Cracking open the pages of this book felt a lot like opening the lid of a long buried treasure chest. I always knew it existed, but I thought of it more as a legend than a reality. To hold a copy in my hand is almost surreal. Batmanga was a project that was undertaken by Jiro Kuwata back in 1966. To my knowledge, this trade is the first English translation made available to the public. Perhaps somewhere down the line I would have picked up an original Japanese copy for novelties sake, but I never thought I would actually get to read it!
The original manga series premiered in April of 1966 and was a direct result of the Batman craze in Japan that had been initiated by the TV series 3 months prior. From that, some of you might assume that Jiro Kuwata took his cues from the show, but you couldn’t be more wrong. The only thing that even remotely reminded me of the 66 show was the style of the Batmobile used and the way in which the face plate of Batman’s cowl was rendered. I also didn’t feel like Jiro was getting his inspiration from the comics at the time either. Just 2 years prior, the comics were still filled with the exploits of Batman battling aliens, getting turned into Bat-baby, and treating his famous rouges gallery more like old high school rivals than arch criminals.
I think Jiro Kuwata’s inspiration actually goes a lot further back than that.
To me, the real inspiration seemed to be the original Batman stories from the 30s and 40s. Gone is the playful Dark Knight, scolding his adversaries. Here you will see a Batman bent on justice, and villains wholly open to killing. While some are quite fantastical in nature, Jiro attempts to explain all of these oddities through science, as opposed to magic or out of this world visitors. Since the tone is far more serious, you actually get some sense of Batman being in real danger as opposed to just chumming it up with his pals. Villains carry machine guns, cops and civilians get killed, and the bad guys genuinely attempt to kill the Dynamic Duo.
For those of you who are all about twists, turns, and mind blowing plots, this might not be the book for you. This is from a simpler time, and while good in its own right, by today’s standards the plots are very basic. Half the time you can tell what is going to happen from the first couple of pages. Now, if you’re in for the action, you came to the right place! Flipping, swinging, punching, ducking, springing, and slamming! Most of the fight sequences go on for half a dozen pages or more. I don’t mean to imply that this is nothing but mindless eye candy, but the fight sequences are the main draw. If that is what you’re coming for, you won’t be disappointed! In fact, almost every physical action that occurs has a production made out of it! This isn’t today where if Batman wants to get to the foot of a building he just glides down, no no! This is the 60s. His batrope isn’t even long enough to get down the side of a building. Making it from the roof to the street becomes an entire action set piece in and of itself! Climbing down gutters, doing somersaults off of flagpoles. Action, Action, ACTION!
About the book itself… one thing that might take you by surprise is the fact that it is roughly the size of your hand. 5 1/2 by 8 to be precise. But please, don’t worry about getting less story due to the reduced size! This book is 357 pages long and retails for only $14.99. Getting this much material for that small of a price and having them put forth all that work to translate seems like a real steal to me!
For those of you who are inexperienced with Manga, you will have one small hurdle to overcome: reading backwards! Reading from the “back” cover to the “front”, and reading panels and word balloons from right to left. It might sound difficult at first, since our occidental minds are trained to read from left to right, but after a couple of pages it becomes more natural and you don’t really have to think about it anymore. One other thing that took some getting used to was the sound effects. Indeed, all the dialogue in the balloons appear in English, but the original sound effects, being part of the artwork, still appear in Japanese, with the translation appearing under the panels in the gutter (the white spaces between panels). While I thought it was really nice that they took the time to do that, it wasn’t a complete necessity to understanding the story, as were the translations of the words. After reading my hundredth whizz, swish, blam, and vrrrrr, I started to bypass the sound effect translations.
The art has a very non-static look to it. Back in the 60s, comics had a very posed look to them. As if someone were about to take a picture and everybody struck their best still. In Batmanga, you get the sense that what you are looking at is a single second of a video, as opposed to static photo. While this is nothing revolutionary by today’s standards, seeing all those motion lines and blurs on the page really made the images pop! I should also mention that, aside from the occasional red highlight, almost everything is in black and white.
