Manga Friday: Bat-Manga!
Just one book this week, but what a book! How could I mention anything else in the same breath as…
Bat-Manga! The Secret History of Batman in Japan
Compiled, edited and Designed by Chip Kidd
Photography by Geoff Spear
From the Collection of Saul Ferris
Translated by Anne Ishii
Pantheon, October 2008, $29.95 paperback/$60 hardcover
Bat-Manga! is an amazing, bizarre object, the book equivalent of hearing the result of a very long, cross-cultural game of Telephone. You see, the Japanese magazine Shonen King licensed the rights to create new, original Japanese Batman comics in 1966, when the then-new TV show was broadcast in Japan. Those comics ran for about a year, but were never reprinted in Japan, and have never been published in the US in any form before now.
It’s a book with much to admire, wonder at, and complain about. Well, let me get the first of those out of the way first:
Chip Kidd is a fine designer, but I have to admit that it annoys me that he gets top billing on a book made up entirely of someone else’s comics. What’s worse is that the creator of those comics – Jiro Kuwata, who wrote and drew all of the works reprinted in this book, based very, very loosely on concepts and characters from the American Batman comics of the time – isn’t credited officially at all. His name comes up in the introduction, and there is an interview with him in the front matter, but the official credits for Bat-Manga! – reproduced above – don’t mention him at all. We’ve really hit the triumph of design over substance when a book designer, photographer, and collector are billed above – instead of, to be blunt – the person who actually created the stories.
So: Bat-Manga! doesn’t say that it’s a book by Jiro Kuwata, but it is. Those other folks just helped bring it to an American audience.
To come back to those credits, I got them from the press release. Ishii and Kidd’s role in translation is credited in the book, but otherwise Bat-Manga! seems to say that it was created by Kidd, Spear, and Ferris. This may represent a post-modern sensibility of Kidd’s, that authorship is mutable and these stories are most interesting as artifacts of an alien culture in a past time (and that theory is buttressed by the fact that the book also includes loving photographs by Spear of lots and lots of Japanese toys, presented as equal in value to the comics of Kuwata), but I don’t have any solid proof of that.
(In a final note on credits, Ishii, who did the translation, isn’t credited on the front cover, nor does she have a biography on the back flap. So this book is credited primarily to the men who paid for, took pictures of, and arranged these strips – if that’s not the triumph of corporate comics, I don’t know what is.)
Kidd’s design, as usual, takes some hacking through to get to the stories. He’s still fond of blowing up single panels to full pages, and, in general, using words and comics as if they were just design elements – he rarely seems to give much thought as to how his books will be read, though he clearly lavishes a lot of thought on how they will look. But, once you get used to that – and some of the look of the book, as he explains in his “Production Notes” – was an inevitable result of the fact that these pages had to be shot from old yellowing phonebook-size manga magazines, so there was a limit as to how nice any of it was ever going to look.
But, finally, the reader gets past the huge close-ups of tin toys and the introductory matter, and dives into the stories. Most of those aren’t complete; the book has the single-episode “The Terrible Clayface Encounter;” parts of “The Revenge of Clayface,” “Go-Go the Magician,” “Dr. Faceless,” and “Professor Gorilla’s Revenge;” and the complete stories “Lord Death Man” and “The Man Who Quit Being Human!” Shonen King, apparently, was a weekly, and only about a dozen episodes are in this book.
Those episodes range from about fourteen to thirty pages, and they’re clearly comics about the Batman and Robin of the ‘60s – stolid, upright, square good guys to their core, without the slightest hint of psychology or darkness, who use their fists, wits, and a few gadgets to win out in the end every time – but the villains have a more Japanese flair to them. (Or so it seems to me – most of the villains here aren’t familiar to me from American Batman comics, except Clayface, but they could have been slightly changed versions of American characters. For a minute, I though “Lord Death Man” – who dies and comes back to life – could be a take on Ra’s al Ghul, but ol’ muttonchops wasn’t created by Denny O’Neil until 1971.)
These comics are also very talky – Kidd mentions in his production notes that the translation has even toned this down, and mostly eliminated the very many cases where the characters were “literally describing exactly what you’re already seeing.” Even so, this is old-fashioned Japanese entertainment, with a surprised look and an “Oh!” for every new plot development. It adds an air of strangeness, which is only compounded by the fragmentary nature of the stories collected here. (I have to ask: couldn’t this book wait a few years, for Kidd or Ferris or someone to do some more research and/or collecting in Japan, so they could reproduce some complete stories? Once again, Kidd’s treating comics as a neat design element rather than a story with a beginning, middle and end.)
It’s hard to honestly evaluate Kuwata’s art, given the quality of the original pages and how they’re reproduced here, but he gets some excellent work in at least some of the time. A plesiosaur in the first Clayface story is particularly dynamic, and Kuwata’s design sense is also good – Lord Death Man is quite creepy in his first appearance. He’s working in the idiom of mid-60s manga – and the influence of Tezuka’s work of the time is particularly apparent – but he does manage many individual touches.
Bat-Manga! mostly takes a “look at this weird shit!” tone, as if this were a Fletcher Hanks-level freak-out, which it isn’t. These are somewhat clunky stories about a Batman we haven’t seen for forty years, half-translated into a manga world – but they work pretty well as stories, given that pedigree. I only wish we could have seen more complete stories.
Andrew Wheeler has been a publishing professional for nearly twenty years, with a long stint as a Senior Editor at the Science Fiction Book Club and a current position at John Wiley & Sons. He’s been reading comics for longer than he cares to mention, and maintains a personal, mostly book-oriented blog at antickmusings.blogspot.com.
Publishers who would like their books to be reviewed at ComicMix should contact ComicMix through the usual channels or email Andrew Wheeler directly at acwheele (at) optonline (dot) net.