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Comic-Con '08 Catch-up: Bat Manga! With Chip Kidd

By July 29, 2008

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On one hand, it's great that there was so much manga-related happenings this weekend at San Diego Comic-Con 2008 that I was never, ever bored. On the other hand, it also means that I've got lots more to do to catch up on and share tidbits about the many panels I caught this past weekend.

One of the most entertaining panels I saw last week was Thursday's Bat Manga! panel, presented by graphic designer, author and Batman memorabilia aficionado Chip Kidd. I interviewed Kidd and his co-author Saul Ferris earlier this year, but I was keen to hear more about this cool collection of Batman manga from the 1960's. What I, and a room full of fans got, was a fun journey through the three "secret origins" of the Bat Manga! book, and a trippy side tour through some very odd Chinese versions of Batman comics.

Over ten years in the making, Bat Manga! is a labor of love that came about when David Mazzuchelli, the artist of Batman: Year One went on a cartoonists fellowship in Japan, where he lived and worked for a year. Besides drawing what Kidd called his "single favorite Batman story of all time," Mazzuchelli is also a good friend of Kidd's. When Mazzuchelli came back to the U.S., he told Kidd that his Japanese hosts had told him about these Japanese manga versions of Batman from the 1960's, a period of Batman history that neither Mazzuchelli nor Kidd had ever heard about. Kidd was intrigued, but filed that tidbit in his "nice to know" file for later.

The second origin story of Bat Manga! goes back to 1966, when the Batman TV series was imported and televised in Japan, where it created "a huge craze like every where else," said Kidd. "The difference is that in Japan, the editors of Shonen King magazine asked DC Comics for the rights for Japanese creators to create original stories," a privilege that (to our knowledge) they had not granted to anyone else at the time. Jiro Kuwata, the artist of 8 Man was selected as the man for the job, and in 1967, these original Batman stories began appearing in the pages of Shonen King.

"I grew up near Philadelphia, and we got 8 Man (the animated TV series),and it was so damn cool," recalled Kidd. "8 Man is the concept for Robocop -- (the American filmmakers) completely ripped it off.

"If you Google Jiro Kuwata, you won't see any mention of his Batman work," said Kidd. "The Batman comics just kind of came and went. It was seen as a failed experiment, but in my estimation, it's a total triumph!"

"This was an incredible convergence of Japanese and American culture in the 1960's," said Kidd, "and this was all official. It was no bootleg." In fact, on cover page of each story, there's a seal and copyright notice for National Allied Publications (a.k.a. DC Comics). "This is our Batman, but it's also their Batman too," he said.

The third origin of Bat Manga came about when Kidd bid on and won a vintage Batmobile tin toy from Japan on eBay. He won the auction, but got the toy for a hefty sum. Kidd then got an email in his inbox with the subject line: "You got reamed." The email came from a fellow Batman memorabilia collector, who told Kidd that his new pricey purchase was from an unscrupulous dealer who had sold him a toy that wasn't truthfully as collectible as advertised.

Kidd wrote back to thank this fellow collector for his help, and got an email back with the subject line, "Oh, it's you." These notes were from Saul Ferris, a lawyer from Chicago who is also an avid collector of Batman memorabilia. Over the years, Kidd and Ferris developed a friendly rapport, and a shared passion for finding these rare Batman comics from Japan.

"Part of putting this book together is that Saul would find a chapter here and there. It was a real scavenger hunt," said Kidd. And as a result, there aren't always complete story arcs in Bat Manga! But there are a few, like a story called "The Man Who Quit Being Human" (illustrated here), where a prominent politician discovers that he is slowly mutating. This politician then makes the mistake of trying to see if the mutation process can be sped up and thus turns into an evil monster. Sounds like an X-Men story... can't remember which one. But remember, this was created in 1967, easily pre-dating any X-Men story that might be similar.

When they had enough material to put together a book, Kidd took his proposal to Paul Levitz. The head honcho at DC Comics told him, "Congratulations, I've never seen this before in my life," which was a sure sign that these Japanese stories aren't available in the DC vaults. With Levitz's blessing, Kidd, Ferris and photographer Geoff Spear created Bat Manga -- a collection never before published in either Japan or the U.S.

"The beauty of it is that it looks like a woodblock print," said Kidd. "We photographed the original pages so it would look like you're reading the actual archival copy, not a cleaned up version of the art. I wanted to make it feel like you were reading the comic then."

Kidd also reminded the audience, "We also have a lot more Bat Manga -- enough for Bat Manga Volume 2!"

So what are the main differences between the Batman we know and this Japanese interpretation of the Caped Crusader? As Kidd explained it, "(The Japanese creators) seemed to love the idea of Batman having a gun -- any chance they have to have him have a ray gun or bazooka, they do it. It's all very, very gadget-oriented, which is not unusual given the culture." As Kidd showed a picture of a Batman tank tin toy, he said "The Japanese did it first. They put Batman in a tank with big ass guns, 20 years before Frank Miller did!"

Robin is there in Kuwata's version of Batman, but the Joker is not. In fact, most of the villains in Bat Manga are Kuwata's own creations, including a baddie called "Lord Death Man." "His power is that HE CAN DIE," laughed Kidd, "which means that any of us can be Lord Death Man... except that he can come back to life."

For the rest of the panel, Kidd treated attendees to a dramatic reading of "The Man Who Quit Being Human," complete with sound effects and different voices for each character. This alone made this event memorable and infectiously fun. Kidd's a fabulously entertaining storyteller, which made these hyper dramatic and retro-weird stories especially hilarious.

The other fun bonus was seeing some of the vintage Batman toys that'll be included in the book and getting a peek at the Chinese Batman comics that are the bonus material that will only be included in the limited hardcover edition of Bat Manga!. One illustration in particular showed a random assortment of Batman characters and a cameo by Jesus.

Look for Bat Manga! from Pantheon Graphic Novels, on sale in both paperback and limited edition hardcover on October 28, 2008, and check out a few more photos from the Bat Manga panel in the San Diego Comic-Con 2008 Photo Gallery.

Photo credit: © Deb Aoki


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