Batman, like most superheroes, is defined by the city which he’s sworn to protect. That city is, of course, Gotham, the depiction of which has changed considerably in the 70 years since the character’s invention, from the bare bones sound stage-like constructions of the comic’s pulp origins and the camp of the mid-century city to Frank Miller’s canonical turn as a dark smoldering vat of paranoia and Anton Furst’s insanity-gripped, fragmented metropolis strewn with Piranesian ruins and corpses. Putting aside Christopher Nolan’s recent Batman films, which very literally crystallized the anxiety of the contemporary American city, Gotham endures to this day as a stone tapestry of skyscrapers and alleyways in the form of Batman: Death by Design.
Penned by acclaimed graphic novelist Chip Kidd, Death by Design sees Gotham under intense construction, its skyline awash with the cranes and machinery that erect tower projects designed by the world’s (or DC Comics’) most famous architects. Bruce Wayne oversees the boom that will be remembered as a "golden age of architectural ingenuity" in the history of the city, a legacy the billionaire-turned-chair of the Gotham’s landmarks commission is committed to uphold. Yet, amid the joyous clamor of construction, a series of horrifying accidents abruptly cut through the optimistic miasma, initiating a period of chaos that brings the widespread building to a halt. Gotham’s greatest sleuth must uncover who’s behind these seemingly random acts of terror before it’s too late!
As is evident from the brief synopsis and title–the villain is even named Exacto–Death by Design explores the link between Batman and architecture, weaving a narrative that is as much invested with architecture as with the human players it accommodates. At one point, Wayne Central Station is marked for demolition and must be rescued by preservationists, recalling the drama that surrounded the 1963 campaign to save McKim, Mead and White’s tragically doomed Penn Station from the developers’ wrecking ball. “Great Batman stories always incorporate architecture in some way” Kidds tells i09 of the graphic novel, which, along with Furst’s Destroyer series explicitly tackles the relationship between the Caped Crusader and the buildings, not too mention social structures that he purports to defend.
The book’s actual architectural content riffs off both Hugh Ferriss’ canonical “City of Tomorrow” etches and the infrastructural quagmire of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Colossal stone towers spear upwards, each one with a distinct aquiline profiles. Interestingly, the highest registers of the skyscrapers appear vacant or unfinished, with the actual skyline falling well short of the pinnacle heights the spires would suggest. The traditional scenario is thus flipped on its head, so to speak, where Gotham’s darkest and most cavernous spaces reside not in the alleyways and ambiguous terrain of the street and sewer, but above, among the flyspace and echoing attics, abandoned penthouses and clock towers.
Kidd’s Gotham quite literally draws on the comic’s pulp origins, filtered through a somewhat atavistic aesthetic that eulogizes the frictional moment when graphite rubs off of paper. Illustrator Dave Taylor’s broad, uneven shading and charcoal smears approximate the grit of the era, while the Dark Knight is rendered in radial lines, bleeding into the shadowed cityscape he nimbly navigates. As Kidd says himself, every frame is very much a "love letter to pencil on paper." The technique serves the story well, presenting an all-new Gotham that is different, yet strangely familiar, and altogether sublime.
This post originally appeared on Architizer, an Atlantic partner site.