By Leroy Douresseaux
November 9, 2008 - 13:32
|The above BAT-MANGA! cover image is courtesy of barnesandnoble.com.|
Lest anyone think that book cover designer extraordinaire, Chip Kidd’s new book, BAT-MANGA! The Secret History of Batman in Japan, is like his beloved tome, Batman Animated (co-written with Bruce Timm), they need only flip through the book to discover that BAT-MANGA! is a collection of comics rather than a behind-the-scenes look (like Batman Animated).
There was a Batman craze in United States after the 1966 debut of the ABC television series “Batman,” (1966-1968), but the series also set off an international wave of “Batmania.” The campy, Pop-Art infused Batman TV series created a frenzy of Batman merchandising even in Japan. The weekly Japanese manga anthology for boys, Shonen King, licensed the rights to commission its own Batman & Robin comics. The task of producing these comics was turned over to Jiro Kuwata, the co-creator of the popular cyborg superhero, 8-Man.
However, a year after the Batman manga began, the stories stopped; they were never collected in Japan, nor were they ever translated into English. Chip Kidd has compiled, edited, and designed BAT-MANGA!, which collects hundreds of pages of Batman manga. The comics appear alongside photographs of items from the world’s most comprehensive collection of vintage Japanese Batman toys, from the collection of Saul Ferris. The material that appears in BAT-MANGA! is photographed by frequent Chip Kidd collaborator, photographer Geoff Spear.
THE LOWDOWN: The comics (or manga) in BAT-MANGA! are the real treat in this book. The photographs of this menagerie of weird Japanese toys, figures, and assorted merchandise provides an interesting side attraction from the manga, but it is ultimately a distraction from Jiro Kuwata’s delightfully absurd and thoroughly engaging Batman manga. BAT-MANGA! is actually a Chip Kidd production in which the star of the production is not Kidd’s graphic design work, but rather the contents – specifically the Batman manga.
How would I describe the Batman manga, which, in this book, look like the fading ghosts of comics that died over 40 years ago? The manga have this crazy feeling. One could almost believe that Jiro Kuwata was part of that group of “ghost artists” who assisted Batman creators, artist Bob Kane and uncredited Batman creator, writer Bill Finger, in producing those seminal Batman comic books of the early 1940’s. Although the Batman manga was created in 1966, the series doesn’t look like DC Comics’ own Batman comic books of the mid-1960s (either the Carmine Infantino Batman or the campy, TV- influenced comics).
These light-hearted, swashbuckling, adventure/crime comics are like Golden Age Batman comics, but with a screwball, oddball Japanese twist. It’s as if BAT-MANGA! were a DC Archives volume collecting early Batman comics that were a tad bit too peculiar for 1940s newsstands and drug stores, and thus, never saw the light of day. Kuwata’s spin on a Golden Age Batman features figure drawing that is much better than what Bob Kane and company produced in the 1940’s. Batman, Robin, and the other characters are drawn in a cartoonish style that is not too far from that of Bruce Timm, a man who has produced beloved Batman animation and comic books. Kuwata’s cartooning of the figure, however, is firmly based in realistic figure drawing.
Kuwata was an action manga virtuoso, so the stories, featuring villains that are odd (Go-Go the Magician) and creepy (Lord Death Man), as well as featuring a bizarre spin on Clayface, are fast-paced and breezy reads. All the while, the stories manage to be enjoyably inventive, filled with imaginative scenarios, scenes, and villains.
POSSIBLE AUDIENCE: Avid readers of Batman comic books should not miss this, and there is also a limited hardcover editon.