Graphic Lit: Bat-Manga!
Back in 1966 the world was in the grip of an unstoppable force. Batman-fever.
The beloved, campy TV show, starring Adam West and Burt Ward, had transfixed not only America but other countries across the globe, perhaps most surprisingly Japan.
So popular was the caped crusader in the Land of the Rising Sun that Jiro Kuwata, co-creator of the “8 Man” superhero manga and cartoon show, was asked to create some Batman stories for young Japanese readers.
Though Kuwata’s other work is fondly remembered in his native country, these long were thought to have been lost to history. In fact, they were so obscure that Batman’s publisher, DC Comics, wasn’t even aware of their existence.
Enter editor, author and book designer Chip Kidd who, along with collector Saul Ferris, discovered their existence via eBay and set about trying to collect as many of these comics as they could find.
“I had known for many years about Japanese Batman toys from the ’60s, but until about 10 years ago I had absolutely no idea they did their own comics too,” Kidd said. “When I became aware of that I became really, really interested in them.”
That interest has led to “Bat-Manga! The Secret History of Batman in Japan,” an oversized coffee-table book that translates and collects a handful of Kuwata’s stories.
“As a Batman fan who was born in 1964 and grew up with the late ’60s version, to me it was like being a Beatles fan and discovering six new songs,” said Kidd. “These really have a genuine spirit and sense of fun to them that I remember of Batman and Robin back then.”
The stories are both familiar and alien. Kuwata isn’t terribly concerned with mining the traditional Batman mythos or the camp nature of the TV show. There’s no Joker or Penguin here. Or Alfred, Batgirl or Batcave for that matter, although Commissioner Gordon does put in a cameo appearance.
What we get instead are stripped-down but nonetheless thrilling tales of Batman and a noticably younger Robin facing off against some truly noteworthy villains.
As with the traditional Western version, its the villains who make the comic, and “Bat-Manga” features some doozies, such as Professor Gorilla, Go-Go the Magician, Lord Death Man and Dr. Faceless, a disfigured scientist who hates smiling faces so much he even destroys clocks.
“Part of what I like about [the manga] is that, while it is a novelty and the novelty factor is large, [Kuwata] is a really good cartoonist. It’s just beautifully drawn stuff,” Kidd said.
Where Kuwata really shines are in the action sequences, where the dynamic duo leap and swing their way across the page in a truly dizzying fashion.
“There’s this wonderful juxtoposition of whimsy and really eerie, weird scary stuff,” Kidd said. “The fight scenes are truly invigorating.”
Since a lot of this material was tough to find (only two of the stories in the book are complete), Kidd and company opted to simply photograph the pages as is (i.e. yellowed and printed with different colored inks) than clean them up via a scanner.
“I very much wanted to replicate the experience of actually paging through these books,” he said. “When you see a lot of the way vintage manga is collected both in Japan and states, they reduce it to black and white on a crisp white page, and I think that takes away from original experience.”
Though the Batman craze didn’t last long in Japan and Kuwata moved on to other material, he still, as Kidd notes, “did a ton of stuff in a short period of time.”
More than enough, he hints, for a second volume.
Keep your bat-fingers crossed.
Copyright The Patriot-News, 2008