Bat-Manga: The Secret History of Batman in Japan

November 17, 2008 at 12:20 am (Comic Books)

A lot of fuss has been raised over the creator of the comic’s name (Jiro Kuwata: don’t flame me!) not being on the cover. It’s really not that interesting a discussion, though. The book combines pictures of Japanese 60’s toys as well as plentiful reprints of the Bat-Man Manga to give us a book about the Bat-Man craze in 60’s Japan focusing most of its pages on that trend’s manifestation in manga. Fair enough, Chip Kidd, if you are hoping to give us a historical view on 60’s Japanese Bat-Man, I’d love to read some context, to find what qualities of the very American, noir hero a completely opposite culture found completely fascinating.

The Bat-Man, to me, represents the American Dream, but not realized through social or class mobility. No, he represents the dark side where someone has a hope or wish to change the world, and through freedom of opportunity and sheer skill, he is able to achieve his desire no matter the cost, except what the Bat-Man wants can never be achieved by anyone, the elimination of crime and its debilitating effect, and it’s his tragic flaw. Not that he can’t get what he wants/save his people because he lacks ability, but that no one, ever, would be able to get what he wants/save his people. It’s a tragedy of desire. This cross cultural book would show what the Japanese found fascinating in this myth.

This sounds like it would be a good book.

Despite Kidd’s claims that it’s a secret history of Bat-man in Japan, it isn’t: Chip Kidd gives us a first draft of such a tome. Interspersed in between stories are pictures of Japanese toys, of which there are many. There are a bunch of toys that I think look cool, and an even greater bunch that just look ugly. Without any context telling us anything about these toys, or even showing them as deviations/representations of the popular styles, it’s just a deluge of images of assembly line superhero merchandise. Would you want an art book showcasing (on super glossy pages, no less) American superhero merchandise? Art that’s iconic not because it represents a style, but because it clearly refers to a popular figure?

I have no clue how any of these toys interested the compilers of the book from looking at them, and the editors of a fan-made history book do little to communicate their enthusiasm besides an introduction.

It’s possible I’m searching for the wrong thing in this book, hoping for a slab of culture instead of the joy of foreign discovery. But there is very little continuity between the pictures. Sometimes Bruce Wayne is drawn completely as Japanese, sometimes he looks Caucasian. An example of cultures, especially without any context for these images, is without the reach of this book.

If he has only given us a mess of ephemera wrenched from context, but it’s likely not his fault. I don’t think the Japanese interest in Bat-man was very profound, and was more an appreciation of his visual design more than anything else (all the toys and posters in here shift remarkably in style, with Batman or Robin’s costumes always the centerpiece). After all, very little of the American Batman remains in this manga: he’s just a vehicle for the stories to come about. We don’t even get an origin story. From the stories in this volume, Batman has none of the determination marking his character, and we don’t even know why he’s battling crime.

The youth of Japanese culture understood superheroes as costumed heroics fighting for what’s right, and don’t need motivation for a character doing this. This complete absence of any character informs Kuwata’s Batman later, too. The few times Kuwata gives Bruce Wayne or Batman distinctive characteristics, they’re actually just vehicles for plot. When Bruce Wayne is tired and distraught from constant combat, the jewelry auction he attends as Bruce Wayne is stopped by the villain of the story.

I should mention something else about the stories in this volume. Because the manga is so rare and hard to find, not all stories are complete. Only two have a beginning, middle, and end. It’s a little infuriating to read only the middle two parts of a story.

As much as this book feels like a wrong-headed publishing effort, economics may have forced some of its faults. It has incomplete stories because it couldn’t extend publication until all the stories were complete. I understand that some of my dissatisfaction rests with a small potential market for this project as much as its creators.

So, I should probably move past the book’s presentation and onto the manga, right? But, alas, there is still more that deserves mention.

Before I got to the manga, I was ready for disappointment. In the interview, Kuwata explains the excitement this new project held for him:

“My initial plan was to practice the realistic and dynamic drawing style of American comics, and then blend it into my own drawings. Even when you look at the proportions of men drawn in American comics, it is so different from that of the Japanese, which highly interested me and made me think practicing that style would expand my drawing a great deal.”

