Bat-Manga: The Secret History of Batman in Japan
A collection of the 1966 Batman comic-strips originally appearing in Shonen King, Bat-Manga is simply a treasure trove, a shrine to a popular culture not our own. Under the collectors’ eye of editors Chip Kidd and Saul Ferris, Bat-Manga is far more than a simple scholarly presentation.
There is a childlike bliss to be had reveling in the Batman merchandizing displayed in the pages of this book. Rocket ships and airplanes, ray-guns, balloon batmen, wristwatches, postage stamps and pocket-pinball. In the Japan of 1966, Batman was as much a part of childhood off the page as on. But the book collects even more—posters explaining the technical specifications of vehicles used in stories, translations of marginalia citing general knowledge trivia ranging from wildlife to baseball, and a creator interview with legendary manga writer/artist Jiro Kuwata.
His insights keen as ever, it is Kuwata who observes an apparent paradox in cultural translation. When it came to the artwork, Kuwata was enthralled by the realistic drawing style of American comic books. For him Batman represented a means to learn a new style that would prove a radical break with his traditional approach. But deadlines and audience reception meant a return to the more iconic visual style in which the stories were presented. While the drawing style tended towards the more “cartoony”, the writing would directly challenge the camp found in the American originals.
In his Bat-Manga interview, Kuwata muses on the camp nature of the US Batman scripting. He recalls a moment where the US Batman, on the cusp of the Riddler’s deathblow, banters to solve a riddle before he escapes his nemesis. From these anecdotes, Kuwata’s uniquely crafted vision of Batman can be seen. Like Tintin, Batman’s appearance should promote reader-investment. But like the stories of Denny O’Neil a decade later, the fiction itself should prove grittier, more grim. Batman manga moves its title character by a very different logic.
But to Kuwata, as with any true artist, the seeming paradox of the visual contesting the literate is simply a staging area. For Kuwata, the truest Batman manga provides him with a chance to explore his own themes. And Kuwata’s themes are the themes of a Japan coming to terms with its new status on the world stage. Kuwata explores the rise of technology, the subtle threats of unchecked scientific progress, and characters both hesitant and eager in the face of newly-acquired wealth. Kuwata’s Batman stories are Japan’s stories of the 1960s. The contrast between hesitance and ambition in his stories tap a cultural vein of a country only just coming to terms with economic and technological ascendancy.
Through his keen sense of popular culture and his prowess at expressing the zeitgeist Kuwata’s own voice remains resilient. His stories are uniquely his own. They stand as equals among the finely crafted masterpieces that include Tezuka’s The Mighty Atom, Kojima and Koike’s Wolf and Child and Otomo’s Akira.
The final story in the collection, “The Man Who Quit Being Human” is a case in point. Eerily foreshadowing Darwyn Cooke’s introduction to New Frontier, Kuwata offers a meditation on evolution and cartoons. But Kuwata goes even further, introducing himself as a character. With this introduction Kuwata prefigures the political implications of the suicide of novelist/playwright Yukio Mishima more than a decade later. But his exploration of these themes is uniquely his own. The politically motivated suicide of an artist is very much like a scientist seeking to evolve himself, Kuwata seems to say. A sentiment framed by Kuwata’s unique artistic vision.
Bat-Manga, as a book, offers a rich and textured experience, effectively speaking to a vast range of pop-cultural genres. Collectors are able to engage with the tradition of Batman (one of the only three comic book characters to have unbroken publication since the 1930s), but moreover, Bat-Manga is an opportunity to engage with the tradition of Japanese comics, and it is also a window into the toys of the 1960s.
Bat-Manga has its literary bona fides clearly established in presenting a concise assay of Kuwata’s artistic vision, but it also functions well as a coffee-table book. Not necessarily there to be read, it can be dipped into from time to time. Ultimately however, Bat-Manga rises to meet the best expectations of a catalog of popular culture. It is the purest expression of a zeitgeist, both of Batman and of a Japan on the cusp of becoming a global power. It is a clear example of the role of comics and the role of popular culture in providing for a national consciousness. And it is an example of a favorite saying of Marshall McLuhan: “First we build our tools, then they build us.”