Batman: Death By Design is an exercise in architectural artwork, and the fact that the Caped Crusader is involved at all seems almost unnecesary beyond giving these Dave Taylor cityscapes a sort of cool, otherworldly (or at least "other timely") feel to them.
Writer Chip Kidd sets his story in a Year One era, where Batman is still testing out his gadgets like his grappling hook launcher, and Gotham City is of a time when there were four competing newspapers in town with newsrooms full of pipe-smoking men and the advent of automobile use was still a relatively recent phenomenon. A Gotham City where architects are apparently well-known celebrities and fodder for gossip, and the Gotham Gazette even has an "architecture critic" on staff. Perhaps I'm just not up on my history in this regard, but that seems to be a weird central conceit to build a story around. Fortunately, this is comic books, and we're asked to swallow much weirder things on a weekly basis, so it's not that hard to shrug off – especially since in this setting where skyscrapers are still something of a novelty.
Bruce Wayne is about to demolish the Wayne Central Station that his father commissioned decades ago and has fallen into disrepair. There's some vocal protest to try and preserve the historic building, and the collapse of a rooftop crane during Wayne's public speech at the groundbreaking seems like a direct threat to try and stop it. Architecture critic Richard Frank's investigation into these things uncovers shoddy workmanship, corrupt union leaders, a politely vengeful architectural antihero calling himself Exacto, and threats on his life for trying to shine a light on any of it. Oh, and there's the Joker showing up to fulfill some apparent contractual obligation to appear in any Batman story.
The scripting from Kidd, primarily known as a graphic designer, is fairly thin, a very basic A to B plot that serves as a vehicle for the architectural curiosities and letting Taylor go all out with his sketchwork – and that is very obviously the reason someone might buy Batman: Death By Design. Black and white with splashes of color here and there, the pencils evoke a noir mood combined with a sense of breathtaking wonder from a time gone by. The characters are strikingly drawn – the Joker's coloring is a particular eye magnet, even if he's written as little more than a standard thief. It's a throwback to a less dour time, when the Dark Knight wasn't really so dark – in fact, this story is much more about Bruce Wayne than Batman, in particular his role in Gotham's development, and that's an angle I can respect and enjoy.
In essence, Batman: Death By Design feels like the movie serial era of Batman, complete with the old-school Bat-computer with knobs and gauges and the like, and as such, it's really pretty cool that way. Kidd's script does explore some interesting architectural ideas and ramifications while drawing inspiration from reality, but the star of the show is Dave Taylor, as well he should be. The classically styled visuals, the slick look of Exacto, and the very inventive designs bringing Gotham City itself to life will definitely be a treat for your eyes.