Roomhaus’s public unveiling is spoiled by the Joker, for no apparent reason. Now, the Joker has never needed much of a reason—but he does require a logic. Heath Ledger’s Academy Award–winning turn as the villain in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight gave us an elemental force for chaos; Alan Moore’s take in 1988’s The Killing Joke advanced the idea that the Joker is insane, but no more insane than the Batman. But in Death by Design, the Joker simply moves things along. One of this graphic novel’s greatest missed opportunities is Kidd’s failure to cast the Penguin as the arch-villain: a ruthless tycoon who could easily sub as Gotham City’s Larry Silverstein.
As the story unfolds, it also unravels. Complicating Batman’s battle with the Joker (wherein the Ceiling nightclub is destroyed), is the appearance of the mysterious Exacto, an architecturally themed figure whose true identity is telegraphed from the get-go. Both Exacto and the Gazette writer peg the collapse of Roomhaus’s “Maxi-Minimalist” Ceiling to a structurally unsound design and shoddy union work by Gotham Local 27. Batman follows the thread; readers may not.
Death by Design does have a persistent theme: a conservative tendency, marked by an eager deployment of bitter clichés. Especially troubling is the sinister depiction of union boss Bart Loar (and labor as a whole). The larger takeaway from Kidd’s masculinist story is that buildings, and the men who built them, used to mean something—not like today’s corrupt labor movement and out-of-touch designers. The book is conservative even at a formal level: Thought balloons, which went out of fashion years ago, serve up steady interior exposition.
Spoiler alert! In the end, Bruce Wayne decides to rebuild the old Wayne Central Station, ditching pompous Roomhaus. Gotham City had lost sight of its values, so Batman restored them. But whose values? The demolition of Penn Station brought to life the modern preservation movement—but it didn’t mark the end of great buildings in New York. New ideas have a place in Gotham City, and it’s due for a new look. (If Nolan’s newest Batman film follows its predecessors, it will show us a Gotham that could be Toronto.) Pity that Kidd, who is known for his fresh takes on familiar concepts, didn’t give us that here. When it comes to design, cliché is a fate worse than death.