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Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Say Pow in Nihongo

What happened when Batman travelled to Japan

Written by Pratik Kanjilal | Published: August 25, 2013 4:36:38 am

Two comic books,one popular and the other a rarity,show America and Japan trying to become each other. They close a vast circle centred on Gotham City,whose circumference swings from Manhattan to Tokyo and back,through the 1960s Silver Age US comics that coloured the Japanese imagination to 21st century US work steeped in manga.

Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s Batman: The Long Halloween (1996-97) features the modern avatar of the Dark Knight,carrying forward the tradition of long shadows and dramatic points of view which was begun by Bob Kane,lost its way in camp humour and resurged in the Seventies in memorable issues like The Demon of Gothos Mansion and Half an Evil (1970-’71). The imprint of manga became patently visible later,for instance in the sophisticated visual storytelling in the Owls series (2012-2013). In contrast,vintage Batman storylines were structurally simpler,like endless Tom and Jerry chase sagas.

But these are mainstream texts. In this column,we are chiefly interested in that which is forgotten,precious,obscure yet within easy reach. To feature here,a book has to have the element of surprise — what,if it was right here all along and we didn’t notice? Like Bat-manga,from Pantheon Books,which reveals that manga and US superhero comics influenced each other. It reprints the first wave of Batman and Robin comics and merchandise which hit the shores of anime and manga country in 1966. For the first time,these stories are available in English translation — many incomplete,and read right to left in the Japanese manner. Interesting issue: How do you translate “Pow!” from Nihongo? It stays “Pow!” in huge Kanji letters.

These stories were drawn by Jiro Kuwata,father of hit manga superhero 8-Man. In 1966,he was commissioned by the now-defunct boys’ magazine Shonen King to redo DC’s Batman stories in Japanese. Batman had reached Japanese TV and the mag wanted to catch the wave. Kuwata wanted to learn the US idiom,but he was so rushed that he reinterpreted the American style to create something altogether new. Even the dialogue feels different. Batman says that since Dr Faceless (Doctor No-Face in the DC original) is acrophobic,it follows that he can’t have headed for the hills but must be somewhere in Gotham. Ironically,it was the world’s tallest city at the time. Batman writers have generally been technically careful,so this is probably an interpolation by someone who had never been to NYC.

Bat-manga was anchored by editor and designer Chip Kidd,along with Illinois Batcollector Paul Ferris and photographer Geoff Spears. You can’t but have seen his iconic cover design,like the skeletal T-rex on the cover of Jurassic Park,which is also the logo of the film. Bat-manga could be the first pathbreaking Batman collection since E Nelson Bridwell’s classic Batman: From the Thirties to the Seventies (1971). It is a valuable time capsule containing material which may have vanished off the map in America. I’m a fairly driven fan but I do not recall a DC release titled Professor Gorilla’s Revenge,which features here. It feels authentic,dating from a time when US comics were pigging out on gorilla rampages,three decades after King Kong. And there’s the Bioinformer,which converts the properties of animals into electrical waves that can be absorbed by human cells. Don’t remember that in comics either but in anthropology,something like that is the basis of totems and,by one explanation (when applied to humans),of cannibalism too. For instance,people eat fleet-footed enemies to absorb their speed. (“Ate,” you say? Are you sure about the tense?)

Interestingly,the Japanese Batman supported scientific literacy. Every other page of the first story in this collection,The Terrible Clayface Encounter,has marginalia on astronomy and astrophysics. Like,“the starlight we see now dates back to when Murasaki Shikibu was writing The Tale of Genji.” Murasaki probably died exactly a millennium ago,after writing what is often called the world’s first novel. Her book is definitely the only early medieval novel to remain in print in multiple languages. Obscure,precious,yet right under your nose. Funny she hasn’t featured in this column yet. We must correct that soon.

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