Batman: The Jiro Kuwata Batmanga Vol. 1

Batman: The Jiro Kuwata Batmanga Vol. 1 by Jiro Kuwata.
By Jiro Kuwata, translated by Sheldon Drzka, lettered by Wes Abbott
Batman & Robin created by Bill Finger, Bob Kane, Jerry Robinson

Originally serialised from 1966-1967 in Shonen King magazine to capitalise on the popularity of the Batman television series, the Batman manga would be rediscovered in 2008 by Chip Kidd, who would make it the centerpiece of his book Bat-Manga!: The Secret History of Batman in Japan. Despite being well-received, Kidd was criticised for failing to credit the manga’s creator Jiro Kuwata. So for comic fans, it’s a little more gratifying to see DC release the first volume of a planned complete run for the manga in a format that more closely preserves the content of the original. But fans of the current incarnation of Batman or of today’s manga are probably going to find this comic slightly strange. This isn’t the brooding protagonist cloaked in black. Nor is the art going to remind anyone of today’s manga populated by delicately drawn bishonen and bishojo types. This is a solidly-executed boy’s action adventure of the period. But for someone like me, there’s something familiar and comforting about its simplicity.

To begin, this is a superhero comic that still displays the genre’s early circus roots. Batman and Robin don a variation of the traditional tights that they wore for decades before the duo started bulking themselves up with body armour. Long before superheroes were granted bodybuilder physiques, Batman and Robin were portrayed as lithe athletes. And this works for the kind of storytelling Kuwata employs. The duo are usually shown leaping off buildings, swinging on ropes, running at top speed, tossing and kicking their enemies, dodging bullets. This classic staging of fight choreography really helps to ground the characters in real physical exertion. By today’s standards Kuwata’s style is rather minimal. But it’s primary virtue is in how it captures the dynamism of its protagonists. The clarity and pacing of the action keeps what are sometimes wordy panels from slowing down the story.

The stories themselves, which mimic the 3-act structure of a television episode, are also fairly episodic, with Batman and Robin battling a succession of villains-of-the-week. Two of them (Lord Death Man and Doctor Faceless) were lifted from the manga’s American counterparts, but none of them could be described as an essential member of Batman’s rogues gallery. The plots and characterisations are now fairly predictable, with many of the tropes seen here having been used many times since the 60s. What I found surprising was the science-based nature of the antagonists. Like many readers, I’ve become accustomed to the horror/crime themed interpretation of Batman’s more popular arch-foes as well as Batman himself being portrayed as a psychologically scarred individual. But Kuwata’s stories reflect the post-War fascination with science and technology gone amuck. So the manga's always flamboyant villains tend to be hucksters, mad inventors, or freaks of nature rather than the more familiar assortment of mobsters, assassins, mass murderers, or serial killers. The only thing missing here are angst-ridden individuals transmogrified after being bathed in radiation.

This results in a very different kind of Batman. Rather than the urban avenger waging a one-man-war against crime in Gotham or the control freak who plans for every outcome, we have a Batman who initially stumbles when confronting a new villain’s MO for the first time. He starts out at a clear disadvantage dealing with their unfamiliar technology since he has no way to counter it. And while he eventually finds a way to win, he's far from infallible. This isn’t Batman the Dark Knight, but closer to Batman the problem-solving Science Hero. Admittedly, this plays to some of my more nostalgic instincts.