Batman Vs. Manga: 2 comics enter; 1 comic leaves
The overwhelming popularity of the Batman television series in the mid-sixties popularized the caped crusader around the world, including the distant shores of Japan. The property was licensed by a shonen manga publisher and thus Japan got its very own, original Batman comics, which have finally been translated and compiled for American audiences in what will become a comprehensive three volume collection.
To draw their version of Batman, publisher Shônen Gahôsha tapped manga-ka Jiro Kuwata, who proved his superhero chops with his creation 8-Man. Kuwata's artwork is dynamic and expressive in an almost Tezuka-esque way; whirling backgrounds and motion lines bring the reader right into the action. It's a fun juxtaposition in terms of character design that Batman looks so much like the classic Silver Age Batman, but he's interacting with all these more abstract, cartoon-y manga-style characters. The whole book has a very "you got peanut butter in my chocolate" mash-up kind of vibe that makes for a really fun read — not just in terms of style, but in content, as well. Japanese comics artists didn't have that Comics Code to contend with, and you can feel some of that difference here with the heightened sense of danger in these stories. When Batman and Robin take on Lord Death Man in the first story, you can tell it's not like that time Batman and Superman went to the county fair together to see who could win the most carnival games.
There's six stories in this compilation, and, to be honest, they're not all winners. For the most part, they follow the same story structure. Our heroes encounter a new villain in town who is committing some sort of crime. They fail to stop them, so they go and think about what they could have done differently, then they go fight again, but this time they win. It's a satisfying plot, to be sure, but a little obvious.
My only other major complaint is that these stories don't feel very specific to Batman. There's none of his usual rogue's gallery (though, don't get me wrong, Lord Death Man is really cool), no Alfred, no dead parents. He doesn't even use his bat-a-rang that much, instead opting for some sort of disc covered in hypodermic needles. His powers of deduction are not much to write home about. If it weren't for the logo on his chest and the pointy ears, there would be little to indicate that this was Batman at all. While this might be a fun palate cleanser for readers who can, at times, find the weight of Batman's mythos a little overwrought, if you're looking for Batman at his Batman-est, you might want to look elsewhere.
Overall, however, Kuwata's Batman is a fun read for fans of both Batman and manga, while not necessarily being great examples of either. Together, it's greater than the sum of its parts.