How DC Comics brought Batmanga to the west (Wired UK)

Jiro
Kuwata’s
Batman manga was considered lost for decades,
until Japanese publishers Shogakukan stumbled upon the complete
original materials and remastered them. Now being released in a digital-first
format
by DC comics, with a new chapter live each Saturday, the classic series is getting a new burst
of life.

Wired.co.uk speaks with DC editor Jim Chadwick and translator
Sheldon Drzka on bringing the legendary series to the west in
digital form and their plans for the series’ future.

Wired.co.uk: How did you end up bringing out the manga
“properly” for the first time?

Jim Chadwick: The person who put this together was called Sandy
Reznick. He’s our international director of sales and subsidiary
rights. He had worked directly with the Shogakukan Creative team to
make this happen. They came to us saying “we’ve got this and we
think we should do something with it.” And why not? The timing
seemed great. We’d just started the Batman
’66
series last year and there’s been a lot of nostalgia
for that time period. The manga version is quite different but it’s
from the same time period.

There was a collection done last year in Japan with Shogakukan
Creative, a three-volume boxed set. I’m not quite sure how they had
gotten a hold of the material [but] it was in great shape. A lot
had been missing but somehow they acquired all of it. With all the
assets, suddenly this entire resource of material existed and since
we already had a good relationship with them, most of the heavy
lifting had been done already. All we had to do was acquire the art
assets from them and do a translation.

When did you first start putting this together to bring
back to the public?

JC: I can’t remember the exact date we started — I want to say
we started the conversation late last year. I didn’t even know all
of this existed! I knew about the Kuwata series but I didn’t know
it all had been put out like this. It came together in a short
period of time and we knew we wanted to publish it digitally. It
was just a matter of getting the translation done to get it out for
the summer. It wasn’t a huge amount of time but we didn’t need as
much time as we would to start a new comic.

Was the Adam West show a direct influence on Kuwata’s
run?

JC: It was more from DC comics, but it did have this initiative,
from the fact that there was this worldwide phenomenon of Batmania
because of the show.

Sheldon Drzka: A lot of the impetus seems to have been the show
for Fuji TV. I think that the publishers over there got in touch
with DC because of that. When the show first started, they had been
publishing a straight-up translation of the Batman comics. It
didn’t work because they were just translating. This went on for
about a year and it wasn’t doing well sales-wise, so they turned it
over to Jiro Kuwata. He said they should do original material, or
at least remakes.

The villain Lord Death
Man
took off in Japan, but he first appeared in an American
Batman comic, didn’t he?

JC: Yeah, for some reason he’s one of the characters that took
off in Japan but never became part of Batman’s more notorious
rogues gallery. For some reason, when Kuwata did it he became the
iconic villain for Batman in Japan. I think one reason is that a
lot of people didn’t actually realize that he’d been an American
villain first.

SD: It was just the one comic.

JC: That’s my understanding. He made only a one-time appearance
in a comic in the sixties and the reaction wasn’t very popular. He
never became a regular part of the American Batman’s rogue’s
gallery. But Japanese comics have a unique take on these creepy
characters and it was something that fell right into the particular
vision Kuwata had. He is quite a frightening character in the story
because he just seems like he’s immortal and even Batman gets
frustrated and maybe fearful because this is the one bad guy that
seems to have an edge. He has nightmares about Lord Death Man
coming back after he apparently dies a couple of times and keeps
returning from the grave.

Some of Kuwata’s material was released in the west in
Chip Kidd’s Bat-Manga!: The Secret History of Batman in Japan, but it
controversially didn’t credit Kuwata on the cover. Is the complete
release of the material now helping to redress that?

JC: I guess to an extent. I don’t want to speak out of turn but
I don’t think Chip
Kidd
didn’t credit Kuwata [but] there was a feeling
that he was not adequately recognized in the collection. I
think part of how we positioned this in Japan is that it’s really
titled as “Batmanga: The Jiro Kuwata Collection“. We
wanted to make clear that this particular version of Batman, the
Japanese manga version, is the brainchild of Kuwata. It seemed like
a good opportunity, since it was going to be a complete collection,
to put the emphasis on him as the creator.

I think Chip’s book was a great introduction and since he’s a
great designer it had a great focus on the visuals. There was more
in there than just the comic. The emphasis in Chip’s book was more
about the whole history of Batman in Japan, that most people in the
west were not aware of. His book definitely heightened interest in
that. There were a lot of people, myself included, who didn’t even
realise that these Batman comics had existed at all. Chip’s book
was very important for putting that in the public spotlight and I
don’t think there’d be any public interest in us doing this book at
all if the first one hadn’t come out.

