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Sunday, January 22, 2017

バットマン - Batman Comics In Japan

I am a comic book fan.

I own over 35,000 comic books -and bought them not because I wanted to make a buck, but rather to entertain. That's why I am a fan.

I believe the very first comic book I bought was Amazing Spider-man #89, where (spoiler alert) Doctor Octopus unmasks Peter Parker and tosses him off a roof at the end of the book.

I never did see get my hands on issue #90 to see if he survived. (spoiler alert - he does). I saw it recently, but decided to purchase Spider-man #76 instead... a better deal was proffered by the shopkeeper.

I ended up, over the years owning Amazing Spider-man #1, Fantastic Four #2, The Avengers #1, X-men #2... and all the key issues, excluding Incredible Hulk #181 (1st appearance of Wolverine), despite owning most of the issues before and after it. That was just bad luck on my part

At this point in my life I wanted to own every issue I didn't have... but whether that's greed, a need to fulfill some emotional pit in my soul or simply because I wanted to read them, I couldn't tell you. Probably all of the above. I purchased the collections of at least six friends.

And lest you think I was just a complete nerd - I wasn't completely - despite living in my parent's basement, playing Dungeons and Dragons and enjoying Star Trek.

No... I also played the accordion and later the piano, as well as the clarinet, sax, trumpet and basically all woodwinds, brass and keyboard instruments. I also did judo and was very good at soccer. My favorite sports top watch were boxing, hockey and baseball in that order.

I was also a fan of hard rock and roll... and still own a decent collection of original records of the common and uncommon variety. That along with collection sports cards... 

I remembered stats from sports... and from comic books... but struggled mightily in school. I can only assume my brain was full of non-school related stuff. 

As for those cool key Marvel comics (recall that I bought collections from friends) And that's just Marvel. I always considered myself both a Disney Duck guy and a DC comics collector - preferring not to have so much angst in my life that Marvel Comics provided.

Hey! I even have over 900 Richie Rich comics and the same for Archie et al. Later during the 1980s, if it was a comic book, chances are I bought it.

I wonder now, just where the hell I had the money to buy all these things... and can only assume it was because I had a summer job every year from the age of 14 up... as well as generous parents and other adult family members. 

Spoiled? Yeah. I can't disagree.

I purchased comic books (and sports cards) until July of 1990 when I went to Japan to teach English on the JET Programme - a one year deal that ended up being the then-maximum three years... with me coming back home to Toronto and buying up the three years worth of books I missed while I was away.

I continued to purchase comics regularly until about 2011 when the cost of raising a kid came home to eventually bite me on the butt.

I still like to think that when it comes to comic books, I know more about my hobby's history than most people involved in it - mostly because I studied it, purchasing books and magazines on the subjects... and... not only did I purchase reprint comics from the 1960s and 1970s, I bought the collected works issued in the decades after...

I had purchased my first comic book price guide in 1978... and made the incorrect decision when armed with $100 and a half-price sale at the Silver Snail comic shop in Toronto to purchase Uncle Scrooge #1 rather than Human Torch #3. Both were in VG condition.

That's how much I loved my Disney ducks. I still have the book, while I have, over the years sold all those key Marvel issues mentioned above... which also kills me now when I see how they are valued as of 2017.

Nowadays I get my fix on the various comic book -related television shows and movies... occasionally buying collected softcovers of stuff just to keep my brain involved.

This past Saturday, while looking for a topic du jour to write about, I was checking out the Uncle Scrooge comic books my brother had given me that were originally published in Denmark.

A friend in Sweden had purchased and sent a Donald Duck comic to me back in the 1990s, but I knew that in Denmark (and all of Scandinavia), they love Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge comics to the point where they purchase those books far more often than they did here in North America.

These comics were created new and just for the Scandinavian market, the same art and stories but translated into Dutch, Swedish and other languages. 

It go me wondering if there were any such Disney books in Japan - and yes, I'll get to that in a later blog... but I did see a Japanese version of Batman... created by the Japanese for the Japanese market.

And it was published 50-51 years ago - 1966-67 in Japan and never repackaged and republished. Holy timewarp!

I had seen a softcover collection of it in the local bookstores over the past few months - hoping someone would get it for me for birthday or Christmas... but instead, I went out and bought it myself just yesterday.

Batman: The Jiro Kuwata Batmanga - Volume 1 (of three, I believe) - translated to English... but maintaining the Japanese SFX (sound effects) in the art, with translations below each panel.... and, here's the kicker... presented in a Japanese book format, meaning you read it from right to left... and the same for the panels in each story!

There's no mistaking the fact that this is still Batman in a Japanese art style, but it's not your typical manga either!
Everything is right to left... and to make sure you aren't confused, this DC comic compilation has tiny numbers in each panel so you know where to go to next.

I wasn't sure what to expect - hokey 1960s Batman stories a la the funny and charming 1960s American Batman television show that was very similar in scope to what the comics were like at the time...

Or would it be Batman and friends with those typical Japanese manga (comic book) huge eyes - an art style I hate.

