Bat-Manga!: The Secret History of Batman In Japan

Chip Kidd and Geoff Spears, along with Batman collector Saul Ferris have put together a beautiful book that brings alive Jiro Kuwata's old Japanese Batman comics and lets these Bat oddities breathe the same comic shop and bookstore air as the latest trade and older American Batman comics, it's just, they should've held out a little longer.

It's hard to be cynical about a lovingly conceived revival of impossible-to-find quasi-bootleg Japanese Batman strips, but before you go out and drop nearly thirty bucks on this book, it's important to note that you're getting a bunch of comics that are incomplete, except for "Lord Death-Man" and "The Man Who Quit Being Human". Kidd notes this in the introduction, but that's kinda not enough of a warning.

See, there's no kind of 'Table of Contents' for the book and so, little to no context on when these stories were published or you know, what you're really getting. These stories are so wonderfully bizarre and energetic that them wrapping up isn't the biggest deal, but it is when you pay serious money for the book.

Which brings up the question of audience for the book. With very little context for the artwork itself--outside of a throwaway one-page interview with Kuwata--a bunch of photos of Japanese Batman toys and posters and mostly incomplete stories, the whole endeavor shouts-out "quirky coffee table book" which totally conflicts with the labor of love feeling Kidd and company exude in the introduction and in interviews hyping the book.

The book came out as is because at the time, these were all that they had off the Bat-Manga, and while that's a rather adorable example of fanboy excitement, it's still not an excuse for rushing something that's essentially incomplete to print. Maybe the two completed stories could've just been released a small trade or issues in stores teasing the eventual, bigger, more-complete book of Bat-Manga!?

But all issues with Bat-Manga! relate to context and presentation, because the content's stellar and on a good day, I can totally sympathize with the "fuck it if this is incomplete" attitude that prematurely sent this to the printer. Kuwata's art is interesting but mainstream 60s manga style--imagine a "Batman" comic done in the style of Speed Racer and you're basically there--and it more than does the job, but it's the storytelling that makes this book so fascinating. Sure, there's a level of outsider art intrique prompted by Kuwata's strange (mis)understanding of Batman as we know it, but it's actually not that much more out-there or silly than those old Bob Kane originals.

And if anything, Kuwata's idiosyncrasies make you think about Batman in new and different ways. In the best story in the book, "The Man Who Quit Being Human", there's a point in which Batman and Robin stop an apparently sleep-walking man from breaking into a Nuclear Research Lab. It turns out to be the Government possessed by mutant urges, and upon this realization, Batman says to Robin, "He and I went to college together. We were friends." Now, I could be wrong, but I'm not used to reading a comic wherein Batman speaks as Bruce Wayne in such an explicit way. It seems very much like something from the Adam West "Batman" series which is of course, what inspired these comics in the first place.


samuel rules said...

I sorta had the same reaction the first time I picked up the book. I was so prepared to buy it, but the toys being scanned directly instead of photos like in a collector's book was a major bummer. But I definitely keep picking it up every time I'm in section.

brandon said...

You should totally read it, especially the last story "The Man Who Quit Being Human" is great. Should you spend 22 bucks on it like I did? Nah.