Batman: The Jiro Kuwata Batmanga Vol. 2 continues Jiro Kuwata’s winning formula of taking a beloved American hero and transposing his most cherished elements for Japanese audiences, with surprisingly great results. Those of you who first took up the cowl with the first volume and loved what you read can skip the rest of this review and proceed to purchase right now: it’s largely more of the same, which isn’t a bad thing at all.
1960s-era Japan was a fascinating time for fellow historians of comic culture, especially as the country was still marinating in a somewhat oppressive post-war environment that vacillated between nationalism and a complete break from tradition. This period also birthed some of the nation’s most beloved, prolific, and genuinely great talent; Osama Tezuka (Astro Boy, Black Jack), Shigeru Mizuki (GeGeGe no Kitarō, Showa), and, of course, Jiro Kuwata (Maboroshi Tantei / Phantom Detective, 8 Man).
Likewise, the United States was itself experiencing a comics boom, and no other comic hero was more popular (and exploitable) than DC Comics’ Dark Knight: Batman! Hot to capitalize on this tandem sensation of the popular Adam West television show and Japanese manga (comics) craze, Kuwata was commissioned to create entirely unique adventures for the Caped Crusader that would appeal to Nihonjin sensibilities, opening up not just cultural, but economic pathways to the future.
As the byline says, “Whether in America or Japan…He’s TV’s most popular star, Batman!”
For you historians out there, Kuwata’s manga was originally published in Shonengahosha’s Weekly Shōnen King and Shōnen Gahō between 1966 through 1967. Japanese super-publisher Shogakukan Creative began resurrecting them with a 3-volume collection back in 2013, which led to DC Comics (publisher of this English edition) to start spitting out individual Batmanga tales via Comixology, which led to the paper/digital versions for serious collectors. The first volume was released back in December 2014, and now we’re onto the second. As I’ve mentioned countless times elsewhere, give me ink-drenched paper versions of classic comics and I’ll be a happy man.
As before, it’s worth noting that Kuwata’s Japanese Batman is nearly an entirely different flavor than his western counterpart, particularly when it comes to villainous scum; the Joker, Penguin, Riddler, and the rest are nowhere to be seen here. While ‘Photographer Vicki Vale” does show up briefly, the only other familiar faces will be Robin (The Boy Wonder) and “Inspector” Gordon and his epic mustache. Bruce Wayne’s dear butler, Alfred, also makes an appearance but in the most unusual way possible – no spoilers here!
Mistaken identities and assumptions run throughout Kuwata’s Batman; not quite to the extreme as, say, Scooby Doo and those meddling kids, but they can come real close. It’s best to keep both the era and intended audience in check when reading through these adventures, as both anachronisms and cultural politeness may be too kawaii! for those expecting a darker, grittier Batman mystique the character is best known for. Expect more Adam West and less Heath Ledger and you’ll be fine.
The actual stories collected here, five in all, offer much the same reading pleasures as the first volume, though there’s no professorial gorillas to be had (sadly). “The Revenge of Clayface” is the most bizarre as it features a pond of “weird goo” that grants those who come into contact with it the power to transform into any shape they wish, hence the villainous “Clayman” who once used it for predictable villainous schemes. I’m pretty sure that’s not how clay works, but whatever, I’ll go with it.
The goo, as it turns out, is actually the remains of an alien lifeform that came to Earth via a meteorite that liquidated (!) into an underground puddle. It’s another tale of mistaken identify gone awry, but but at least Batman and his chum, Robin, get to fight off a giant tentacle monster, Pegasus, and a scary ghost-bat, so the crazy quota is filled right from the start.
“The Hangman of Terror” is one of the shorter tales, and among the series’ best. The arrival of a new wrestling champ, ‘The Hangman’, gives Gotham a new villain to root against in the ring as the masked giant takes down one challenge after the next. The hook is that nobody knows his real identity: defeat him in the ring and you’ll find out. Of course, a jewelry heist occurs and it’s not long before a doppelganger for The Hangman is found dead, meaning the ‘villain’ in the ring may become Gotham’s new superhero.
By keeping focus on the antagonistic relationship between Batman and The Hangman, the story excels in this abbreviated environment; the conclusion is about as close to real pathos as you’re likely to get here, but given the standard camp on display it’s a time change of pace.
“Friend of the Masquerade Festival” introduces Vicki Vale, albeit briefly, as the duo enter a costume festival on the hunt for an escaped prisoner. Honestly, “Weeping Willow, The Petty Thief” may be the lamest villain in the entire Bat-canon, but having our heroes attacked by “an Arab riding a dinosaur” really takes the cake. Highlights include Batman actually using his often neglected detective skills to save the day, which is always nice.
The final two, “Mystery of the Outsider” and “The Monster at Gore Bay” are largely retreads of story elements we’ve seen before: mistaken identities and dastardly plots running afoul of the law. The first is notable as “our butler” Alfred, largely been ignored up to this point, gets to be the main attraction (though dubiously) and the latter finally pits Batman and Robin against a giant sea monster. Given this is 1960s Japan, you think that would’ve happened much sooner, but there’s always room for kaiju!
Interestingly, an afterword essay written in 2013 details about how Kuwata was asked to adapt his style to the “American” way instead of his own. And yet, perhaps owing more to his hectic schedule than any real ideological complaints, he eventually reverted back to his own style as the American way too him twice as long. “There’s a part of me that thinks drawing it in my own style was the right way to go instead of forcing myself to do it in the American style.”
Looking back from a privileged vantage point, it’s hard to argue he wasn’t right. The much imitated Japanese manga/anime “style” has become an almost cliched by this point, especially by western fans. It’s become commonplace for popular non-Japanese properties to undergo this visual/cultural transformation, nearly to the point of gimmick. Kuwata’s version, while created in much the same commercial spirit (only in reverse), should probably be considered more of a cultural ambassador than pure gimmick.
Batman: The Jiro Kuwata Batmanga Vol. 2 does nothing to dispel the notion that great characters are eminently transferable across cultures and everything to prove such experiments are totally worth the effort. Kuwata’s stories were written primarily for comics-hungry Japanese audiences during a time when his country was just beginning to forge an entirely new post-war identify that would eventually become entirely, uniquely, and indisputably Japanese. As such, they remain not just important time capsules of an era that no longer exists, but genuine treasures for real comic connoisseurs to discover.