Now that we are done with initial comments, let’s discuss each chapter with a brief overview.
Chapter One: Lord Death Man
I’m sure the first thing a lot of you are thinking is; is this the same Lord Death Man for Grant Morrison’s 2011 Batman Incorporated. The answer is yes. Morrison brought back a supposedly dead character from 45 years ago. Morrison does love the obscure characters. Aside from the Morrison use of the character, he only had one other appearance in comics, Batman #180 (1966). Turns out that the story presented in Batmanga and the American one from a month after are basically the same story. To be honest, I don’t know if the writers were working together on the first story to provide a kind of synthesis, or if the American team thought the first Batmanga story was so awesome that they just copied it. Either way, there you have it.
This first story is by far the simplest of the lot. Death Man is just a guy who does robberies, and when caught, he fakes his death so that when he gets buried he can escape from the graveyard instead of the prison. He does this by means of slowing his bodily functions through a skill he picked up overseas. What I found particularly interesting about this is the fact that current day Batman is quite familiar with this skill and has actually used it before. At this time in the comics (and in that day and age) it seemed almost like it was a super power since it was not common knowledge that some people could actually do this kind of stuff. 50 years later, something that was considered unusual is now run-of-the-mill.
In the proceeding chapters, Batman starts looking more like the Adam West Batman, but in this first chapter he definitely resembles more of the 30s style Batman; Black cowl with ears sticking out to the side and at an angle instead of straight up. Jiro Kuwata was born in 1935, so he was a child during the early years of Batman. The imagery he choose to use along with the levels of violence portrayed definitely harken back to that time as opposed to the 60s.
Chapter Tw0: Doctor Faceless
In this chapter, Dr.Denton creates a device that can erase scars. Something goes wrong and the device ends up erasing his entire face instead. His mind being cracked from the stress of the ordeal, he goes on a crazy spree destroying a bunch of stuff in Gotham with beautiful faces, like works of art and statues. When eventually caught, he is not held responsible for his action since he only temporarily cracked under the pressure of his situation. It actually turns out that Doctor Faceless isn’t Denton at all, but a criminal named Morgan. He switched places with Denton and while running amok like a crazy person breaking stuff, he was actually pocketing valuables the whole time. He was counting on the police forgiving him and figured that he would be out of reach by the time they figured out what really happened.
Out of the 6 stories featured in this volume, this seems to be the only one that is directly inspired by a previous Batman story. In Detective Comics #319 (1963) Batman faces off with Dr. No-Face. No-Face/Faceless, yeah that is the same guy. In the same way that their fake names are similar but not identical, their real names follow suit; Magan/Morgan. If those aren’t enough for you to be convinced of them being the same guy, how about the fact that both characters attempt to vandalize the face carving of Batman erected at Mount Gotham. (Yeah, Batman has his own Mount Rushmore)
We had seen the Batcopter from the Lord Death Man chapter, and there it looked like a normal helicopter, but for some reason they decided to change the design and now it looks more like a flying saucer. Not sure what is up with that but it threw me enough that I wanted to bring it up.
Chapter Three: The Human Ball
This chapter is all about the action! A scientist creates a suit that turns him into a super bounce ball. He wants to make some money off of his invention and decides that those who would want it most would be criminals. He chooses to prove its usefulness to the criminal underworld before they bid on it by beating the crap out of Batman and Robin. That is this chapter in a nutshell.
The way in which Human Ball fights is by simply bouncing around and then using himself like a battering ram to smash into Batman and Robin. He gets a real perverse sense of joy out of it too! One time he says, “I’m going to bludgeon you until all your inner organs are pulped!” When you stop and think about it, that is pretty grisly. In another scene, he grabs Robin and then bounces up into the air. At the top of his arch he comments, “What would happen if I let you go here? I imagine your head and bones would be pulverized when you hit the concrete”. This guy is pretty messed up! If you actually let yourself get into the scenes, it’s pretty hard to watch. It’s like a cat playing with its food.
