Thursday, January 07, 2010


The second volume of Naoki Urasawa's Billy Bat has appeared in Japanese. I recently read it, and it turns out to be even more interesting than the average volume of Urasawa's manga. While its first half, like the first volume, continues in the template of Monster and 20th Century Boys, the second half is a radical departure.

The first half continues Kevin's story, though it provides mighty few answers. Kevin learns, not too surprisingly, that he is the only one who can stop the bad guys (whoever they are) from carrying out their nefarious schemes (whatever they are). More surprisingly, he has to stop them by drawing manga, although how this will work is not stated. There are connections with postwar Japanese politics, as Shimoyama's murder seems to be somehow related to a plan to fire hundreds of thousands of Japanese workers. We also see more of Lt. Feeney, who clearly plays the dogged investigator role in this series.

In the second half of the volume, Urasawa does something that is, as far as I know, new for him. First, he abruptly jumps back in time to the ancient world, and stays there for about two and a half chapters. To avoid spoilers, I won't say anything more, although the back-cover copy reveals the situation clearly. After this segment, the next two chapters abruptly jump forward to 1959 (ten years later than the main story has reached) in New York City. The bride on the cover of this volume is from this segment. (Incidentally, she's black, not Japanese.) For the final chapter, Urasawa jumps back again, to feudal Japan. And ninjas. At this point I began to get a mite exasperated; but Urasawa is actually pretty good at depicting ninja action. None of these segments have any apparent connection with each other, or with the main story, aside from the Bat's presence in all of them. And while my guess would be that they will develop into continuing storylines, they could be merely vignettes intended to illustrate the Bat's ubiquity through history.

Of these four segments, the best is the ancient-world one. The main story doesn't advance very much in this volume, and it also includes a grotesquely maudlin scene. The story set in 1959 is somewhat sentimental, although its highlighting of black-white relations suggests that the "white" and "black" bats may not correspond to good and evil, as I had assumed after the first volume. And the final segment, set in feudal Japan, seems undeveloped: I suspect that it will actually continue into the third volume.

As was true of the first volume, characterization is not Urasawa's strong point here. Kevin is still an uninteresting character, and the none of the new characters are distinctive, with the exception of two of the characters in the ancient world segment. (Again, I can't identify them without spoilers.) But despite my reservations on this volume, Urasawa's mysteries still have me eagerly awaiting volume three.

Billy Bat vol. 2 is published by Kodansha* under the Morning imprint (whose logo is mooningu in katakana). It's 216 pp. and sells for 590 yen. Here's its Amazon.co.jp page.

*And hence, as David Welsh points out, unlikely to be licensed in the U.S. by Viz (which is co-owned by Kodansha's two main rivals), contrary to what I said in my post about the first volume.

Since Kodansha's made some recent stirrings in the US market with Akira and Ghost in the Shell, I'm hoping they'll pick up on Urasawa's critical success here and give us Billy Bat.

On the second volume specifically, in the ninja arc I think we see some of Urasawa's character writing start to come back. Still nothing nearly as good as in Monster, but I'll take whatever I can get given the lackluster standard in Billy Bat thus far.

This series is co-authored with another mangaka, and I wonder to what extent that mangaka has control. It's possible that Urasawa worked primarily on outlining the plot and has been less involved in the detail work, which would explain some of its weakness. Or Urasawa could just be slumping.
It's also not entirely out of the question that Viz might publish the book. There is an example of Viz publishing a Kodansha property (Takehiko Inoue's Vagabond), I believe because the manga-ka was powerful enough to have his request honored. I don't know if Urasawa has that kind of pull or not, but he seems like he does. So if he's happy with the way that Viz has handled his other work and wants them to shepherd Billy Bat, it could happen.
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