Chip Kidd’s new book is backwards.
Okay, it’s not exactly backwards but it reads back to front like Japanese comics – you know, manga. Bat-Manga! is simply one of the weirdest, oddest, and strangest books about comics to come out in recent years.
To put it even more succinctly, Bat-Manga! chronicles and collects several Batman comics that were written, drawn, and published in Japan in the 1960s at the height of so-called “Batmania.” That’s when Batman was on TV and, well, everywhere. And as it turns out, even in Japan.
Hmm – actually it is backwards. The spine is on the other side of the book…
Regardless, Chip and a fellow Bat-fan, both admirers of the 1960s Batman, discovered these obscure Bat-comics over a period of years and the culmination of that quest is this new book, just released in October from Pantheon Books. The manga is also punctuated by loads and loads of great color pics of crazy Batman merchandise from Japan that frankly has to be seen to be believed. Basically, our friends in the East –specifically writer-artist Jiro Kuwata – took the Caped Crusader, bent him at angles you didn’t even know existed – and ran with him.
I had the extreme pleasure of catching Chip in a question-answering mood and the following interview about the brand-new Bat-Manga! is what transpired. Ichiban!
Jim Beard: Chip, what about the 1960s Batman in general interests you the most?
Chip Kidd: It’s the version I first knew, since I was born in 1964.
JB: In your opinion, in these Japanese stories is the character of Batman still “true,” i.e. recognizable as the real Caped Crusader?
CK: I would say so, but he also appears to be a good bit more vulnerable, which I think makes him – and the stories – much more interesting.
JB: And his costume’s the same, too! You have an example of what appears to be a prose Batman story in Bat-Manga! – did the prose appear alongside the comics or separately? What more can you tell us about them?
CK: They would appear before the actual comics stories, or in lieu of them altogether. I can’t really tell you much more, but we did credit the various artists – Jiro Kuwata obviously did not do these.
JB: Though the stories in the book utilize a few established Bat-villains like Clayface and Death-Man, the “big guns” of Joker, Penguin, Catwoman, etc. are for the most part absent from the Japanese stories and merchandise. Why is that?
CK: If I get to do a second volume – as I am planning, if this one is successful- that will be the first follow-up question I ask Kuwata. It’s a great tragedy we never get to see a Kuwata Joker. He obviously felt the need to invent his own villains, which is both a treat and something of a frustration.
JB: Guns permeate the stories and merchandise – is Batman’s loathe of guns an example of what the Kuwata referred to in your interview with him in the book as an aspect of Batman that Japanese audiences would say didn’t make sense?
CK: I wouldn’t put words in Kuwata’s mouth, but for whatever reason, guns are introduced at the slightest provocation – so to speak. This obviously interested the artist, but at least neither Batman nor Robin ever fires an actual gun lethally at a living being [in the stories].
JB: Where are we to believe this “Gotham” in the stories exists? In the U.S. or Japan?
CK: It would appear to be some amalgam of the two, which I love. You could ask the same thing about Speed Racer, and certain other 60s manga properties. I would call it the mysterious realm of Japanamerica.
JB: There’s a color page or two towards the beginning of each story whereas the remainder is in black, white and grays – why isn’t there more color and why is it at that same place each time?
CK: This is some sort of trope that is distinct and traditional to manga publications. I would think that budget constraints are/were part of it.
JB: Batman is for the most part drawn as we expect him to be, yet Robin tends to look much more like the Japanese manga ideal – what is that?
CK: I couldn’t say for sure, but my guess is that Robin is much younger in order to appeal more to the Shonen King readership, which were little boys. Regardless, he is my favorite aspect of these stories–a return to the “care-free young daredevil” roots of the character in 1940.
JB: Interestingly enough, the Japanese seemed to use the Adam West-Batman image and its particulars – not only photos but the TV costume details in art – so much more than here in the U.S. at the time – did they not have any restrictions on such use, as was sometimes the case here?
JB: What is hands-down the weirdest thing, the thing that’s struck you as most alien to us in the West, you’ve come across to date in these Batman manga stories and also in the merchandise?
CK: Frankly, there’s so much more imagination at play. The Japanese were uninterested in all the “rules” of what Batman and Robin were supposed to be and conform to. The characters were often used as a starting point to explore untethered narrative, rather than held to all the restrictions of U.S. editorial policy. I think these story ideas would have been dismissed as too naïve and fanciful for a US readership at the time.
JB: Will your proposed second volume of Bat-Manga! be generally constructed like the first, or might you have a different take on it?
CK: One of the wonderful things that we’d be able to present in Bat-Manga! would be a closely detailed look at a good selection of Kuwata’s original artwork for at least three stories – not included in Volume 1. Otherwise, we will be able to complete stories that are only fragments in Vol. 1, and include more toys that were cut for space restrictions.
JB: Chip, thanks for your time and good luck with Bat-Manga!
This is truly a wonderful volume and I can easily recommend it to Batman fans and comic book and pop culture fans in general. It’s truly a unique publication, unlike any other Batman book in my own collection. And of course, with Chip Kidd and photographer Geoff Spear at the helm you know its going to be a quality production.
Many thanks to Vanessa at Pantheon and the talented Mr. Chip Kidd for making this interview possible!