How cruel of Portland’s Wordstock Festival to have taken up my time last weekend, while the Bat-Manga thing suddenly became a slightly bigger deal! Slow news day, I guess. Luckily Chris Butcher already posted Kidd’s response, so the party continued without me.
Better beat a dead horse late than never, right?
As often, Dirk Deppey at Journalista! has a fine summary, and his editorial reaction mirrors my own. (John Jakala’s is also decent, but more on that later.)
Essentially, this has all been blown way out of proportion. Bat-Manga! The Secret History of Batman in Japan is an incoherently-conceptualized book, imperfectly presented, and accidentally thrown into an crowd which is sensitive about these things — an audience for which the book isn’t actually intended! But its core is awesome, the mangaka is pleased and compensated, and we can now read some great comics that we couldn’t read before.
Untangling this mess is kind of fascinating and kind of tedious. Some notes, for the hell of it:
- The book’s existence is a good thing, the contents are fascinating, the photography and design are excellent, the fact that Kuwata is getting some money out of it is fantastic, and DC still owes Bill Finger an apology (at the least). Also, people who want the book should totally buy it, and nobody’s calling for a boycott (sheesh).
- As I said last time, I don’t see any malice here. The full aphorism, of course, is “never attribute to malice what can adequately be explained by stupidity.” I left off the second half because I think “stupidity” is too strong, but “accident” isn’t strong enough.
- Kidd’s silly opening (“where were YOU”) has already been roundly dismissed, even by most of the folks defending him.
- Chris Butcher’s 4:30am rant has some good points and a lot of swearing, but I’m not sure who he’s talking to (I guess this Hipster Dad guy?). For the record, I’m 23, I had never heard of Kuwata prior to Kidd’s heroic act of appropriation, and I’ve spent the last 15 months employed by a small-but-prominent publisher which, for all our shortcomings, is not in the habit of claiming copyrights. I’ve not only read Box Office Poison,* I’ve hand-sold it at a dozen conventions. I confess to a comic education partially from TCJ University. I have a thin-but-existent record of blogging on the topic of appropriation in comics, and yes, I think this cover is more outrageous than whatever happened with Bat-Manga.
- I suggest I Shall Destroy All the Civilized Planets! (Fantagraphics) and Walt and Skeezix (Drawn & Quarterly) as worthwhile examples of alternative ways to present author credit — even in extensively curated editions.
- As Laura and Abhay and Dirk have pointed out, Kidd has offered a stirring defense of a book — just not the book he produced. Kidd: “Bat-Manga is not just about the work of Mr. Kuwata, although that of course makes up the bulk of the book. Rather, it is about chronicling the phenomenon—however short-lived—of Batman in Japan in 1966. To that end, the book itself as an act of pop-culture reconnaissance is entirely the product of Saul Ferris, Geoff Spear, and myself.” I confess I’ve only spent about two minutes with the thing in my hands, but it’s clear from all reports that this description is a stretch. There are 10 pages of Kuwata for every page of non-Kuwata. There are approximately 2.5 pages of text (two half-pages about the book, one page of Kuwata interview, half a page of production notes). If this is a “chronicle” of a “phenomenon,” it is not a very sophisticated one.
- I’ll admit the possibility of bias in that judgment. Pro-text anti-image bias, to be precise. Coming from a world of lectures and dissertations rather than exhibitions — hailing from a college where even theater and art majors are required to write a lengthy analysis of their thesis show — I have a hard time considering a dozen scans of toy packaging to comprise a genuine study of anything. But, you know, the fine art world has made more of less.
- John Jakala has a similar perspective, as do most bloggers (English majors) and hardcore nerds (detail freaks; vide Wikipedia). Jakala goes overboard in his suggestions, though — “what episodes of the Batman TV show were broadcast in Japan; who the voice actors were; what the ratings were; what toys were the best-selling”? Come on, dude. They do actually want to sell some copies of this thing.
- A serious question for someone with a copy: is there actually “tons of information about the Japanese Batman phenomenon” (as Ishii says)? I don’t need to know where the toys were manufactured, but if there was a wave of Bat-mania in Japan, however brief, some numbers or timelines or personal anecdotes from aged fans would not be inappropriate…
- The book’s editorial approach seems to be a consequence of its origins. Again, not to slander Chip Kidd by comparing him to a cartoon cat with a bong, but it’s definitely a “look at these craaazy eBay finds” kind of book — or at least started that way. I echo Dirk in suspecting that the project evolved into something more serious during the long hours Kidd spent photoshopping dialogue, but (A) it never fully crystallized into this other thing, and (B) Sales & Marketing may have been more excited about a kitschy art book than a comprehensive reprint project (which is totally understandable), which likely created some inertia around the superficial approach. For better or for worse, the ever-expanding Kuwata material seems to have crowded out all the other pages (that might have given us a more rounded look at Batman-in-Japan), resulting in a book too single-minded for its title but not single-minded enough for its ambitions. Kidd turned into a full-on Kuwata fan, but the book didn’t catch up with him.
