One reason I’ve never been a fan of graphic novels is because a central aspect of literature for me has always been imagining what the things I’m reading about look like. I can tell you in great detail about not only the lush Parisian interiors of Jean Des Esseintes—an easy task, what with all the detail Huysmans gives us about the decadent duke’s taste in decor—but also the brave little Chinese-themed party that Carol Kennicott throws to brighten life in drab Gopher Prairie, Minnesota, and the original Homer Simpson’s “queer” Irish–Spanish–New England cottage in LA’s Pinyon Canyon.
Considering my specialization in architecture, I’m not surprised that the first graphic novel to thoroughly engage, not to say captivate, me is Chip Kidd and Dave Taylor’s Batman: Death by Design. It is by turns an impassioned plea for historic preservation, a cautionary tale of engineering hubris, a nostalgic homage to the visionary draftsman Hugh Ferriss (1889–1962), whose futuristic chiaroscuro renderings exalted the skyscraper as the ultimate symbol of burgeoning American might during the interwar years, and an acidic indictment of the present-day cult of architectural stardom.
Based on the enduringly popular comic-book superhero created in 1939 by the artist Bob Kane and the writer Bill Finger, Batman: Death by Design was created by a dynamic duo equally devoted to the Caped Crusader. Kidd, who wrote the story, is a prolific dust-jacket designer and author of Batman Collected (1996) and Bat-Manga!: The Secret History of Batman in Japan (2008) among many other books; Taylor, who did the illustrations, is a British-born comic-book artist who has worked on several Batman projects for DC Comics, including the graphic novella Riddler and the Riddle Factory (1995).
There’s a cinematic sweep to Taylor’s compositions that makes several splash pages seem as capacious as a 70-millimeter theater screen. For their predominant tonality he chooses a warm sepia that has all the subtle gradations and dramatic multiple light sources of film-noir cinematography. The book’s craftily gauged pacing—which varies from crowded multi-panel pages to stunning single-image spreads—proves that all the digital gimmickry and 3-D effects of today’s action-movie franchises pale next to the imaginative powers of a first-rate artist working with pencil in two dimensions.
Kidd’s plot, which takes place in some unspecified period that could be a half-century ago or hence, concerns the impending demolition of a major Gotham City landmark, the Art Decoid Wayne Central Station, a railroad depot that is now crumbling and abandoned. Although it had been shoddily developed by Bruce Wayne’s (aka Batman’s) father, it is an example of “Patri-Monumental Modernism”—an amusing coinage of Kidd’s that hints at the hybrid style’s ambitious and somewhat macho civic grandeur—and preservationists think it is still worthy …