With the complete materials finally available, how did
you approach translation? Did you start from scratch, or just work
on what Kidd’s book hadn’t covered?

SD: I didn’t translate any of the stuff that had already been
translated. For instance, the Lord Death Man arc I hadn’t even
touched.

JC: We did have Chip redo all the sound effects. We subtitled
those and they were not used at all in the Chip Kidd edition.

SD: Otherwise, I just relied on my own knowledge of Batman and
use my own inner Batman voice so the translation fits. [I went]
through hundreds of my Batman comics from the late 60’s and early
70’s, big boxes. Plus, I’d worked with Jim before on Batman: Deathmatch [a later Batman manga by Yoshinori
Natsume
]. Shogakukan sent me the books for the big, epic
collection [and] digital files of everything. All we had to do was
clean out all the Japanese from the word balloons and re-letter
them.

Why do you think all the 60’s era Batman material – the
TV show, the comics, the manga – are such enduringly popular takes
on the character?

SD: I think it’s a sense of great fun and adventure, which
really comes through in this manga. The stories really all run the
gamut. Some stories would be more traditional rogue’s gallery
figures like Catman or Clayface. Some are
street-level noir crime, like one with a masked wrestler. Then you
have ones with weird space aliens or things like that. And a
talking gorilla, of course! Then there’s the great camaraderie
between Batman and Robin. The manga has a great version of
Robin.

Kuwata’s version of Dick Grayson
is very different to the American version — he’s a mouthy little
brat in comparison!

JC: My joke for this is that he’s the ’66 version of Damian! He’s
always mouthing off to Bruce. During the Lord Death Man arc, Bruce
is stressing out but Dick’s just going “pull it together!” Reading
the Robin dialogue is my favourite part of the whole thing.

But the overall nostalgia appeal of Batman, even if Americans
didn’t read this stuff growing up there’s a retro factor attached.
The vision of Batman as the ‘Dark Knight Detective’ is so firmly
set in people’s minds that you can actually play around with him a
bit and it doesn’t change the brand. It’s just seen as another take
on the character. More than any other comic character, he’s always
been open to a broad interpretation whether it’s an Elseworlds story
or 66 Batman, 70’s Batman, 80’s Batman, whatever. People just
accept that there are many different permutations and artistic
styles. [Kuwata’s work] just fits one of those but ties in with the
nostalgia factor too.

What’s the audience reception been like to such
comparatively niche material, particularly with the digital-first
approach?

JC: It seemed like a slam-dunk thing to do. We have this strong
digital initiative, with at least one new digital chapter [of
different titles] released each day and this just seemed a neat way
to get them out. We’ll get the collection out eventually. What’s
fascinating for me is when I proof them on a simulated version of
what a phone screen would look like. It’s amazing to me how well it
works. I wouldn’t go so far as saying it’s designed for a screen
but going from panel to panel it’s something that really seems like
it would work. Plus, it’s a relatively low-cost investment for
someone who wants to check it out before they come down to buy the
print volumes later on.

Do you think it still has appeal to manga fans now, as
well as nostalgic western comic fans, or is the material too old
for that typically younger audience?

JC: That’s a good question! I’m not really sure. I don’t know
what the traditional manga fan wants these days.

SD: I do think there are some only wanting the newest material,
but a series like this transcends that. People don’t think “oh,
Batman, old-ass series”. It’s more that the material has been
rediscovered and a lot of manga fans are lapsed comic-book readers,
like I was. I started off on comics and then I went over to manga.
It’s a retro look but the art still looks very good, the kind that
seems like it would be popular today. When I think of artists
today, it’s a similar style.

Is there other Japanese material based on DC heroes
you’d like to bring over?

SD: There’s a Japanese Superman that actually predated the
Batman series. It came out in ’64 I believe. That was done by Tatsuo
Yoshida
, the creator of Speed Racer. There’s like a
year’s worth of material. I haven’t seen anything more than a
couple of covers online so it’s probably got a lot more
undiscovered material.

Will the physical collection of Kuwata’s manga retain
the traditional Japanese right-to-left format or flip it for the
west?

JC: We’re going to keep it traditional Japanese. One of the
interesting things about the digital version is when you do the
guided view and swipe across, it actually reads right to left.
We’re going to do the same thing on the printed version, the
original Japanese format.

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26 July 2014 | 2:59 pm – Source: wired.co.uk

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