From his Fortress of Solitude secluded high in the frozen north, this powerful hero hears the call for help: A mad scientist has unleashed a giant robot on the city, and only one man can stop it. The hero takes to the air, flying at terrible speeds in order to come and save the day. His dashing scarlet cape flows behind him making his body a single streak of red. Look up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s…The Golden Bat?
The year is 1931. Five years before Lee Falk’s Ghost Who Walks, The Phantom, stalked the daily strips of newspapers everywhere, and seven years before Superman burst from the pages of Action Comics, 6,760 miles away in the island country of Japan kids were already thrilling to the adventures of super-powered heroes all their own. When Superman finally made the stage in 1938, American children were startled to see the strange visitor from another planet in his blue costume and red cape hoisting a car over his head. But the children of Japan probably turned their head at such a blatant rip-off their national hero, Ōgon Bat.
The Theater of Paper
I have always thought of the superhero as a uniquely American invention. To be sure, I knew there were earlier “masked adventurers” and “heroes” – types like Baroness Emmuska Orczy’s 1903 play Scarlet Pimpernel, or Johnston McCulley’s pulp-hero Zorro, or even mythological-types like Heracles and Achilles that served as prototypes – but when it came to honest-to-goodness undisputable superheroes, I believed the Made-in-America stamp was pretty secure. I read the comic history books. I even checked Wikipedia, where is says: “Superheroes are authentically US-American, spawning from The Great Depression era.”
So I was surprised when I read through Eric P. Nash’s Manga Kamishibai: The Art of Japanese Paper Theater and discovered that years before the new media of the comic book ushered in the era of superheroes, Japan was already deep in a Golden Age of strange visitors from another planet flying through the sky in brilliant costumes righting wrongs and battling mad scientist inventors.
While these adventures took place in the form of sequential art, they were not comic books. The popular medium was called kamishibai, translating as paper theater in English. Basically, artists painted a sequential series of pictures, which were then sold or rented to traveling storytellers. These men, known as kamishibai-ya, would bicycle from town to town, smack together two wooden clappers to announce the show, then when enough children had gathered they would work their magic. The kamishibai-ya would act out a story using the painted panels as visual reference, doing the voices of the characters and pulling out the panels with dramatic timing.
Kamishibai had as many genres as modern comic books. There were romance kamishibai, war kamishibai, drama kamishibai, and most popular of all, superhero kamishibai. The artists who created the series would tell continuing adventures of popular heroes, and the children waited anxiously for the next installment of a popular storyline.
One popular character was The Prince of Gamma. An interstellar prince orphaned on Earth, the Prince of Gamma had an alter-ego of a poor street urchin wandering the streets of Tokyo. But when danger called, he would transform, appearing in a blue suit with yellow insignia, flowing yellow cape and headdress. The Prince of Gamma was super-strong, invulnerable and had the power of flight. He did battle with a bald-headed scientist and an alien from outer space with a visible brain.
The mysterious Gekko Kamen (Moonlight Mask) was a more traditional masked adventurer in the Scarlet Pimpernel/Zorro vein. Dressed all in white and with a white turban, Gekko Kamen’s identity was concealed even from the readers by a white scarf and a huge pair of white goggles. Gekko Kamen was popular enough that in 1958 the character became the first of Japan’s long-lasting tokusatsu live-action heroes.
But what the kids were really waiting for was the latest adventure of the bizarre superhero Ōgon Bat.
The Golden Bat
Translated literally as Golden Bat but just as often rendered in English as Phantaman or Phantoma, Ōgon Bat was the creation of twenty-five year old Suzuki Ichiro and his artist friend sixteen-year old Nagamatsu Takeo. The two were regular visitors to the Ueno Royal Art Museum in Tokyo, where they saw the mythological characters that grace the folded screens and old monochromes of by-gone eras. They had the idea of bringing heroes that existed in the past, and recreating them for the future. Instead of mythology and gods, they would be powered by the new magic of space and science.
