Sunday, November 30, 2008

Review: Bat-Manga!: The Secret History of Batman in Japan

This appears to be a collection of licensed Batman and Robin comics that famed manga-ka Chip Kidd and his studiomates Geoff Spear and Saul Ferris created in the mid-sixties to meet their fellow Japanese fans' demand for the Dynamic Duo at the height of Bat-Mania.

Er, wait. Actually it turns out that Kidd’s an American author, designer and comics fan, and these other two guys are…I have no idea, actually. All three have bios on the back cover flap, though. Let’s see, it looks like Spear is a photographer, who apparently took some of the pictures that are in this book. And Ferris is a Batman fan and collector, who must have done…something. Huh.

Now, you’ll recall there was some pretty heated exchanges from a lot of smart, thoughtful people on the Internet recently about this book. (Here’s Leigh Walton’s final post on the subject, which sums up everything pretty nicely, if you’d like to reacquaint yourself with the cover credit controversy). While mouthing off about subjects I know very little about is something of a hobby of mine, I managed to avoid the temptation to do so regarding this, as I had yet to actually see a copy of the book, and was eagerly awaiting doing so.

Now that I have, I have to admit, there’s really no way to make sense out of why the book is presented the way it is or why the credits are assigned the way they are. Not without having to theorize about its origins, and the hows and whys of its assemblage, which is, frankly, a great disservice to the work within.

All in all, this is a thunderously disappointing book, in large part because Kidd and company seemed to really be on to something here, and ended up poorly presenting it in a confused and ill-conceived collection, ultimately suggesting rather than delivering a great book.

Whatever Kidd, Spear and Ferris’ various contributions, they aren’t all that apparent, and seem to pale next to those of Jiro Kuwata, the manga-ka who produced the work that actually fills the book. Kuwata doesn’t get a cover credit, nor is his biography on the back flap with the three “authors.” It’s not like Kidd is trying to hide the fact that Kuwata created the comics, or is trying to take credit for them. Once you read the book, it’s quite clear that it’s Kuwata doing the work, but it does make the credits seem all the weirder, and here’s where we get into theorizing.

Is “Chip Kidd” a bigger sales draw then “Jiro Kuwata,” thus explaining the former getting top billing? Perhaps, but it seems unlikely Kidd is as big a draw as either “Batman” or “manga;” there can’t be more people thinking, “Sweet! A new Chip Kidd joint!” then thinking “Batman? Sixties Batman? From Japan? I’ve gotta check this out!” (And are Spear and Ferris draws? I can’t imagine that they are; they don’t even sound Japanese, which may make the book appear to be more of a book about manga than a collection of manga).

However it came about, and however much work Kidd did in the book, much of it would be behind the scenes sort of stuff. Book designers and cover artists get little credits on the title page (if that), while the author’s get their names on the covers; here, the situation is reversed. Did Kidd track Kuwata down and scan the images? Maybe, I guess. But who gives a shit?

It’s a weird sort of auteurism…the sort I’ve never encountered in publishing, in books or comics. (I mean, old Marvel books in, say, the late ‘90s, at least said “Stan Lee Presents,” rather than putting “Lee” on the cover credits above the actual creators, you know?)

What Kidd does provide is about 500 words of production notes and an introduction that’s probably somewhere between 500 and 800 words. His emailed response to Chris Mautner and Christopher Butcher defending himself for not having Kuwata’s name on the cover was also about 500 words.

Kidd also provides 11 questions for an interview with Kuwata, which takes up a whole one page of the book’s 384, and it’s a Q-and-A interview of the school newspaper sort, which takes about a half-hour to write—What comics did you enjoy reading as a child? What made you want to become a cartoonist? Who influenced you? Who would win in a fight: 8-Man or Batman?

Then there are the pictures of Batman merchandise from Japan. Presumably this is where Kidd and the other cover boys come in. There’s a lot of these pictures, and it’s certainly a kick seeing them—I’ve always been fascinated with the way different cultures misread eachother’s pop-culture (or at least highlight different elements of it) and the off-kilter familiar but not knock-off versions of popular things (Batman with blue tights and a red cape and cowl, for example, just mesmerizes me). But Jesus, there aren’t that many of them, and they are all provided devoid of context.

(Above: Some cool off-model Batmen...check out the Mickey Mouse ears on the bat-symbol to the far right. I'm not sure what these are from...such images fill the inside covers)

Counting them up, because I am obsessive compulsive and have lots of free time, it looks like there are only about 60 pages of these photos, which would account for a little over one-sixth of the book, or about 17-percent of the contents. There’s no information about the items pictured, even identifying what they are, where they’re from, who made them or what year they were created in.

Frankly, I’m not quite sure where the book gets off calling itself “The Secret History of Batman in Japan,” as there is no actual history of Batman in Japan, beyond “Hey, did you know there was a Batman manga in the ‘60s? Here are some examples of it. Oh, and some toys and ads for toys too.” I would be quite interested in a book that actually detailed Batman’s history in Japan (or any country really); even if it weren’t a wonderfully written, observant cultural study of an American urban icon being transplanted into Japan, but a simple chronicle of Batman comics were available in Japan like this, the show started airing this year, it was popular because of that reason and so on.

Well, this ain’t that kind of book.

