One part manga, one part history, and one part awesome (and often hilarious) memorabilia collection, it’s Bat-Manga! As a fan of the Caped Crusader, I try to get a look at anything I can of him, though admittedly much falls through the cracks. This “Secret History of Batman in Japan” comes from an touts manga from an era of more hilarious Batman adventures riding on the heels of Adam West’s Batman TV show popularity. Even though the manga takes up most of the page, the extras are very nice including a wonderful interview with Jiro Kuwata. This little, or rather large, book is too unique to miss out on.
Bat-Manga is a curious creation in both the history of manga and Batman comics. The Batman manga ran in the Shonen King in an effort of cross promote itself with the 60s Batman television show what had just come to Japan. While the manga was written by Jiro Kuwata the popular author of 8 Man the manga was never popular enough to be collected into tankobon and quickly became an almost completely forgotten title. But years later Chip Kidd, a devoted Batman fan, would discover this little known series and do his best to find what chapters he could. Since there are no trade paperbacks of the Batman manga he had to dig up what few volumes of Shonen King he could find. This means he mostly found a few random stories from throughout the run of the manga and several of the stories are incomplete. To round out the content Chip Kidd has added additional materials like interviews and pictures of Japanese merchandise from the time the manga was produced. All of this meshes together to give you a strange and fascinating insight into a secret chapter in the Batman mythology.
I bet you didn’t know that Batman’s greatest foe is Lord Death Man. Or that dialogue could be this good, “AGH! Even clock faces must die!!” Plus I think that the last story in the book inadvertently implies that cancer is really the evolution of man that will turn people into mutants! Batman and Robin are very much themselves, though Robin is pretty much totally useless (maybe I just love him so much I am forgetting if he was useless back in the day), and though we see only one already known villain from the American comics, each one seemed to be pulled right from the fabric of the original (only with even more hilarious names). One thing is for sure, the serials contained within these pages are absolutely entertaining. Some of them are incomplete, as they were taken straight from old magazines they were able to obtain, but each one utilizes the many facets of Batman from detective to gadgeteer. These truly fit in with much of the silly 60’s Batman stories.
As much as Jiro Kuwata says that he changed the character for a Japanese taste it is still very clearly the Batman we all know it love in America but with a manga flair. Kuwata’s Batamn is a fairly faithful adaption especially if we compare it to the manga or live action adaptation of Spider-man from Japan which completely change the character. Batman is still Bruce Wayne unlike Spider-man who is always rewritten to be Japanese and in the live action version gets his powers from space while piloting a giant robot. The stories even have the sort of kooky but still trying to be serious vibe of the 60s silver age comics. Batman faces a gorilla terrorist bent on destroying humanity and Lord Death Man’s power is he can die really really well. Also Go-Go the Magician while being an utterly goofy name has some nifty weather powers. The only staple Batman villain we saw in these chapters was Clayface but even then manga adds its own spin to the character.
The artwork is a perfect meld between manga and American comics, blending dynamic page layout and decompressed storytelling with easily recognizable character designs and a superhero feel, which is probably the most exciting part of the book. The layout of the book is quite over-sized making it more of a show piece than a book you’d throw in your bag to read on the train. But at the same time, it really feels substantial and seeing the artwork and memorabilia so large makes the paperback price worth it. And the designer in me loved that they didn’t try to fix up the manga, you could see it was scanned from old magazines sometimes with stains or tears, it capitalized on it being old. I have to say the biggest disappointed is the omission of Jiro Kuwata’s name from the cover of this book, you know, all he did was make the manga that graces most of the pages of this book!
My best analogy of the style of the artwork is that the Batman manga is much like a teriyaki hamburger. It is unmistakably an American dish mixed with Japanese flair. An American would instantly know who Batman and Robin are especially when they are in their costumes but the other characters have a 8 Man feel mixed with Batman comics of the time. Everything about the artwork from the cover pages, to the paneling, to the choreography of the scenes is a mix of American and Japanese aesthetics. Like the stories, the artwork is faithful to the source material while being its own style. The toys and promotional materials in between chapters of the manga give a great amount of insight into the perception of what Batman was to the Japanese. I did find it amusing that they had everything from Batman laser rifles to Batman six shooters considering the fact he almost never uses guns in the first place.
Can you really get enough Batman? In Bat-Manga! you learn much about a craze for the knight of Gotham which also makes me want to see what was produced in other countries of the world at the time. Is there a secret history of Batman in say, Russia? Bat-Manga! is truly a gem, a little treasure, that will put a smile and on even a mild Batman fan’s face. I wish we were getting a Bat-Manga! 2, please get on that!
This book does make me think about two things. I wonder what material is in those missing chapters of the Batman manga. Chip Kidd has hinted that he would like to do a sequel with more recovered material but there are still chapters of Batman manga that have yet to be unearthed. I wonder how much of it can ever be recovered. By the same token what other manga are mostly forgotten and even maybe even lost to the ages? How many stories have been lost because no one ever thought to archive them? Like the destruction of the Library of Alexandria we might never truly know the answer to that question. But while this book is incomplete the mere fact that it has recovered this much is a great boom to Batman fans and manga fans alike.