When Words Collide: Designed To Death: Chip Kidd's Batman

Mon, June 4th, 2012 at 2:58pm PDT

Comic Books
Timothy Callahan, Columnist/Reviewer

Chip Kidd and Dave Taylor's "Batman: Death By Design" was several years in the making

"Batman: Death by Design" isn't Chip Kidd's first book featuring Batman. But it's his first Batman book. It's his first attempt at a superhero graphic novel. From what I understand, it has been in the works for a couple of years.

Besides being the most prominent book designer of this generation, Kidd has carved out a sideline as a comic book culture curator, gathering images of memorabilia into books around a single cape-and-cowl topic, or lovingly presenting a hundred pages of Jiro Kuwata superhero manga accompanied by pictures of tin toys and obscure robot reproductions. He's also a novelist of some note, and while the sales on 2001's "The Cheese Monkeys" or 2008's "The Learners" may not have lofted Kidd to the best-seller lists, both of those works of fiction are confident portrayals of an artist in the process of becoming. First, as a student learning the concepts of graphic design from an eccentric but stunningly effective teacher, and then as a desk jockey for a small advertising firm. Neither of those two books are memoirs. Instead, they are that old fashioned thing called a novel -- the kind where the writer takes stuff that he experienced, and some opinions he has about the subject, and recasts them with a different setting and smashes a few real-life people into something called well-developed characters. It's a classic game, and a good one.

Neither of Kidd's novels end as strongly as they begin, but they both have moments of greatness, particularly around the bits of craft in which their protagonist struggles with the intersection between art and meaning and commerce and creativity and purpose and production. The soap operatic elements Kidd grafts on to these concerns are seemingly of less interest to the writer, a bit more hollow, than the raw heart of the artist-at-work.

You are a designer. You must eat the world with your eyes. You must look at everything as if you're going to die in the next five minutes, because in the relative scheme of things, you are. -- Professor Winter Sorbeck, "The Cheese Monkeys"

Kidd's "Batman: Death by Design" suffers from an even more extreme case of that problem. Some slices of the narrative seem to interest him more than others. His affection for Batman is apparent -- as an icon, as a symbol -- just from reading this book, even if you were unaware of his previous Batman tributes. And Kidd appears genuinely interested in the core conflict underlying the secrets and lies and tragedy within the graphic novel: the artist whose vision is drastically compromised by the greed of the businessman.

That stuff's Chip Kidd 101, and it runs through the narrative spine of "Death by Design." But everything else around it feels as fragile as a nightclub built on a pane of glass, suspended over Gotham City, without any of the bravado of such a design.

Now, as for Commercial Art, I could be crass and say the term is both repetitive and redundant, but that's too easy. Better to say the term is too limiting and too humiliating. I mean, do you really want to be a Commercial Artist? -- Professor Winter Sorbeck, "The Cheese Monkeys"

Kidd's previous original fiction works, "The Cheese Monkeys" and "The Learners,"both prose novels

Dave Taylor provides the art for "Batman: Death by Design," and though the book will likely be constantly referred to as "That Chip Kidd Batman Thing," Taylor does more than execute Kidd's vision. He makes a fatal misstep by drawing an important supporting character in the exact likeness of Kidd, thereby injecting a time-traveling, dimension-hopping, Kidd-in-a-fiction-suit doppelganger into a story that's nominally about Batman, and though that decision leads to awkwardness on the page, Taylor's drawings in this book are some of the best he's ever done in comics.

The book is printed from scans of Taylor's pencils -- without the "digital inking" step -- later colored by Taylor digitally. The texture of Taylor's graphite becomes a powerful visual signifier of plans unfinished, ideas not quite fully rendered. It's a fitting thematic connection between image and narrative.