So what is it? Well, it’s essentially a collection of Kuwata’s Batman comics, translated into English by Anne Ishii and Kidd. I was somewhat surprised to see that it was even published to read right-to-left, and thus I assume the art wasn’t at all “flipped;” meaning it was printed the way a modern publisher sensitive to the preferences of modern manga fans would publish a manga collection. A book that wasn’t a manga collection, well, there’d be no reason to repint it right-to-left like that, beyond maybe simple novelty.

The thing is, it’s a pretty terrible way to collect the manga. Only a few of the stories are complete, meaning there are a few that just sort of trail off. In the introduction, Kidd mentions that they actually have a lot more pages, and, if this sells well enough, they might put out a Bat-Manga 2, which begs the question of why they wasted all those pages on photos of toys.

It’s particularly unsatisfying given how publishers major and minor are focusing on complete versions of comics these days…not just old manga but cartoons of all kinds. This seems like a throwback to a pre-Golden Age of reprint collections. Just, “Hey, here’s a bunch of comics,” instead of a thoughtful collection along the lines of any of Fantagraphics or even Checker’s strip collections or, perhaps more saliently, Drawn and Quarterly’s Yoshihiro Tatumi books or Vertical’s Tezuka books.

The book presents three exciting possibilities—a collection of Batman manga, a “secret history of Batman in Japan,” and a photo collection of old Japanese Batman toys and material—and offers none of them, except in perhaps the most half-assed way imaginable. And that’s why the book is so disappointing; its existence means we probably won’t get any other, better attempts to actually provide the works this book seems to promise.

(Batman and Robin vs. Clayface, who's disguised as a Batman-like sculpture. Remember, read right to left)

As for the manga itself, it’s a lot of fun, and well worth tracking the book down for (At least from a library; at $30, Bat-Manga probably isn’t worth it, given the random nature of the presentation).

Kuwata’s Batman looks like the one you’d see in Showcase Presents Batman, World’s Finest and Justice League of America, with the articulated eyebrows and everything. He looks vaguely Dick Sprang-y, but with a slimmer, more doll-like physique, and ears that jut somewhat awkwardly away from his cowl, giving it a somewhat homemade feel.

There’s no sign of Alfred, and Bruce and Dick seem to live alone in a mansion, always dressed up and waiting to hear of some crime in the news—or get word of one from no-glasses-wearing Inspector Gordon—at which point that get into costume and then into the Batmobile from the TV show.

They face only one villain familiar to us from our homegrown Batman comics, Clayface, who finds a pool of magic water (and maybe steals some formula from a scientist in another story) that allows him to change shape.

The other villains are all pretty exciting though, especially for a jaded Batman reader like me who gets tired of writers cycling through the same 15 or so Batman villains in endless succession.

There’s Lord Death Man, who wears a skeleton suit and a skull mask that can’t be removed, and who is able to die and come back to life whenever he wishes (Thanks to a fakir trick). There’s Go-Go the Magician, who has a weather-controlling magic wand gadget, who looks and fights a lot like Flash villain the Weather Wizard. There’s Faceless, a criminal with, um, a deformed face. And then there’s my favorite, Karmak, who is a gorilla who has absorbed the intelligence of a scientist, which isn’t really tha unique, but also disguises himself in a full body suit, mask, cape and gloves, which is unique (He appears as a huge-shouldered, no-necked bilious cape shape with a dome atop it, two perfectly spherical, emotionless eye-holes his only facial feature).

Batman and Robin battle these and other menaces using their fists, ropes and the occasional batarang, plus a weird “boomerang dart” that looks like a toy shuriken. The heroes are mostly personality-free, only really showing a hint of characterization in one fun exchange where Dick Grayson mouths off to a lady at a diamond auction, and there adventures are quite straightforward. It’s the same sort of storytelling you’d find in the Showcase collections, although they are often much less wordy and much more visually dynamic.

Kuwata gets off some great scenes of Batman in action, and some really remarkable visuals here and there, like when Go-Go first appears flying alongside the racing Batmobile, or some of Clayface’s transformations (there’s a neat one towards the beginning where Clayface emerges from a pool of, um, himself as a man-sized praying mantis that’s great).

(Batman versus Clayface, now in the form of a praying mantis)

There’s really much less insanity than I expected in the book; your average American Batman comic from the ‘50s or ‘60s was actually a lot weirder than this, despite Kuwata’s comics coming from the land of weird comics. Except maybe for that scene where Batman falls in the Clayface pool and TURNS HIMSELF INTO A GIANT BATRANG to attack Clayface, of course, or the final story in the collection, which deals with evolution and mutation and has such murky ethics involved all around that I’d need a whole post to discuss it.

It’s really just as much a what the fuck?! kind of collection as I was expecting, given that it was the Japanese version of the sixties Batman, but, it was Kidd’s bizarre, confused presentation that ended up providing all the what the fuck?!-edness, instead of the comics themselves.


Scott said...

I saw this in a bookstore this weekend and flipped through it. Your post helps clear up exactly why I thought this would be a waste of time/money. I think it would be kind of neat to see some japanese versions off a Batman comic, or a thesis on how Batman is interpretted overseas, but this seemed like somebody found a bunch of stuff in an old GI footlocker and decided they would just show what they found without doing much research.

Dono said...

I was really excited for this, but everything I've heard has been so negative. It's sad but I've lost all interest in this now.