But he didn’t actually end up doing it:

“However… I ended up being too busy to try any of that. I couldn’t take the time to imitate and practice Bob Kane’s Batman at all and had to draw it my own way.”

The next sentence, this is the part that really gets me:

“But considering that I’m now being interviewed because of that, maybe it was a good thing! (laughing)”

Our manga artist had a vision of what his art would be, or at least a method to arrive at a new point, but he didn’t get there, and the worst part is, he’s completely fine with producing work determined more by a deadline than his artistic mind.

This wouldn’t be such a big deal, but our manga-Batman doesn’t even have a consistent model throughout the stories. Sometimes his ears jut out horizontally from his head, sometimes they are short, vertical appendages. An oval of darkness always obscures his masked face, even when the lighting doesn’t make sense. (Here’s an example in American comics). (I should say that I like this feature about old Batman comics, though. I don’t mean this as a slight, just a continuity between other Batmans and Kuwata’s). More than drawing his own Bat-man as a fresh design on the character, he’s just drawing it without a sacrosanct model. And he doesn’t see a problem, artistically, with this. The rest of the interview remains as vacuous, but there is one important tidbit, when Kuwata describes his first encounter with Tezuka: “I clearly remembered strongly feeling I wanted to draw impressive stories like him one day.”

This is important because, visually, the book recalls the manga master more than any Japanese artist whose work has been translated and published in America. Characters are often round, almost circularly shaped, and often Kuwata draws their movements in silhouette. The action scenes of this book are one of its major strengths: Kuwata brings to his art not just the figure work of Tezuka, but also his eye for movement in between panels. When the book slows down for exposition, it is drawn innocuously and boring, but when Batman and Robin start flying the air to kick the battles have a frantic, filmic pace and rhythm. As much as Kuwata gets visual combat storytelling correct, he doesn’t spend nearly as much time crafting the vehicle to these action sequences.

The plot of each story, along with the aforementioned lack of distinctive characters, recalls DC Showcase volumes much more than it does Tezuka’s grand epics. A villain arrives to get money, and has a crazy scheme, but Bat-man’s wit in the end overcomes the villain’s strength. In the last story of the volume, colored light (when most of the book is in black and white) defeats the all powerful mutant. Kuwata’s super hero rides are rickety, with the machination worn down and causing bumps.

And, unlike some bloggers, I’m not a fan of many older, superhero comics. People describe silver-age Superman as imaginative, and influencing Morrison and Moore. I’d describe it as infrequently fantastic hackwork. The comics here have some similarities with that silver age imagination: One of Bat-man’s villains takes him to a mountain carving of Batman’s face, and it’s as delightful as it sounds, but the rest of the settings are large, open spaces, or tops of buildings when height does not add danger to the setting. As poorly realized as the book’s characters are, its setting is even worse.

Overall, I just didn’t find enough material in this book interesting enough to warrant this collection, and it is hurt by a fractured identity somewhere between cultural document and manga reprint. The comics comprising most of the book truly are a spectacular find, Batman manga produced by a Japanese, but there isn’t enough of a distinct authorial voice, or even shades of culture, in the book to make such a find intriguing. They feel and read like good work-for-hire comics instead of actually amazing comics themselves.

The parade of Bat-toys put in between stories do not enhance the bat-mania this book tries to accomplish; they feel more like advertisements (a couple times, they even interrupt a story: it’s a little irritating). Plus, nothing has any context so it can’t sell itself as anything insightful about cultures. It doesn’t even have spectacular comics, but somewhere between all these possible audiences some people might wish for an idiosyncratic, or at least fresh, take on Batman, and I am sorry to say that it will disappoint those, as well.

***

But not everyone disliked it as much as me. If you want to read someone’s opinion who wasn’t irritated by publishing constraints of the book and with a more firm grasp on Kuwata’s place among other Japanese cartoonists, you should probably check out Jog’s review.

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