“See you later, Batman. I’m going to the other side for a while.”
That’s from the story “Lord Death Man Part 1” in Bat-Manga! (Pantheon, $29.95), a big reprint volume of, you guessed it, Batman manga from 1966 Japan complete with right to left reading orientation and, since designer Chip Kidd is involved, plenty o’ weird Batman toys.
Artist’s Jiro Kuwata style is best described as Osamu Tezuka (who forged the dominant post WWII manga and anime styles) meets Jerry Robinson (classic 1950s Batman artist) meets Japanese underground manga.
These comics were made in hopes of cashing in on the Adam West Batman TV show from America, which was aired in Japan in 1966. Kuwata was handed a stack of American Batman comics and told to bang the stories out. So he had little time to “Americanize” his style (as was his original intention) according to the introduction.
Kuwata plowed ahead and produced a small but powerful collection of stories. This volume is like a sleeper agent revived to lay waste to the future. I’ve never seen anything like it—it may just be my favorite take on the character. Ever. It’s that good.
It’s so modern, so fresh for being forty years old. Also the book itself, in its design, expands the faded yellow newsprint and purple ink universe and overwhelms the reader with porous detail. Wisely maintaining the toothy inconsistencies of the original printing, superhuman editor/designer Chip Kidd is determined to push the reader off the edge and into the abyss of this shadowy Gotham.
Kuwata’s Gotham and Batman are far more “elemental” than I’ve ever encountered him before—particularly as something from the pre-Frank Miller age of Batman. This “Bat-a-man” (as my good friend Takahiro insists he is really called in Japan) fights Death, serpents, black magicians and mutant humans. Ok, that sounds comic book-y like it’s not scary. But it is. Scary as hell.
The combination of Kuwata’s clean lines and “Tezuka” innocence rubbing up against the sandpaper rough shadow demons like Lord Death, who’s but a ninja with bones printed on his outfit like a Halloween costume startles. “And yet I can’t get Lord Death out of my head. Why am I so haunted?” Bruce Wayne wonders to himself while he dreams of a guy in a skeleton costume emerging from a crypt! Drawn in this golden sunshine (okay, purple) of mid-'60s classic Japanese manga, these stories capture the feeling of being a kid on Saturday morning.
Maybe it shouldn’t be scary. But to me, it’s truly terrifying and eerie. It’s a resurrection of Batman’s lost roots, exactly like those that Miller exploited. In his own way, Kuwata subverts the hero even further than Miller because Kuwata maintains the cloak of the “studio system” artist. He was a well known artist in Japan at the time, but drew in a sort of Japanese house style, unlike Miller, who was known for “updating” comics’ language with new styles…from places like Japan.
Complaints: I could find no real “End Notes”, no sourcing of the original material that broke it all down. (There is a brief “Production Notes” section that describes the font, the translation, the print quality but that’s all, nothing to really dig, man!) What is it with these over-designed books that fail to provide the engaged reader with the ability to delve deeper into the material? It’s frustrating to not know when and where, exactly, these stories originally appeared.
However, the brief interview with Kuwata was quite touching and revealed how intense Osamu Tezuka’s influence was on a particular generation of Japanese cartoonists. I think the American audience that is just discovering Tezuka will appreciate seeing Tezuka’s language being taken to the next level in Jiro Kuwata’s work.
The purist in me that wishes this volume could just be comics, manga and no toys and ephemera like kites and masks, etc. Yet together it re-iterates how singularly visionary Kuwata was—the toys are adorned with images of Batman by Kuwata’s American contemporaries from the time and they all look hokey, definitely campy. Kuwata’s manga shines darkly in comparison, a prescient example of the Batman retro-fit to come.