But no... while there was a bit of a simplistic look to the characters akin to the early 1960s DC comic books, the stories themselves were similar in tone to the late 1960s-early 1970s Batman that was redesigned by DC's New Look program, that made Batman et al appear grittier... harking back to WHY Batman was originally popular... back to when he was the Dark Knight detective.

I was pleasantly surprised!

バットマン aka Baatoman or Batman is a very good read to these experienced comic book fan eyes.

Heck... maybe it's just the thrill of reading a 50-year-old series of one of my favorite comic book characters for the very first time.. but no... the stories are quaint and enjoyable.

Yes... the first story involves the hokiness of a villain who can slow his heart and breathing down to deathlike appearances - what that old nugget?! - but the action!

People are getting shot and killed!

I might hate that typical Japanese manga art style with the big eyes - which this lacks (thank goodness) - but the Japanese know how how to convey a fight scene!

It's not muted in speed lines or color like we get in today's books - heck... if anyone saw the Captain America: Winter Soldier movie, the speed and extreme close-ups in the fight scenes meant the audience couldn't really see it properly.

But here in this so-called Batmanga... no, let's just call it a Japanese publication of Batman... you can see Batman fighting henchmen without the SPLAT! POW! and SMACK!

In this two-page spread, Robin drives the classic 1960s TV show Batmobile around the cemetery quickly so Batman - hanging by a rope - can kick and take out the henchmen of Lord Death Man - admittedly a crappy name... Lord Death would have sufficed.
Hey, I have nothing against the 1966-68 Batman television show... I developed a keen fondness for the female form after watching various actresses parade around in leather cat suits... but it's interesting to note that the Japanese version of Batman did not fall into that trap.

Heck... there aren't even any female villains in this series.

Consider, if you will, that the Batman television show starring the best Batman actor ever, Adam West, was phenomenally popular in Japan in the late 1960s.

As such, shōnen magazine Shōnen King and its publisher Shōnen Gahōsha licensed the rights to make their own Batman stories, with the full consent of the original Batman publisher, DC Comics.

It was written and mainly illustrated by Kuwata Jiro (桑田二郎 - surname first) who was born in Suita-shi (Suita City) Osaka-ken (Osaka prefecture) on April 17, 1935.

He was assisted in the art department by Okazaki Toshio and Minaomaru Takashi (surnames first).

I couldn't find out a heck of a lot about Kuwata, except for what I have stolen here from Wikipedia:

A gifted artist, Kuwata started out as a manga artist at the young age of 13, when he created The Strange Star Cluster (怪奇星団?) in 1948. His turning point came in 1957, when he created Maboroshi Tantei (まぼろし探偵?, Phantom Detective) (which was adapted into a tokusatsu TV series in 1959). Since then, Kuwata devoted himself to creating science fiction/superhero adventures. His most famous was 8 Man, which he co-created with writer Kazumasa Hirai.

Unfortunately, in 1965, when he was to finish the final issue of 8 Man, he was arrested for possessing a handgun (he had contemplated suicide). With Kuwata in jail, co-creator Hirai got other manga artists to finish the final issue, but wasn't satisfied with it. It was published in a manga magazine, but has never before been reprinted.

Nevertheless, Kuwata, released from prison shortly thereafter, continued his manga work well into the 1970s, but also ran into depression and alcoholism. In 1977, he had an epiphany and converted to Buddhism. He has since done beautiful art books about the life of Buddha. He also occasionally got back into manga work, and in 1992, he agreed to do his own version of the final issue of 8 Man, upon being asked by co-creator/friend Kazumasa Hirai.

See? Nothing on Batman.

In fact, DC comic book writer legend Paul Levitz (he wrote the Legion of Super-Heroes - one of my all-time favorite groups and book that I have every issue of from the 1970s on up) - this guy knows everything about DC Comics, and up until recently, he had never heard about Japan creating its own adventures of the Caped Crusader and Robin the Boy Wonder!

But he's the one who green-lit the republication of Kuwata's work for us English speakers to enjoy.

In fact... Batman Inc. (2010-1013) written by the fantastic writer Grant Morrison (if you see his name on a comic book as a writer - buy it - oldies like Animal Man and Doom Patrol - wooo, mind-blowing stuff - especially the Doom Patrol!) added in the first issue (Volume 1) many references to the Batman manga... including Lord Death Man.

A character in that book is named Jiro Osamu... which appears to be an homage to Kawata Jiro and Tezuka Osamu (surname first), the latter is the man who created Astro Boy.

I should point out that Lord Death Man appeared in the May 1966 issue of Batman #181 (American comic) but only as Lord Death - so despite the slight variation in the name, it is not an original creation by the Japanese artist.
Despite the popularity of the television show, Batman had already (1966) stopped being hokey and had become grittier, as we can see Robin falling into an open grave as Batman battles the gun-toting Death Man in Batman #181.
Anyhow... at US$14.99 and over 350 pages in length, it's a cost-effective way to spend an afternoon.

Andrew Joseph

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