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for Friday, February 13, 2009


1966. Bat-mania had taken over the country and much of the world, thanks to a camp humor TV series starring Adam West and Burt Ward. Parent company DC Comics couldn't have made more money from selling Batman licenses if they were printing it themselves. There were so many licensing deals the company couldn't exercise any real control over all of them. Included in this "off the reservation" mix: two years of Batman adventures created and published in Japan, but never before reprinted, not even in that country.

Bat-Manga! The Secret History of Batman in Japan [Pantheon; $29.95, paperback, $60 hardcover] gives today's Bat-fans the opportunity to see hundreds of pages of comics created by Jiro Kuwata, of whom I will speak further more once I get all the other credits out of the way. This unusual book was compiled, edited, and designed by Chip Kidd with photography by Geoff Spear and English translation by Anne Ishii. These Kuwata comics and related material come from the collection of Saul Ferris.

Kuwata was given a bunch of American comics and those visuals formed the basis for his own Batman work. He originally thought he would try to incorporate the styles of Carmine Infantino and other Batman artists into his stories, but abandoned that idea. Instead, he took the basic visual concepts of the characters and stories to turn them into an uniquely Japanese take on Batman. It's exciting stuff, what with Clayface turning into various monsters, a gorilla with human intelligence murdering humans by the hundreds, and the Weather Wizard recast as Go-Go the Magician. But there are major drawbacks to this material as well.

Only one of the stories reprinted in this volume is complete. We and Batman and Robin are left hanging in his battles with Clayface, Lord Death Man, and Go-Go the Magician. We don't get to read the first chapter of the Professor Gorilla story.

Like a John McCain America, there's no "middle class" in Kuwata's stories. The human villains are heavy into art thefts with Batman coming off as the defender of the wealthy. The non-human villains, well, they just want to kill all humans.

The book strikes me as being somewhat over-produced. The contrast between the story pages, which seem to be shot from directly from the faded comics in which they originally appeared, and the glossy paper on which they are reprinted, is jarring. Kidd is a brilliant designer, but the presentation elevates the material far beyond its actual artistic value.

The only complete story in the paperback edition - the hardcover, which I haven't seen, has an additional Kuwata adventure about "a band of rogue alien robot art thieves at large in Gotham City" - is an adaptation of Gardner F. Fox's "The Man Who Quit the Human Race" [Batman #165; August, 1964]. Taking its cue from the Fox script, the Kuwata version has more heart than any of the other stories in this book. If there had been more Kuwata/Batman stories like it, I would have enjoyed reading them.

Negatives aside, Bat-Manga! The Secret History of Batman in Japan is still great fun. While the Batman toys hold no appeal for me, I enjoyed the Batman and trivia notes printed on the sides of many pages. The former are wonderfully Japanese; the latter sometimes strange, such as a series of trivia notes on whaling. I wouldn't spring for the hardcover edition, but, based on the oddness/rarity of the material, the trade paperback earns an impressive four out of five Tonys.

Tony Tony Tony Tony

Thanks for spending a part of your day with me. I'll be back Monday with more stuff.

Tony Isabella

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Zero Tonys
ZERO: Burn your money before buying any comic receiving this rating. It doesn't *necessarily* mean there's absolutely nothing of value here - though it *could* - but whatever value it might possess shrinks into insignificance before its overall awfulness.

ONE: Buy something else. Maybe I found something which wasn't completely dreadful in the item, but not enough for me to recommend it when there are better comics available. I only want what's best for you, my children.

TWO: Basic judgment call. I found some value, but not enough to recommend it. My review should give you enough info to decide if you want to take a chance on it. Are you feeling lucky today, punk? Well, are you?

THREE: This denotes something I find perfectly respectable. There are better books out there, but I wouldn't regret buying this item. Based on my review, you should be able to determine if it's of interest to you. Let the Force guide you.

FOUR: I recommend anything earning this rating. Unless you don't like the genre, subject matter, or past work of the creators, I believe you'll enjoy this item. Isn't it uncanny how I can look right into your soul that way?

FIVE: Anything getting this rating is among the best comicdom has to offer. You should buy/read this, even if the genre/subject matter doesn't appeal to you. It's for your own good. Me, I live for comics and books this good...but not in a pathetic "Comic-Book Guy" sort of way.

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