Tuesday, June 11, 2013


Billy Bat is Naoki Urasawa's most recent, and still ongoing, series (with Takashi Nagasaki assisting with the story). Unlike Monster, 20th Century Boys and Pluto, Urasawa's most ambitious completed series, Billy Bat has not been licensed in the U.S. But the eleven volumes published in Japan so far already show it to be a major work on a par with those series. If Urasawa and Nagasaki can maintain the level of the first eleven volumes until the end, it may well turn out to be Urasawa's best work.

(I've tried to avoid spoilers, as much as is compatible with giving a picture of the series as a whole; but if you want to come to the series with a completely fresh mind, you should stop reading here.)

Billy Bat's labyrinthine plot revolves around a pair of supernatural bats, one of whom is said to be "white" and the other "black" even thought they are identical in appearance. These bats have been manipulating human history by influencing people's actions for at least two millenia, and there are hints that they have been doing so for much longer. They have appeared before a number of well-known historical figures, some of whom we meet in the series, and a number of cartoonists. Nearly everything else about the bats is mysterious so far. (Since we rarely see both bats at once, and since there are generally no indications of which one we are seeing, I will refer to both bats indiscriminately as "the Bat.")

Among the cartoonists the Bat has spoken to is Kevin Yamagata, Billy Bat's main protagonist so far. When the series opens in 1949, Kevin, a Japanese-American, is writing and drawing a successful comic he has created called "Billy Bat," starring an anthropomorphic bat of the same name. Yamagata's character was unconsciously inspired by a drawing of the Bat, but once he becomes aware of the Bat during a trip to Japan, it begins appearing before him. It plants story ideas in his subconscious, which he feels compelled to draw, and which turn out to predict the future. Eventually, it starts giving him orders outright. Because of his connection with the Bat, Kevin becomes the object of unwelcome attention from at least two groups of conspirators hoping to manipulate the Bat.

While Billy Bat shares this lone-man-vs.-conspiracy aspect with 20th Century Boys and Monster, Kevin is not a heroic figure like Kenji or Tenma. Though the Bat insists that the tasks he assigns Kevin are vital, Kevin just wants to be left alone. In fact, he spends several years (offscreen) in a drunken stupor to avoid seeing the Bat or drawing the Bat's stories. He repeatedly needs to be prodded into action by the Bat or by Smith, an investigator who becomes Kevin's ally. Likewise, rather than being charismatic villains, the apparent leaders of the two conspiracies (if indeed they are the leaders) are shadowy figures with little in the way of characterization so far. In compensation, the characterizations of several secondary characters are among Urasawa's best: perhaps most poignantly, a character whose name would be a gigantic spoiler, but who first appears early in volume four. (When you read it, you'll know who I'm talking about.)

Billy Bat is a narratologist's dream. Both 20th Century Boys and Monster made frequent use of flashbacks, but Billy Bat takes the scrambling of chronology much further, freely leaping both forward and backward across years, decades and even centuries. (The earliest scene shown so far takes place two millenia ago.) The narrative also frequently doubles back upon itself, cutting away in the middle of a scene and returning to it later. The result is that Billy Bat's chronology is fiendishly complex; yet Urasawa's storytelling is so clear that I almost never got lost. At one point Urasawa sets a deliberate trap for his readers, which I didn't realize I'd fallen into until I reread the series.

Urasawa plays another game with his narrative, which I don't recall having seen before. Since the comics that Yamagata and other cartoonists draw under the Bat's influence depict future events accurately, Urasawa can narrate scenes in two ways: in "reality," and as transformed into anthropomorphic comics.

Dirk Deppey, iirc, once called Pluto Urasawa's Watchmen. But when one considers the intricacy of its plot and its density of information and connections, it's Billy Bat that is more like Watchmen. There's hardly a line of dialogue which doesn't advance either its plot or its themes. Even the example of Yamagata's "Billy Bat" comic which opens the series isn't just a hard-boiled detective pastiche, but foreshadows later events. In fact, in order to fully understand and appreciate the early volumes, you have to go back and reread them in light of the later volumes.

Not only does Billy Bat cover several historical periods, it incorporates several genres. The Bat gives it an overall ambience of fantasy, or perhaps horror. But individual sections read like a detective story, a ninja drama, a political thriller, a serial killer thriller, science fiction, and even a Western (the small Western town where they don't cotton to strangers sticking their noses where they don't belong).

Unlike Urasawa's other major series, Billy Bat is structured to a large extent around actual historical events. The Shinoyama case, a notorious mysterious death in post-WWII Japan that has never been solved, plays a major role in the plot. So does another well-known murder case. And the Apollo Moon landing also serves as a touchstone. In fact, one could say that Billy Bat's subject is History itself. And its view of history is decidedly conspiratorial. In addition to the Bat's hidden hand, several Urasawa incorporates several real-life conspiracy theories.

Unlike Urasawa's other major series, much of Billy Bat's action is set in the U.S. And Urasawa's portrayal of the U.S. is far from flattering. Racism, both against African-Americans and Japanese, is prominently displayed. And American cultural imperialism is a major theme of the series. Through a shady (and so far unclear, at least to me) maneuver Kevin loses control of Billy Bat to "Chuck Culkin Enterprises." Culkin Enterprises has made Billy cuter, turned the comic into a children's comic, and erased Kevin's role as creator and original writer-artist from the public memory in favor of Chuck Culkin (who was actually Kevin's assistant). It's also made Billy hugely popular, and turned him into a massively merchandised brand, which is expanding worldwide, including Japan. And it's determined that its Billy Bat should be the only Billy in existence. To that end, it's sent an operative all over the world to destroy all other comics inspired by the Bat. The parallels with Disney and Mickey Mouse are obvious. The political aspect of this is made clear in a scene in which a general tells an executive of Culkin Enterprises that their two organizations, working together, can dominate the world, adding that "the missile and Billy Bat should work together."

Billy Bat is not perfect, of course. Its biggest flaw is that it is occasionally prone to sentimentality, especially in the early volumes, though not to the extent that Monster and Pluto are. There are also some failures of research in the U.S. scenes, which don't affect the overall plot but are still irritating.

Since I wrote the above, the chapters that will make up volume twelve have been serialized in Japan. I've read them, but decided not to make any changes in what I wrote, though there's little or nothing I'd be inclined to change in any case. I will say that I don't see any indication that the series is approaching a conclusion.

Billy Bat is published by Kodansha, in its Morning line. Here's link to the eleventh volume's amazon.co.jp page; you can follow the links on that page to get to the earlier volumes' pages.

Here are the reviews I wrote of the first eight volumes of Billy Bat as they came out: vol. 1, vol. 2, vols. 3 and 4, vol. 5, vol. 6, and vols. 7 and 8.

  (0) comments

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?