The great thing about Batman is that you can throw the basic concept of the character into any framework. He's sort of like Sherlock Holmes, or Red Riding Hood, or any of those other fictional characters who can withstand transition into different settings and genres. Victorian Batman? Sure. Batman in a theocratic dystopia? Why not? Pirate Batman? Bring it. As much as other media companies may try, you can't do this with just any character: Spider-Man, for example, has to exist in a fairly contemporary New York City in order to make any sense. Any other changes and you've broken the formula. Batman, however, can be successfully interpreted a million different ways.
Chip Kidd's Batman: Death by Design takes place in a strange alternate universe that appears to be a cross between Fritz Lang's Metropolis and a 1930s Warner Brothers gangster film. It hews fairly closely to the character's roots, with a playboy millionaire Bruce Wayne already fighting crime as Batman, but the subject matter of the book is atypical: It's about architecture, and urban renewal, and historic preservation. At the heart of the story is Wayne Central Station, a large and crumbling transportation center that Bruce Wayne is tearing down for a sleek, modern new station. There's some sabotage, a little bit of murder, and quite a few obvious analogs for major figures in architecture. (One character is named Kem Roomhaus, and if you don't get that blatant reference, you're not the audience for this book.) Outside of the parodies, the delightful thing about Death by Design is that this is a Batman who isn't always so terribly grim. At one point, when a beautiful woman walks into his office, a thought balloon above Wayne's head says, simply, "Yikes!" It's a nice throwback to the days when Batman smiled every once in a while, and solved mysteries with themes and meanings that resonated with a slightly deeper message for older readers. When combined with Dave Taylor's black-and-white-film style of illustrating (the whole book looks like it's sketched out in pencil, giving it a nice, classy artistic vibe) it doesn't feel too goofy. And the charcoal grays interplay with the occasional spot coloring flourish of oranges and yellows, making the book a joy to look at. It's a whole lot of fun, and you can't say that about every Batman comic nowadays.
Here's an example of the not-fun kind of Batman: Last week, Geoff Johns and Gary Frank published Batman: Earth One, a companion to J. Michael Straczynski's Superman: Earth One comic. The Earth One series is supposed to feature DC's superheroes in an entry-level adventure for the bookstore, graphic-novel-buying crowd. In short: Just another origin. I'm not ordinarily a huge fan of Geoff Johns—his Justice League reboot is dumb as dirt, and his Green Lantern run is a series of childish variations on a single theme, action-figure-style—but I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this one. Johns is usually a strict traditionalist when it comes to characters, but he makes enough slight tweaks to the character of Bruce Wayne—most notably, his mother's maiden name is Arkham, making Bruce the kind of crown prince of the two major Gotham families—to keep things interesting. There are nice attempts at realism (Batman is not perfect at everything the first time out), and the cores of the characters still manage to shine through. Johns can't resist the impulse to throw some unnecessary gore into the plot, and there are a few moments that are way too on-the-head. (In this way, Johns is a perfect partner to artist Gary Frank, who is great at rendering characters and scenes but occasionally is too hyperrealistic for his own good, making the occasional panel appear too stiff for an action book.) The standard for Batman origin stories is still Batman: Year One, but this is an interesting take on the character that feels different enough from the mainstream universe to warrant its own existence.
But the mainstream Batman book is pretty good right now, too. Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo's The Court of Owls is the first collected book in the ongoing Batman series, and as far as mainstream monthly comics go, it's pretty damn great. Snyder keeps each issue (or, when collected in this volume, chapter) as its own standalone entry in a longer arc, and the story (it involves a secret society tied in with the history of Gotham City) is dense and the stakes feel high. Capullo's doing first-rate superhero work, with his chunky figures and expressive faces. Don't buy this book expecting a whole story, but do expect to see some first-rate adventure serial storytelling.
J.H. Williams III's Batwoman series is also worth your monthly attentions. I have extolled the joys of Batwoman before, but the first collection from the new series, Hydrology, keeps up the pace and quality of the first run. Williams' art is undeniably beautiful—he's got to be the best artist at work on a book from the Big Two Superhero publishers today—and the character feels different enough from Batman to warrant her own existence. She's another variation on the theme, but her stories sing with their own kind of voice and rhythm.