Few things get comic book fans --- not to mention hardcore Batman-lovers --- more irate than the thought of the campy 1960s "Holy haberdashery!"-era "Batman' TV show. It took 20 years and the vision of director Tim Burton for the Batman mythos to live the campy TV show down. Surprisingly, it lived on in Japan even longer in the form of manga.
Perhaps it's the ability to look back on this time with nostalgia from the relative comfort of a time when a Batman movie is seriously discussed as an Oscar contender. Whatever it is, the massive volume BAT-MANGA! is a delightful look back at a time long gone but whose presence is still felt, in comics and in the real world.
BAT-MANGA! seems to be a labor of love for legendary graphic designer Chip Kidd. He's packed it full of content, given it an amazing cover, and kept it in the original, right-to-left manga format. All the material reprinted within was originally published in Japanese in a weekly anthology called Shonen King and has now been translated into English for the first time. Perhaps even more enticing are the numerous images of Batman-related toys and memorabilia from the '60s.
Considering that, these days, Batman seems to fight the Joker over and over again in his current comics, it's almost refreshingly original to see him and his boy wonder pal Robin fight robots and aliens and mad scientists. It's pure '60s zeitgeist all the way through, but it's also fun and adventurous in a way that a lot of comics have forgotten how to be.
Another favorite from this collection: The quotes, trivia, and tidbits that run along the margins of some of the pages. They helpfully explain such things as "Bruce's butler, Alfred: The one who knows Batman's true identity. He's behind the scenes but provides all kinds of assistance." Or random gems like this: "Fruit trivia: At the turn of the Meiji Era, all kinds of watermelons were brought in from America, and their prices dropped because they became so abundant."
Longtime comics fans will chuckle to see an old villain known in the States as the Weather Wizard remade in these pages as Go-Go the Magician. And silly comic-book staples like the Bat-copter make an appearance here as well. It's all in good fun.
Perhaps most impressive of all is the solid detail of the art, which is decidedly set in the '60s era but also mixes elements of the '40s and '50s in, while also using deep inks and shadings to create stark contrasts on each page. The traditional manga style of artwork that most Americans are familiar with doesn't come into play here either. Instead, these strips walk a fine line --- they're certainly for kids, but they're not as corny as one might expect.
It turns out the lure of Batman isn't lost in translation. True fans of the hero should enjoy this opportunity to see the Dark Knight cast in a different light.
Reviewed by John Hogan on October 28, 2008
Bat-Manga!: The Secret History of Batman In Japan