"Batman: Death By Design" is a superbly gorgeous book. This is a work of art you'd be proud to display in your home. You only need to turn to any two-page sample and you'll be instantly won over. The problem comes once you look deeper into the art and sample the narrative, which is nowhere near the same level. The two are worlds apart as one rises above what we expect or even hope for, while the other crests just shy of standard. It's a shame because you want to love this book and laud it a classic -- but it simply isn't.
Dave Taylor clearly put a load of time, effort and talent into this book. His penciled art is phenomenally captivating. The stylistic flow to his architectural lines and designed elements of Batman's world are glorious. You can and will sit for a long, satisfying time soaking it all up. The world comes to life in illustrated ways reminiscent of both really old stories and really old notebooks from twisted geniuses. There is grace and poise on every page, making it one of the best looking books of 2012.
It is interesting to see Taylor make the choice to have Batman not be a ridiculously buff hulking giant. His body type is relatively average and muscles don't pop out like he's in the gym more than the Batcave actually solving crimes. Taylor draws a unique yet bland Bruce Wayne, who doesn't pop off the page as a lead and is quite easy to lose in the background if he's not made the focus of his panel. The rest of Taylor's people vary from panel to panel. His human style is inconsistent, though his buildings and gadgets are top notch. He is much more effective at world building than he is at selling the emotional tale on the street.
Chip Kidd presents a sound story but one that bogs down with superfluous text and heavy pages. The tone of this tale is of an era decades before our own. Radio news pieces narrate goings-on, info dumps abound and characters even have thought balloons looming over them. This book looks and also reads differently to the comics we buy on shelves today. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it takes some getting used to. Seeing so many clogged speech balloons on one page takes a special mindset to get through -- especially when the words become a tad mundane. There are some exciting set pieces in here but often it's just chatter and low-key storytelling.
At its heart, "Batman: Death By Design" is an old time story. It's about corruption, revenge and families. Gotham is the perfect city in which to tell these tales and Batman is put to good use most of the time. The romance angle is a little cheesy but works for the tone. All the elements are suitable but come together a bit dry.
"Batman: Death By Design" drops Mark Chiarello's name within the first few pages. This should give you a great indication of what the book is like -- it's gorgeous. The book is so good, you want and expect the story to live up to it. It doesn't. This tale is passable fun but it doesn't deliver enough. Style can't always trump substance and the comics medium needs both working in cohesion.