Gotham city is broken. As crucial to the Batman mythos as the black cape is this concern: If Batman doesn’t act, Gotham will perish. When it’s Ra’s al Ghul threatening to burn the city for its excesses or Killer Croc wrecking it just because he can, the stakes are clear. Sometimes, though, Batman’s rivals don’t come at him with nerve gas and switchblades. Sometimes they bring petitions.
Batman: Death by Design (DC Comics, June 2012) casts the Caped Crusader in a modern-day preservation battle, set against comicdom’s most beloved noire backdrop. In this one-off Bat-book, celebrated graphic designer Chip Kidd takes up drafting duties—pushing the plot, not the pencils, which are handled by artist Dave Taylor. As inexplicable construction accidents mount, Batman battles foes familiar (the Joker) and unexpected (organized labor). But a larger question looms: What’s worth saving in Gotham City, and who are the heroes and villains in these public battles? By the end, Batman solves a series of crimes against Gotham City—but also commits one himself.
The book opens with Batman’s alter-ego, the eccentric millionaire playboy Bruce Wayne, speaking at a press conference to kick off the demolition of Wayne Central Station. A crane collapse in Midtown derails the demolition plans, putting Batman on the case. On the scene, too, is Richard Frank, the fresh-faced architecture critic for the Gotham Gazette, who finds himself in unfamiliar territory when he is asked to report the story, not just opine on design.
Wayne Central Station is clearly a callout to New York’s original Penn Station, but the parallel is off. For example, as depicted by artist Taylor, Wayne Central Station is an Art Deco skyscraper. But no matter. Taylor’s moody rendering conveys all the grandiosity of McKim, Mead & White’s original 1910 Penn Station, and even keeps the Gothic clock face presiding over its grand concourse—the set-piece for the book’s dramatic final battle.
But the similarities end there. Whereas the 1963 demolition of New York’s Penn Station shocked onlookers who watched as the unthinkable unfolded, Gothamists don’t seem overly upset to lose Wayne Central Station. Which is not to say they’re pleased with Wayne’s choice to replace it: starchitect Kem Roomhaus. It doesn’t take a detective to figure out who Roomhaus is supposed to be—or what Kidd thinks of him. “The native of Holland claims that he is often frightened of his own genius,” reads one exposition-y news report, “while several notable critics have claimed that there’s actually nothing to be scared of.”
Practically the only person rooting for the restoration of Wayne Central Station is preservationist Cyndia Syl, also the book’s romantic foil. The notoriously paranoid Batman immediately suspects Syl in the crane collapse, so, in true Bat-fashion, Wayne proceeds to date her. She meets him at the opening of Roomhaus’s hot new nightclub, Ceiling, which is—wait for it—a soaring pane of cantilevered glass whose corners are supported by four skyscrapers. As a 1963 editorial published by The New York Times on the occasion of Penn Station’s demolition inveighed, “a city gets what it wants, is willing to pay for, and ultimately deserves.” Gotham City apparently deserves elitist flights of fancy.