Batmanga: Japan's 1960s parallel universe "New Look" Batman
In the 1960s, DC comics rebooted its moribund Batman franchise with the "New Look" comics, where Batman returned to his scientific detective roots. Across the ocean, manga master Jiro Kuwata was tapped to interpret the superhero for a Japanese audience, in stark black-and-white, and made Batman into something remarkable, prescient and unmatched. Batman: The Jiro Kuwata Batmanga, DC is collecting, for the first time ever, the English translation of the Kuwata's full run.
In 2008, Chip Kidd blew my mind with his Bat-Manga!: The Secret History of Batman in Japan, which collected lavish photos of merchandise and marketing materials from Kuwata-era Batman, and provided a wealth of supplementary material giving the context for Juwata's tenure as Japan's best-loved Batman creator.
But as wonderful as Bat-Manga! is, the newly published Batman: The Jiro Kuwata Batmanga is an absolutely vital companion volume. Kidd picked some of Kuwata's best stories for inclusion in his book, but there is simply no substitute for the full arc of Kuwata's tenure.
Kuwata's Batman is pure "scientific detective" -- the stories revolve around space-age/post-war science and technology themes (virtually every one features an inventor whose technology has run away from him, putting him, and sometimes the whole world, in danger). Like his beautiful, tightly controlled lines, Kuwata's storytelling is deceptively simple.
On the surface, each of these stories is formulaic: No-Face starts as a scientist whose anti-wrinkle machine works too well, erasing his face altogether. Lord Death Man can seemingly come back from the grave. A gorilla terrorizes the city -- never explicitly identified as Gotham, and never explicitly set in the USA -- with his superintelligence. An evil materials scientist has turned himself into a superball with a new alloy that he plans to sell to a foreign spy. A prominent politician is revealed to be an incipient mutant who must be stopped.
But though each of these stories runs on pretty straight rails -- Batman figures stuff out, Batman loses a round, Batman figures more stuff out, Batman triumphs -- the embellishments are surprisingly dark and nuanced. Batman's villains wrestle with serious moral dilemmas (whether to give their lives up for science, whether to lock themselves away so they can do no evil, even whether to save or sacrifice their own children) and Batman and Robin must contend with many of the same problems. Even better, most of these dilemmas are never brought to any kind of pat conclusion -- left instead to linger with the reader as an unsolvable existential riddle.
Between it all -- the stark, beautiful black-and-white manga illustrations, the post-war techological and moral ambiguity, the weird interzone of Japanese and American comics culture -- Batmanga shines as a unique and important historical document and stands tall as a comic that is every bit as exciting today as it was in 1962.
Batman: The Jiro Kuwata Batmanga
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