Wednesday, September 22, 2010


Billy Bat volume 3 came out about half a year ago, and I bought it and read it soon after. I intended to review it, but as you may have noticed, I wasn't blogging at all for most of this year, and by the time I resumed blogging, I had bought volume 4. So here's a review of both volumes.

First, a very quick description of the series as a whole. Billy Bat starts out in 1949 as the story of Kevin Yamagata, a Japanese-American cartoonist who writes and draws a popular post-WWII comic about an anthropomorphic bat detective named Billy Bat,. Yamagata goes to Japan, and discovers that his creation of Billy was unconsciously inspired by a drawing of a bat which originated centuries ago. He also gets caught up in a murder case. But halfway through volume 2, the story splinters into a number of separate episodes ranging in time and place from the ancient Middle East to feudal Japan to Manhattan in 1959. These episodes have no apparent connection to each other except that they all feature appearances of the Bat, a spirit who can be evoked by the drawing Kevin saw, and who has been manipulating human history for millenia, for reasons that are still unclear.

In my review of volume 2, I surmised that the story set in feudal Japan which made up the last chapter might continue into the next volume. And so it does. In fact, almost the entirety of volume 3 is devoted to this story, with only two brief scenes set in modern times.

Kan, a shinobi (spy, though the back cover copy refers to him as a ninja), is on a mission to deliver a certain scroll. Along the way, he is forced to fight his childhood friends, who are trying to stop him. As the death toll mounts, his doubts about himself and his mission increase; and the scroll itself takes on a sinister aspect. What's more, it's a carrier for the Bat, and Kan's story is punctuated with conversations between Kan and the Bat in which the Bat tries to convince Kan that it's perfectly O.K. for him to kill his friends and betray those who have helped him. Interspersed with all this are scenes of Kan and his friends as children, trying to train themselves to become shinobi. All told, this shinobi arc is almost a self-contained story, but we also learn a lot about the Bat's modus operandi.

Considered as a self-contained story, the shinobi arc is successful. Kan is a more complex and interesting character than most of Urasawa's other protagonists; he is sympathetic but isn't, and doesn't aspire to be, a hero or morally perfect. Nor does the arc fall into sentimentality, as so many of Urasawa's story arcs do.

As far as I know, Urasawa is not particularly noted for his fight scenes or action scenes. But here he gives us a series of well-drawn, exciting scenes of ninja-style action. His artistic approach is unusual, though: rather than large, splashy panels, he uses small panels with lots of closeups.

In the last four pages of volume three, we see a two-page excerpt from one of Yamagata's Billy Bat comics, from which the point of view pulls back to show that the person reading it is standing under an arch reading "Billyland." This is the start of the arc which will occupy all of volume four, and presumably beyond. The time is the early sixties, which appears to be the series' new "present," which means we've skipped over more than a decade. The place is the U.S. Initially, we're in Billyland, a theme part based upon Billy Bat, which Urasawa has quite obviously modelled upon Disneyland. There's even a man inside a Billy Bat suit (which has been redesigned to closely resemble Mickey Mouse) who interacts and poses for photos with visitors.

"Billy" meets a kid who tells him he's a fake and as evidence draws the ur-Bat on the ground. Shortly afterwards comes what is perhaps the biggest shock in the series so far, bigger even than the first time-jump in volume 2. Unfortunately this makes it impossible to say much about the plot of this volume without giving away the surprise. (If you plan to read this in Japanese, and don't want to be spoiled, don't read the green band that wraps around the jacket. In fact, try not to even look at it.)

I can safely reveal a few pieces of information. It should be no surprise that a conspiracy is involved; in fact, more than one. Smith the investigator returns, and we now see that there's more to him than just the dogged, honest detective type familiar from Monster and Pluto.

The Billy Bat comic we saw at the end of volume three turns out to be an unauthorized comic put out by a small publisher. In fact, Kevin Yamagata no longer has any connection to the "official" Billy Bat, which has been redesigned to look cuter, and most people aren't even aware that he introduced Billy Bat to the U.S. (yet another similarity to Disney). But various people are interested in Kevin's comic, and their reasons appear to have nothing to do with copyright infringement.

In my review of the first volume, I complained that the portions set in the U.S. felt inauthentic. I didn't feel that way about volume 4. At any rate, Urasawa, or his collaborator Takashi Nagasaki, has clearly researched at least one aspect of early sixties American history. (Again, I can't be more specific without spoiling the surprise.)

As in the previous volume, volume four introduces a new protagonist -- the guy in the Billy Bat suit, though he doesn't stay in it long -- who is sympathetic without fitting in to the black-white into which most Urasawa's characters fall, including Kevin Yamagata. In fact, when Kevin reappears in volume 4, I found myself wishing he hadn't. Kevin is typical of Urasawa's tortured-good-guy characters, with little to distinguish him as an individual. What's more, after his initial decision to go to Japan he is almost entirely passive, reacting to the actions of others, and that is even more true in volume 4.

The real Bat appears in this volume as well, and we learn more about him. We also learn more about who the "bad guys" are. And the volume also explains how Kevin can stop the bad guys' schemes by drawing manga, something I had wondered about in my review of volume 2. There are still a lot of mysteries left, but I no longer feel, as I did at the end of volume 2, that I'm groping in the dark.

After only four volumes, Billy Bat is already more ambitious than Monster, Pluto, or what I've read of 20th Century Boys. Its plot is more complex, and it ranges more widely in both time and space. It is also more audacious in another sense. Both Pluto and 20th Century Boys were set in the future (even though Pluto contained a thinly veiled allegory of the Iraq War); and while Monster took the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe as background, the plot itself was entirely invented as far as I know. In contrast, the plot of Billy Bat is closely tied to the actual postwar histories of the U.S. and Japan. Real historical figures appear as characters in volume 4. And while the conspiracies Urasawa posits behind the scenes may be fictional (or not, depending on how paranoid you are), the effects he attributes to them really happened. But the greater ambition of the series doesn't mean a slackening of the suspense which Urasawa excels at.

I haven't been this excited about an ongoing series in a long time. If the later volumes are as good as these two volumes, Billy Bat may herald a new level of achievement for Urasawa.

Billy Bat volumes 3 and 4 are published by Kodansha, as were the first two volumes. Volume 3 has 224 pages and costs 590 yen, while volume 4 has 240 pages and costs 600 yen. Their ISBNs, respectively, are 978-4-06-372888-0 and 978-4-06-372922-1.

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