Bat-Manga: The Secret History of Batman in Japan

Posted by on January 18th, 2010 at 9:00 AM

Jiro Kuwata/Chip Kidd/Geoff Spear/Saul Ferris; Pantheon Books/Random House, Inc.; 384 pp., $29.99; Color; Softcover; ISBN: 9780375425455

©2008 DC Comics (Click for larger image)

No matter how artfully displayed the Batman-related bric-a-brac in Bat-Manga: The Secret History of Batman in Japan may be, when viewed holistically, they fail to coalesce into much more than a pretty assortment of memorabilia. The volume doesn’t offer much of an understanding of the Japanese Bat-craze that the 1966 Adam West TV show inspired, providing only a short interview with manga artist Jiro Kuwata for historical context. Having heard acclaimed visual designer/author Chip Kidd present the material in Bat-Manga at the MoCCA Art Festival 2008 and read his scanty introduction to the book, its apparent that Kidd has nothing really to say about the material he’s gathered with the help of fellow Bat-collector Saul Ferris. Artful admiration is what he’s offering, but that may be a tough sell for anyone outside of the elite few who hoard Taschen books to provide alluring clutter for their coffee tables.

I mention Taschen because Bat-Manga’s size, title and layout are all reminiscent of Taschen’s artfully bulky products. Similarities between the two stop there. While Taschen books normally provide the reader with a modicum of detail regarding what they’re looking at, Kidd’s book does no such thing. Instead, what you see is what you get.

Still, never let it be said that it’s impossible to be seduced by Spear’s gorgeous photography of the fun toys and tattered pages of Shonen King Kidd and Ferris accumulated for the book. Kidd obviously knows how to make his presentation visually dynamic, interspersing photos of Jiro Kuwata’s campy but visually engaging and playful manga with images of Bat-pistols, Bat-tanks, Bat-watering cans, etc. The purposes, connections, meanings and motivations — in other words, the history — underlying said craft is what’s really wanting.

For what it is, Bat-Manga is a fine but flawed product of the academic impulse to organize and exhibit pop history taken to a fanboyish extreme. The geeky urge to amass a unique collection and share it is no different than that of any researcher or museum curators’ desire to exhibit a wonderful collection of stuff. As such, Bat-Manga succeeds as a catalog for an exhibit that never was. Ignoring the serious-looking title, Bat-Manga should handily provide enough gee-whiz nostalgia to sate most Bat-fanatics.

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