Death by Design was not as good as it could have been, it was enjoyable, and it proves there is a market for architecture comics. I plan to keep reading them.