- Posted by Ed Sizemore on January 19, 2009 at 12:50 pm
- Category: Books and Prose
- CREDITS: design by Chip Kidd; photography by Geoff Spear; collection by Saul Ferris; manga by Jiro Kuwata; adapted by Anne Ishii and Chip Kidd
- PUBLISHER: Pantheon Books; $30 US
Review by Ed Sizemore
First, understand that this book is about collecting Japanese Batman merchandise. In particular, it celebrates Saul Ferris’ collection. It turns out that the creme-de-la-creme of Batman merchandise is Jiro Kuwata’s Batman manga that ran from 1966 to 1967 in Shonen King magazine. So this book should really have been called “Saul Ferris’ Collection of 1960’s Batman Merchandise With Special Emphasis on the Batman Manga.” But that title doesn’t have the same pizzazz and selling power as “Bat-Manga!”. (Heck, it doesn’t have the exclamation point to really drive the shopper into a purchasing frenzy.)
You can tell the manga isn’t intended to be the focus of the book by two aesthetic decisions by Chip Kidd. First, the manga is presented in its current state of preservation. There’s no attempt to clean up the art. Kidd specifically states he wants us to experience the pages the same way Ferris does. Second, we are only presented with the pages that Ferris owns. This means of the eight storylines included in the book, only three are complete. If the manga was the true focus of this book, then Kidd would have wanted to present the art and the storytelling in the best possible light, so we could fully appreciate Kuwata’s abilities as artist and author.
Bat-Manga! is another beautiful book of ephemera by Kidd. This is due in no small part to Geoff Spear’s genius as a photographer. He knows how to light and display an object so that all details are clearly visible. The colors are vibrant, yet natural-looking. It’s a wonderful book to just flip through and enjoy visually.
I love Kidd’s sense of design and organization. Since this is a superhero book, it begins with an origin story. Kidd tells us how he first met Ferris, how the idea for the book was first formed, and how that idea came to life. This is followed by a brief interview with Kuwata. We learn that the Batman manga came about because the Batman TV series was getting ready to be broadcast in Japan, and Kuwata’s publisher wanted to capitalize on the Batman fad.
As an aside, Kidd really missed asking an obvious follow-up question. Kuwata mentions that some time before being approached to do the Batman manga, he had been asked to do a Superman manga. However, he was too busy at the time to take on any new projects. Kidd doesn’t ask if the publisher did a Superman manga without Kuwata, or if the idea died, since he couldn’t be the artist. It would have been nice if Kidd had included a footnote to let readers know one way or the other about the Superman manga. This makes me further curious if any other DC characters might have had manga adaptations. If the Wonder Woman TV series aired in Japan, did some publisher try to capitalize on that show too?
Back to the book, the bulk of which is comprised of photographs of Kuwata’s manga. Kuwata said that he was given scripts by Bob Kane, which he freely modified to create his version of Batman. Kuwata does an incredible job of capturing the spirit of the Golden Age Batman. Part of the charm is the heavy sci-fi element in his stories. Many of the plots are reminiscent of old 50s B-grade sci-fi films. It’s also refreshing to read superhero stories where the superhero is an emotionally balanced, psychologically stable adult, who is motivated by a sense of justice and duty.
Kuwata understands the core of Batman’s appeal and makes those traits the focus of his stories. Batman is a detective in the traditional sense. There are no computers, and forensic science is still in its infancy. Batman has to examine crime scenes using only his own senses and wits. He spends days, sometimes weeks, tracking down leads and following clues. We see Batman work hard to solve crimes and capture villains. Each story is half brawn and half brain. Usually the story ends by Batman out-thinking his opponent.
I really like Kuwata’s version of Robin. He’s less a sidekick and more a junior, inexperienced partner. In one story, Robin tells Batman that he needs to take a night off from tracking down a villain or he will burn himself out. Batman takes Robin’s advice and leaves the investigation in Robin’s hands. Also, Robin gets to drive the Batmobile on several occasions! Kuwata’s Robin makes you understand why Batman chose to have a partner.
The one aspect of the manga that will disappoint Batman fans is the lack of familiar villains in these stories. The only regular from Batman’s rogue gallery to appear in this book is Clayface. Kuwata chose to create his own villains. Batman is faced with a new challenge and a new opponent in each story. I have to admit, I would have loved to seen Kuwata’s version of the Joker, the Penguin, and the Riddler. But I’m certainly not disappointed by the opponents he creates.
Kuwata is an accomplished artist. I know I’m tragically behind the times here, but I find his Golden Age style much more realistic-looking than the hyper-muscled current version of superheroes. His characters have natural athletic physiques. I also like the way he draws the Batman costume. He understands how fabric drapes and bunches up. The cape, cowl, and utility belt are especially well done. He does break with the Golden Age in two design elements, the costume emblem and the Batmobile. Since the TV series was the impetus behind the manga, he uses the costume and car from the TV show. His villain costumes are brilliant; they make me want to read his own mangas to see more of his original designs.
The one critique I have of the artwork is Kuwata’s rendering of the bat symbol on Batman’s chest. For some reason, Kuwata only pays attention to this detail in oversized panels and splash pages. The rest of the time, the bat changes from panel to panel. Sometimes, it’s barely more than a squiggle.
The standard edition of the book is paperback. There is a limited edition hardback also available. The hardback features 32 pages of additional material and a book plate signed by both Kidd and Kuwata. The extra pages consist of twenty-four pages of manga not in the paperback and eight pages of Chinese Batman comics. The Chinese comics are interesting, to say the least. The artwork is amateurish and the storylines are mad genius.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book, but it suffers the same flaw as other Kidd books. I find that one reading is all I ever need. His books lack the substance and depth for a second look. I have both his Schultz and Cole books and they now sit forgotten on my bookshelf. The Batman manga is a historical curiosity. I’m glad to have sampled the series, but if there’s a follow-up book, I don’t see myself buying it. I do think that Kuwata did a better adaptation job than the Marvel mangas of the 80’s. It will be interesting to see how Del Rey’s forthcoming X-Men mangas will compare to both historical predecessors.