Manga of the Month: Billy BatJanuary 1, 2013
There are certain artists who you can assume by default create things worth looking into unless advised otherwise. One of those people is Naoki Urasawa. Pluto, Monster, 20th Century Boys, and Yawara! are all critically acclaimed series with near universal praise. So in general you can bet good money that if you see a new series by him it might be not be worth buying the whole series sight unseen but it is always worth checking out the first book especially when Takashi Nagasaki is involved as well. And his current ongoing series (alongside Master Keaton Remaster) is Billy Bat.
Billy Bat starts after World War II with a popular Japanese-American comic artist, named Kevin Yamaga, trying to discover if his smash hit comic is actually a copy of a manga he might have seen when he was in the service. He soon discovers that his Billy Bat character is not just simply a copy of an obscure manga but an ancient symbol used by a variety of dangerous secret societies. Soon the ancient conspiracy surrounding this nigh incomprehensible bat god sucks in Kevin Yamaga to a world of ninjas, faked moon landings, magic, and people like Lee Harvey Oswald and Albert Einstein.
When Naoki Urasawa and Takashi Nagasaki team up their manga have a few distinct characteristics that draw people in. They have really complex stories that jump around in time. They will start in one era but we will often see how events lead up to the start of the story as well how the ripples in the opening effect global history for years to come. But Billy Bat takes events from as early as the first cave paintings to create an elaborate illuminated mystery.
There is also the fact that suspense is omnipresent. Like an old serial film the series does an excellent job of always ending on their a cliff hanger or a major revelation that always makes you need to read the next chapter. And no one is safe. Major characters will have several close calls with death and then be killed rather shockingly. Chapter 93 is a prime example of this. There is always a great deal of tension when your never quite sure if a character will make it out alive.
And the last and most subtle telltale sign of a Naoki Urasawa and Takashi Nagasaki team up is the fact that everyone is the star of their own story. Everyone from seemingly throw away extras to villains feels like they are the fleshed out protagonist of their own adventure. This makes even small side stories feel relevant because no one is a wasted character. They are all contributing to the greater story no matter how insignificant they might first appear to be. And with a huge cast that spans the centuries this is vitally important.
Monster was actually fairly simple at its core but had a good deal of complexity to give the otherwise simple premise of the The Fugitive a good deal of weight. 20th Century Boys took the complexity of Monster and tripled it. Billy Bat does the same thing with 20th Century Boys. The conspiracies are bigger, the interconnected timelines are more byzantine, and the danger is even more palpable. Even more than 20th Century Boys you have to wonder if Naoki Urasawa and Takashi Nagasaki have bitten off more than they can chew with this one. It has been very good so there is no reason to fear the worst so far. Hopefully soon after 20th Century Boys ends this year Viz will license this series so everyone can experience it in English.