Ōgon Bat has only the briefest of origin stories. He came to the present era from 10,000 years in the past, a super-being from a ancient Atlantis sent foward in time to do battle with evil forces threatening the era. He had no alter-ego, but lived in the snow-covered peaks of the Japanese Alps, flying in to save the day when needed.
As superheroes go, Ōgon Bat is pretty creepy looking. Aside from the red cape and superpowers, Ōgon Bat bears very little resemblance to Superman. For one thing, he has a giant skull for a head. Not a mask. An actual skull-head. And the rest of his costume consists of a swashbuckler outfit complete with rapier. But appearances aside, there is no doubt that Ōgon Bat is a true superhero.
Visually, it only takes a glance to see Ōgon Bat’s inspiration lying with Gaston Leroux titular character in the 1909 Le Fantôme de l’Opéra, known in English as The Phantom of the Opera. The skull-face and rapier combined with the opera cloak confirms this. One can only assume that is where the Phantoma translation comes from.
The non-literal translation makes a different sense as well. Name aside, there is nothing “Golden” or “Bat” about Golden Bat. The two creators actually named him after a popular brand of cigarettes. Made of cheap, third-class tobacco and emblazoned with a logo of a gold-colored bat, Golden Bat cigarettes have a romantic, literati nostalgia about them and were the smoke of choice for luminaries like Akutagawa Ryūnosuke and Dazai Osamu. No one knows why Nagamatsu and Suzuki thought this was a good name for a superhero, but it worked.
Every good hero needs a rogues gallery, and chief amongst Ōgon Bat’s enemies was Nazo, Emperor of the Universe (predating Galactic despot Flash Gordon’s Ming the Merciless by three years.). For being Emperor of the Universe, Nazo was a fairly Earth-bound sovereign. With a solid black costumed topped by pointed bat ears, and no face other than a mixed-set of one red eye and one blue eye, Nazo was mainly interested in capturing innocent young girls and tying them to train-tracks in classic cliffhanger style.
Ōgon Bat also started what would become a popular trend in later comics: the opposite-enemy. Where Superman has Bizarro, and the Flash has Reverse Flash, Ōgon Bat fought against Kurayami Bat, the Dark Bat.
The Legacy of the Golden Bat
The era of kamishibai ended with the close of WWII, and the advent of cheap publish
ing and television to Japan. Like the superheroes of America, some of the characters of Japan’s Golden Age made the transition and some did not. Gekko Kamen continued in popularity, while the Prince of Gamma faded away into time.
Ōgon Bat made his first manga appearance in 1948, and his first movie in 1966. Appearing in the film was no less than a young Sonny Chiba, saving the world from Nazo’s Super Destruction Beam Cannon. From there Ōgon Bat anime and toys have followed, and while not exactly on the forefront of popularity nowadays you would be hard-pressed to find a Japanese person who didn’t know the name Ōgon Bat.
The First Superhero?
As far as Ōgon Bat being the first superhero, well… what is a superhero? If we go with the Wikipedia definition, a true superhero must have three things:
- Possessing “extraordinary or superhuman powers”
- Dedicated to protecting the public
- Some visual characteristic (typically an outfit) that makes him/her identifiable.
The need for superpowers eliminates the Scarlet Pimpernel or Zorro, and the “dedicated to protecting the public” eliminates the mythological figures like Achilles and Heracles. They were pretty much dedicated to their own needs.
French writer Jean de La Hire’s super-powered Le Nyctalope is a good candidate. He beats Ōgon Bat by a few decades, debuting in 1911. A crime-fighting cyborg with an artificial heart and color-shifting eyes that can see in the dark, Le Nyctalope definitely has the first two covered. But he lacked an iconic superhero suit. He had no cape, and visually few would recognize him as an iconic “Superhero.”
Ōgon Bat on the other hand…super strong, invulnerable, flying and with a big, flappy red cape…like I said, it is a debatable point, but he gets my vote for the first, true, unmistakable bona fide superhero.