Bat-Manga: The Secret History of Batman in Japan
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel
Pantheon / Random House
US First Edition Large-Format Trade Paperback
Publication Date: 10-28-2008
352 Pages; $29.95
Date Reviewed: 11-17-08
Non-Fiction, Interview (11-14-08)
In the end, it's going to prove to be a personal choice, and likely made when you are actually holding the book in your hand. Chip Kidd's 'Bat-Manga: The Secret History of Batman in Japan' is book that aims to achieve a very peculiar goal; it promises to give readers not just the content, but the feel of Batman comics first published in Japan in the mid-1960's. On the face of it, this would seem to be a project that would have a very limited appeal, mostly to collectors of Batman memorabilia who are compulsive and completist as the author. That's not necessarily a small audience; and as it happens, it's not the only audience that might find this book utterly compelling. By focusing on what is merely a single pixel in the cultural landscape, Kidd evokes a much larger feel of wonder, not just at the content of the material with, the stories to, but as well, the larger story of how cultures clash and mingle, and how charm needs no translation.
The story behind the book is an essential part of the book, and Kidd lays it out amidst mad splashes of color, action and kinetic imagery. Toys and cartoon panels clash on these pages, but Kidd's bits of prose and the interview with the original artist ensure there's more on display here than perfectly reproduced comics. There's a larger cultural story about youth, innocence and how easily those transient enthusiasms cross cultures and infect the minds of young men. Even if you're not a young man, the joy herein is contagious.
The Batman stories here are nothing like any other Batman story you've read. They're a bit more science-fictional, and clearly demonstrate the influence of the giant-monster movies. The panels are less cluttered, and the style is manga, but tempered. The sories are short and easily read in a few minutes, which make this a good choice for a coffee-table manga work. Kidd offers the material in traditional manga format, right to left. The panels are numbered so it's easy to follow the story and the work is typeset, not hand lettered. Purists may balk, but the Japanese original was also typeset. It's certainly easy to read.
The real problem with 'Bat-Manga: The Secret History of Batman in Japan' is that it's very difficult to put down, even if you've already read the book. It's a swarming riot of love and action, of untamed youth snapped in a moment and captured on a page. This is a book that will catch the casual reader off-guard, like a Batarang that knocks you upside the head. You see stars, youth — WHAM! You're in another time.