It was that moment -- when the mind, instead of obsessively pacing the prison of its own puzzlement, suddenly, instinctively, deliriously, discovers a way to make wings out of way and fly the maze. -- "The Cheese Monkeys"

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Dave Taylor also provides a nice bit of pacing in the scene where the Joker first appears. It's a variant Joker, in this out-of-DC-mainstream-continuity story, but he looks familiar enough to be unmistakable. He sheds a disguise and brandishes a pistol, but in Taylor's panel-by-panel telling, that action happens in tiny frames at the bottom of a heavy-dialogue scene that turns into laughter without comedy. It's almost like Taylor is able to pull off a cross-cutting technique without juxtaposing two different points of view. Instead, he places them sequentially, and by changing the size of the panels so drastically, and revealing the Joker in disguise in tiny insert shots, it's a ticking-timebomb-anticipation effect rather than an explosive reveal. Subtle and powerful work from Taylor.

Then again, it's impossible to say whether the pacing decision was Taylor's own or something directed by Kidd. It's likely that, with Kidd's background, he would have specifically managed plenty of the artistic decision-making, but Taylor's execution of the scene is superb nevertheless.

You can be crippled by too many choices, especially if you don't know what your goals are. -- Professor Winter Sorbeck, "The Cheese Monkeys"

"Batman: Death by Design" is filled with pages worth gawking at. Little of it is what might be considered traditional superhero art. It's almost subversive in its non-machismo, in the delicate beauty of its action heroes, and in its soft precision. In a comic book culture where garish and hard-edged are the norm, this little graphic novel with its grey tones and soft pastel highlights and smudged holding lines has the charm of something more independent-minded and free-spirited. To put it another way: the big comic book companies tend to ghettoize this kind of artistic approach on quickly dismissed comedy sideline projects. If you draw superheroes in this style, you might get a short in a "Bizarro World" anthology or a "Strange Tales" series, because, ha ha, alternative comics are inherently ridiculous and can't legitimately offer the pathos of something drawn by Ian Churchill or Khoi Pham.

Yet here's a Batman book, presented without an overt chuckle, and it doesn't look like the rest of the stuff out there.

Page from "Batman: Death By Design"

And though that's a heroic story by itself, it's not as simple as that, because for all of Taylor's beautiful delicacy and scenes-of-greatness-well-paced, he also struggles with making his human characters seem like anything but mannequins, and his unclear visual cues -- and avoidance of changing color schemes to indicate flashbacks and flash-forwards -- makes the shifting timeline crumble back on itself.

The structure of "Death by Design" can't support its execution, which is, yes, exactly in tune with the architectural failings at the center of the story, but is it really such a defiant comic that it would sabotage its own clarity of narrative to echo its theme about commercial/artistic failings? Possibly. But that means that it's still a comic that ultimately fails at telling its story, except in the most superficial way.

There are things that we can't see until we see them as something else -- "The Learners"

The presentation of the graphic novel points to its original genesis as a two-part Batman story. I don't know if anyone has confirmed that such was the plan, but there's a distinct act break right in the middle of the book and a double-page filler-spread of a giant Bat-face before the story resumes with a repetition-with-a-twist of the start of Act I. It looks and feels like it was intended to be two-parts, grafted into one under a single hard cover.

That feels true, whether it is or not.

And the most prominent new character Chip Kidd and Dave Taylor introduce in the book? The third (or fourth, if you count the Joker) lead character? Exacto, the mystery man who looks like he stepped out of the most boring 1930s movie serial ever, and espouses on architectural concerns more often than he takes action.

He's not a bad character, necessarily, but he's more like a parody of what someone might think Chip Kidd would put into a Batman comic than a character who we'd want to spend any more time with. "Exacto: Year One" is an unlikely spin-off for J. Michael Straczysnki to be writing any time soon.

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And he's actually called "Exacto" in the book. Exacto, like the knife. That Chip Kidd (and the characters in his books) would have used a million times in the days before Photoshop changed the rules for his industry.

In the end, we're left with a Chip Kidd Batman book that's too much of "Chip Kidd" the self-parody and not enough of Chip Kidd the thoughtful novelist and designer. It's cartoon Chip Kidd, trapped in a world he never made. Though maybe he should have. It might have been more interesting that the porcelain artificiality of the one found inside "Death by Design."

It does look pretty, though.

In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" and editor of "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes" anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen regularly at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.

TAGS:  when words collide, dc comics, batman, batman death by design, chip kidd, dave taylor

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