Sunday, August 02, 2009


Billy Bat is the latest manga by Naoki Urasawa, best known for Monster, 20th Century Boys and Pluto. (Takashi Nagasaki is collaborating on the story, as he did on 20th Century Boys and Pluto.) It's ongoing in Japan, and the first tankoubon (paperback collection) recently came out there. Billy Bat is almost certain to eventually be licensed in the U.S. (probably by Viz, who licensed the three other series listed above), but I was curious enough that I jumped the gun and bought the tankoubon.

Billy Bat takes place in 1949, and its protagonist is Kevin Yamagata, a Japanese-American cartoonist who writes and draws a popular comic called Billy Bat. In fact, the book begins as if it were Yamagata's comic, a funny-animal hard-boiled detective story starring an anthropomorphic bat named Billy Bat.

After twenty-four pages of Yamagata's Billy Bat, the camera "pulls back" to show Kevin drawing, and we are in the real world. Two policemen enter Kevin's studio, and one of them happens to remark that he's seen Kevin's "Billy Bat" character in Japan. In accordance with his father's dying request that he never steal, Kevin goes to Japan to discover if he has unconsciously plagiarized the character (he was stationed in Japan after the war), and, if so, to ask permission to continue to use it.

In Japan, Kevin realizes that he had indeed seen the character there, and also that there are mysteries surrounding it. He also gets embroiled in a murder case, and before you can say "Friend, meet Johann. Johann, meet Friend" we're in Monster/20th Century Boys territory. But this doesn't mean that the comics connection is abandoned. While we don't see any more of Kevin's strip, his real-life adventures become linked to manga in a surprising way.

Monster gets off to a notoriously slow start, and 20th Century Boys reportedly also picks up steam in later volumes. So it would be unwise to try to judge Billy Bat as a whole by its first volume. That said, its first volume moves faster, and does a better job of hooking the reader, than the first volumes of those series. At the end of the first volume, Billy Bat is also more obscure than were the other two series at that point: we don't know who or what Kevin's primary antagonist is, nor how it relates to the mysterious bat. In the last chapter Urasawa throws a curve ball which makes things even more enigmatic.

Judging by Monster and by those volumes of Urasawa's other series that have appeared in the U.S., characteriztion is not one of Urasawa's strong points. So far, Billy Bat is no exception. None of the characters yet encountered are memorable, including Kevin. Several are stock characters or cliches, a prostitute with a heart of gold being the most egregious example.

Urasawa's art is one of his strong points, and again Billy Bat is no exception. In fact, his art here may be his best yet. The facial expressions and the panel-to-panel flow in Billy Bat seem to be advances over his earlier works, although I haven't studied the matter closely.

The most obvious new element in the art, of course, is the twenty-four pages of Yamagata's full-color funny-animal strip. But though this is a funny-animal strip, it's in Urasawa's style. You've probably never wondered what the characters from Monster would look like as anthropomorphic bats and dogs, but if you have, now's your chance. In fact, they look very good: the use of anthropomorphized animals brings out Urasawa's gift for caricature. Urasawa (or his studio) also uses color well.

My biggest gripe about this volume is the lack of authenticity in the American section. Most obviously, most of the actual English text we see is wrong in some way, most blatantly the title of Kevin's first chapter, "Drealy Night Murders." The writing in Kevin's comic is aimed more at adults than any actual American comic from the 1940s, including Eisner's (which is not to say it's particularly good writing -- but then, it's clearly not supposed to be), and the visual storytelling is more like contemporary manga than any 1940s American comic I've seen. The color palette is also far richer than in American comics of the period. Urasawa appears to believe that the post-WWII American comics industry was structured the same way as the manga industry of that period, when in fact they were quite different. And, father's dying request or no, the idea that a 1940s comics creator would be so scrupulous that at the mere suggestion of accidental plagiarism he would go to Japan to investigate is only less farfetched than the idea that his publisher would let him.* To be sure, none of this matters much for the quality of the series as a whole. But one of the things that impressed me about Monster was that it seemed authentically rooted in its German setting, as opposed to many manga and anime which seem to take place in a generic "Europe." Now I'm wondering if I was had.

On the back cover are these words, in English: "The character of the bat was popular in United States after 1940's. It is the mystery bat which continues affecting the darkness of the human history." Make of this what you will.

Billy Bat vol. 1 is 200 pp. and costs 600 yen. It's published by Koudansha in their Morning line (the title is in English, so you can't miss it), and its ISBN is 978-4-06-372812-5.

*If Kevin is really so anxious not to infringe on anyone else's intellectual property, he should be worrying about the stylized bat-symbol in his series' logo: it's not identical to Batman's Bat-symbol, but it's close enough that DC's lawyers would be on him like a ton of bricks. The same symbol is a prominent feature of the real Billy Bat's actual logo, and it will be interesting to see how Viz (or whoever) deals with this when the series is published in the U.S.

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