Chapter Four: The Revenge of Professor Gorilla
What causes this round of headaches for the Dynamic Duo? That’s right, it’s Science again! A scientist creates a machine that transfers the powers of animals to him; eyes of hawk, speed of cheetah, etc, etc, etc. However, when it comes time to transferring to him the strength of the gorilla, a small problem occurs: the ray malfunctions and the doctor’s genius level intellect is shared with the gorilla. Now, being able to perceive things on a new level, the gorilla condemns the way mankind has treated nature and animals and decides that since he now has the means, it is time to extract some revenge.
This story reminded me of another Batman story from a decade later. In Detective Comics #482 (1979), Batman fights an albino gorilla that houses the mind of a scientist. While not the same, in the manga the gorilla gets enhanced intellect but in the Tec issue it is actually mind transference, I still thought about it while reading the story. There are enough similarities that it is possible that Jim Starlin read the Jiro Kuwata story and was inspired to write Tec#482.
Chapter Five: Go-Go The Magician
Care to guess what causes the problem this time? If you guessed science, you’re right! A scientist creates a portable weather machine, a criminal gets a hold of it and uses it for nefarious purposes.
If you’re a reader of manga or had any experience with anime, then this villain might be something you’re more used to seeing. I don’t want to say that there is a stereotypical kind of anime villain, since I have seen all types, but this guy definitely falls in line with the kind of villain I’m not used to seeing in genres other than manga/anime. He is very flamboyant, over the top, sure of himself, and boastful. It is somewhat hard to describe unless you have a similar frame of reference, but for those of you who do, I’m sure you understand what I’m talking about.
Chapter Six: The Man Who Quit Being Human
The first two pages of this chapter took me by surprise. Jiro Kuwata makes an appearance. And not in the sense that he is in the story and meets Batman, but in the sense that he is telling the story and needs to fill you in on some details about it before it begins. Kind of like those old stop motion Christmas specials where the narrator would fill you in on the main details before the story starts outright. This particular tale is about evolution. Much in the way that the first chapter considered meditation to be an unusual and unknown practice, this story begins with the idea that your average person has no idea what evolution is. While it might seem peculiar to us that this needed to be explained, the general audience of the time obviously needed a quick lesson in order to comprehend the story.
Of all the stories collected here, this one seemed the weirdest and least like a Batman story to me. In fact, Batman almost seems peripheral to the main story. Like, you could replace him with someone else and the story would be the same. Basically, we have a guy who is advancing into the next level of human evolution. The thing that is so weird is that he morphs into a creature hell bent on destroying the human race, more like an alien invader than the next step of evolution. He says that, “We shall keep all of the Earth’s animals as slaves, but not the humans.” What?!? It makes it sound like he is expecting the rest of the invading fleet to show up from space or something. Wouldn’t it make more sense to hasten the evolution of the humans as opposed to destroying them? I mean, where are the rest of creature like him supposed to come from if he destroys all of what he came from?
- You like Manga and you like Batman. Hey, it’s Batmanga!
- You want to read some older Batman stories with a hint of 30s mentality and styling to them.
- You like stories that are grounded in science, even if some are made up comic book science.
- Where you are concerned, it is all about the action!
I enjoyed this quite a bit. Maybe it was the nostalgia in seeing the homage of the original 30s Batman; maybe it was the excitement of reading this gem that had been hiding in Japan for 50 years; or maybe it was my inner child reading it and not wanting to compare it with anything from this century. I can see how individuals who aren’t as impressed by nostalgic elements won’t be as taken with it as I was. This piece can’t compare to current comics: both the plots and the art have a much lower level of detailing in it. But for the time period it was written in, this is some pretty solid material, especially when it comes to the action sequences. Evidence of this can be found in the Lord Death Man sequences: if you have the Batman #180 version of this story along with the one presented here, even though they are the same story, you can definitely see the difference in art styles from America to Japan, and just how much more dynamic all the action is in the Jiro Kuwata version of the story as opposed to the American one. Does every story in this collection earn a 9 on its own? No, but the sum of its parts earns it such praise.
SCORE: 9 / 10