Long before Del Rey Manga and Marvel Comics decided to give The X-Men a manga makeover, and the Teen Titans got Puffy Ami Yumi to sing their TV show theme song, DC Comics and Shonen King magazine published Batman manga in Japan.
In 1966, the Batman TV show was a sensation in America and was imported to Japan. Shonen King, a boys' manga anthology jumped on the bandwagon and commissioned manga artist Jiro Kuwata to create new Caped Crusader stories for Japanese audiences. When Batman ended its run on Japanese TV, so did the manga – a fleeting moment of cross-cultural comics history.
Now, these once-forgotten stories are the subject of Bat Manga! The Secret History of Batman in Japan, a comics art book by graphic designer, author and comics connoisseur Chip Kidd, fellow collector Saul Ferris and photographer Geoff Spear. Bat Manga! won't be in your local bookshop until October 2008, but I wanted to know more about this highly anticipated book. I wrote to Kidd and Ferris and got their take on the 10-year journey of collecting and happy coincidences that led to the publication of Bat Manga! and the tantalizing possibility of more that's in store.
Q: First off, could you tell me a little bit about yourselves, what you do for a living?
Saul Ferris: I have been an attorney for 23 years. I started in the Army JAG Corps as a prosecutor at court-martials. I visited Japan on a training exercise for a month while I was in the Army. My sister-in-law is Japanese and my brother speaks Japanese fluently. They have helped me to acquire and understand the Japanese Batman toys and manga in my collection.
Q: And Chip, of course, is the author of several books (including his new novel, The Learners) and graphic designer who has created memorable images for numerous bestselling boooks, including the striking covers for Vertical's Osamu Tezuka graphic novels, Buddha and Ode to Kirihito.
So you two come from different worlds, but one thing you do share is a love of Batman memorabilia! What kind of things do you collect?
Saul Ferris: I collect Batman toys and comics, foreign and domestic, mostly from the 1960s. My Japanese toys and manga are my favorite out of all the countries in the world. This is due to the superior design and imagination that went into the toys.
The manga drawn primarily by Jiro Kuwata is beautifully executed. The stories are action-packed and contain villains not found in the American comics.
Chip Kidd: My interest in Batman and vintage Batman toys has literally been well documented in several books, chiefly Batman Collected (Watson-Guptil, 1999), which has a substantial section on 1960's Japanese Batman. Not everything in the book is in my personal collection (I wish!), but it gives you a sense of what I'm interested in, for sure.
Q: What is it about this era of Batman memorabilia that you find so special and appealing?
Saul Ferris: I was 7 years old when the hugely popular Batman TV show hit the airwaves. My parents bought me a few of the 1960's Batman toys that I had fun playing with.
Collecting those toys as an adult allows me to grasp a piece of my childhood. I think the child in me is attempting to buy all those toys my parents refused to when I was young. Now I control the checkbook!
Chip Kidd: Well said by Saul. I'm slightly younger (I was two when the show came out), but my sentiment is exactly the same.
Q: I'd love to know more about the "secret origins" of these Japanese Batman stories. When, how and why did DC connect with Shonen King magazine to create and publish these stories? Was the Batman TV show shown on Japanese TV?
SF: I was fortunate enough to obtain a Japanese TV guide from 1966 with the Adam West Batman TV show in the listings as well as a feature article on the show. There is ample evidence to conclude the TV show sparked Batman's popularity in 1966 Japan. The Batman manga stories were used to boost the sales of Shonen King magazines, plain and simple.
Chip Kidd: It was the Shonen King publisher that contacted DC Comics (then National Periodical Publications) and yes, of course because of the TV show.
I have since learned that these stories also ran in a 'companion' magazine, Shonen Gaho, for what that's worth, and that previous to the Batman stories they ran a series of Superman stories as well (Boy, would I LOVE to see those!).
Q: Chip, you mentioned in our prior conversations that Jiro Kuwata was picked to be the artist for these stories. Was this before or after he created 8 Man?
Chip Kidd: Certainly after he co-created 8 Man, which was in the early 1960s. By the way, many of the ancillary character designs for his Batman bear a striking resemblance to those in his 8 Man manga.
Q: Would you know why the Japanese publisher opted to create all-new stories by Kuwata-sensei in the manga style versus just reprinting the original American versions with Japanese translations? Was it because of the hassle of flopping the artwork and translating it, or were there other reasons?
Saul Ferris: The Batman American comics were reprinted with Japanese text and original Japanese covers and centerfold posters. Since this license was granted to another Japanese publisher, Shonen King publishers had to come up with original material so as not to step on the toes of their competitor.
Chip Kidd: Also, the US translations would not have fit in with the Shonen King format.
Q: You mentioned that Kuwata-sensei was given free reign to interpret Batman, but did he make up all new stories and characters?
Chip Kidd: Kuwata-sensei did not have to completely make up the stories if he chose not to. Some of them were adapted from ideas that had appeared in the US (Clayface, The Outsider, etc).He often made changes to suit his style and the fact that the stories were now taking place in Japan -- but it's that wonderful amalgam of Japan and contemporary urban America.
Q: What was the response to these Batman stories? Was it very popular with the Japanese readers of Shonen King?(More on Page 2)