Long before manga and anime were hijacked by suffocating nerds and ultra-fans, a relatively normal person could pick up the odd import or localized book and enjoy themselves without all the baggage and fence-pissing that only dampens the fun. Jiro Kuwata, a controversial manga artist known for works like Maboroshi Tantei (Phantom Detective) and, outside Japan, his famous 8 Man series, was commissioned to take on one of United States’ most popular icons back in the 1960s – Batman.
His take on the character, originally published in Shonengahosha’s Weekly Shōnen King and Shōnen Gahō between 1966 through 1967, is really something special. Batman: The Jiro Kuwata Batmanga Vol. 1 is the first collection of reprints from an age of manga that no longer exists, and it won’t be the last.
Shogakukan Creative actually published an extensive 3-volume collection back in 2013, which led to DC Comics beginning to re-release individual stories, via weekly updates on Comixology, a first run that was collected to form the volume we’re discussing here. I’ve got nothing against digital reprints – they’re all kinds of awesome and have their place – but you can’t beat real paper when it comes to experiencing classic comics in their purest form.
For a more extensive look at Kuwata’s Batman, and the Japanese fascination with the Dark Knight, check out Chip Kidd’s excellent retrospective Bat-Manga!: The Secret History of Batman in Japan, easily gotten at Amazon.com and elsewhere.
Keep in mind, true believers, that Kuwata’s manga is based on the 1966 era Batman, so there’s bound to be oceans of difference between the modern Dark Knight and that of yesteryear. For this collection there’s no Joker, Penguin, Riddler, Catwoman, or anyone else you might consider essential in the Bat-verse. Excepting Batman, Robin, and “Inspector” Gordon, we’ve got a whole set of entirely new (i.e. expendable) baddies here.
Lord Death Man, genuinely frightening and seemingly can’t be killed, yet proves the Japanese Gotham City is pretty lax with the death penalty. Doctor Faceless, one of the collection’s best and a nice twist on an otherwise predictable tale; who knew that Batman had his own giant monument carved into the side of Mount Gotham? The Human Ball, a fairly complex tale with a genuinely awesome front cover (I’d put that sucker on my wall) about a man with an electromagnetic bounce suit, with Batman delivering a classic line “Human Ball, you’re out of bounce.”
I’ll admit it, when I saw the first cover for “The Revenge of Professor Gorilla” I got excited – who wouldn’t? – though I’m not quite sure why a fiercely proud gorilla villain would need a mask and cape. Go-Go The Magician is easily the collection’s low point, story-wise, yet has some of the best and most inventive action scenes. The Man Who Quit Being Human is pure craziness, nutty in ways only 1960s-era manga can be, though there isn’t space to give such an interesting concept the time it deserves and wraps up too quickly.
The reproductions quality, sadly, is wildly inconsistent and messy, bordering on illegible in some cases (especially the itty-bitty kana characters, preserved here as SFX). Entire panels look like they were photocopied from someone’s collection – or badly preserved, non-archived versions – and I’m betting this was the case. There’s some inconsistent coloring here and there, even with entirely different models from one issue to the next.
Take poor Dr. Clark, white-haired and someone aged, found dead and encased in a block of ice (p. 245) in Go-Go The Magician Part 1. A few pages later in Part 2, poor Dr. Clark, still dead and still iced, is now much younger and black-haired, though his profession bumped up to Professor.
Strange quirks aside, the magic of digital restoration means that Kuwata’s fine lines and exquisitely paced action is as highly readable and thrilling as ever.
Batman’s design, as explained in the afterword by Kosei Ono, whose credit here is diminished to just ‘commenter’ but is actually a prolific author and translator, having published Battoman ni naritai (Wanna Be Batman?) in 1974, is based on the “new look” Batman. In truth, Kuwata’s Batman looks more like an amalgamation of his Detective Comics-era suit (super pointy ears) and 60s television look, complete with light gray suit and blueish cowl. The original comics were black and white, and for the most part remain so here, minus the odd addition of red and blue to select panels.
The translation, credited to Sheldon Drzka, does a workmanlike job appropriating Kuwata’s original text into English, mimicking the silliness that was 1960s-era Batman speak influenced by the Adam West show, recreating the banter between Batman and The Boy Wonder to great effect. While some of his one-liners could’ve used more “!”, he generally gets the point across.
And yet…it’s still totally, inscrutably, completely Japanese – and all the more awesome because of it. After being grazed by a bullet by the seemingly unkillable Lord Death Man, who “came back to life using secret Yoga tricks,” Batman tells Robin “I resurrected myself with the strength of righteousness.” The strength of righteousness! Go, Batman!
In “Revenge of Professor Gorilla” a sign denoting the “Walter Somatology Research Institute” (p. 172) magically becomes (credited as SFX) the “Walter Biological Labs” (p.194). Yes, I know, it’s a small niggle… but this still bugs me. Let’s step up the editing process next time, people!
Scratchy productions, translation issues aside, there’s something irresistible about seeing “The World’s Greatest Detective” rendered in manga form, especially from such a legendary artist like Jiro Kuwata, from one of manga’s most prolific and interesting eras. The first volume of Batman: The Jiro Kuwata Batmanga makes a great case that DC Comics’ most popular hero (sorry, Son of Krypton) has an appeal that far extends his native homeland, and can withstand different interpretations, even thriving under them. The character’s longevity attests this. Long live Batman!