- The always awesome Anne Ishii didn’t get a front cover credit either, but (speaking as a fellow translator, sort of) I don’t think she needs one. She did give a thoughtful response to Laura’s post, and she remains awesome.
- There may well be other (e.g. legal) reasons to leave Kuwata’s name off the cover, and if so, nobody is obligated to detail them. But “we were sadly unable to include Mr. Kuwata’s name for reasons which we cannot discuss” is not the explanation we got.
- The blog chain reaction to all this is bizarre. It’s weirdly appropriate that a book described as “a very long, cross-cultural game of Telephone” should turn out this way. I think most people were using pretty restrained language (“this is weird,” “I’m surprised”) at first; Laura then went with “for shame, Pantheon” and Heidi said “that is more than a little lame, Pantheon and Chip Kidd.” In these somewhat mild rebukes, Kidd and friends saw themselves being attacked for a project they’d launched with the best of intentions and which had turned into a heroic rescue mission involving some sacrifice and philanthropy on their part. Kidd fired back with a fairly heated response curated by Chris, which put a few folks on the defensive, including this guy whose “I won’t make that mistake again with Kidd” led to Johanna’s headline of “Boycotting Chip Kidd?” (seriously, I think internet controversies would be cut in half if Johanna never used headlines on her blog). Graeme smelled blood in the water and hyperbolically announced “Bat-Manga Ignites Online War Of Words Between Fans And Author.” Newsarama posters responded with their usual sensitivity. People continued to weigh in to the “controversy” because suddenly we had one, and that’s what you do. Then Chris got online in the wee hours, responding with a cannon to a burst of machinegun fire that didn’t exist. Yay internet!
- Let’s hope the cynicism and weariness created by this latest blogtroversy don’t make it more difficult to address creators’ rights in the future, in the way that hyperbole allowed feminist superhero fans to be dismissed as “those crazy man-hating feminists” so that their valid concerns never had to be addressed.
- Here’s an angle that I haven’t seen explored much: Kidd & co were unconsciously playing with fire, at least in the comics blogosphere, for a few reasons:
- Publishing an incomplete assortment of the Japanese Batman comics (even leaving some multi-part stories with an unresolved cliffhanger!) when the contemporary comics industry has very much moved to Complete and Unabridged and Omnibus collections. This is partially due to fandom’s nerdly tendency toward semi-autistic attention to detail and fetishization of continuity, which is one of those things I would write a book on someday if I wrote books.
- I mean, this is the industry where Bob Greenberger got fired because five pages of Golden Age Hawkman Archives were printed out of order — or at least, that’s the rumor that stuck.
- This is also an industry that’s extremely sensitive about creator rights and attribution, at least in many circles. Especially when Batman‘s involved.
- This also taps into the resentment that many fans still harbor, suspicious of any treatment of comics as kitschy or trashy rather than Serious Business. This is actually why a lot of Serious Fans hate the Adam West Batman to begin with, so it’s interesting that it emerges in the defense of Kuwata’s adaptation of West-inspired Batmania.
- Apparently a few people (mostly in comment sections) had an aesthetic axe to grind against Kidd already — for his “cookie-cutter” approach to design, whatever that means, or maybe backlash against his minimalist (not minimal) contribution to the covers of Final Crisis? Whatever.
- All that said, the comics blogosphere is not the world, and the book isn’t really aimed at us anyway.
*a key subplot in this outstanding graphic novel features an aging superhero artist encouraged to seek compensation from the giant publishing company who have made millions from his creations. Alex Robinson’s complex treatment of this grumpy, admirable, and cowardly character is one of the many reasons that he is one of my favorite comic writers.
EDITED TO ADD: In the end, I think the best take on the book is the publisher’s official description:
The two hottest genres in comics gleefully collide head-on, as the most beloved American superhero gets the coolest Japanese manga makeover ever.
In 1966, during the height of the first Batman craze, a weekly Japanese manga anthology for boys, Shonen King, licensed the rights to commission its own Batman and Robin stories. A year later, the stories stopped. They were never collected in Japan, and never translated into English. Now, in this gorgeously produced book, hundreds of pages of Batman-manga comics more than four decades old are translated for the first time, appearing alongside stunning photographs of the world’s most comprehensive collection of vintage Japanese Batman toys.
This is The Dynamic Duo as you’ve never seen them: with a distinctly Japanese, atomic-age twist as they battle aliens, mutated dinosaurs, and villains who won’t stay dead. And as a bonus: Jiro Kuwata, the manga master who originally wrote and drew this material, has given an exclusive interview for our book.
More than just a dazzling novelty, Bat-Manga! is an invaluable, long-lost chapter in the history of one of the most beloved and timeless figures in comics.
But see, that’s not “chronicling the phenomenon” at all. It’s not “entirely the product of Saul Ferris, Geoff Spear, and [Kidd].” That clearly names “Jiro Kuwata, the manga master who originally wrote and drew this material.” Kuwata’s name should appear alongside the others.