Earlier this month, news broke that mangaka artist Jiro Kuwata passed away. While the artist and writer was known in Japan for series like Maboroshi Tantei and 8 Man, in the west we know him for one particular curiosity: the Batman manga. Its take on Batman 55 years on still feels unlike anything we’ve seen with the DC Comics character.
Re-reading the English translations of Kuwata’s “Batmanga” as it’s become known in the west — translated by Sheldon Drzka, and lettered by Wes Abbott — in the weeks since his passing is a peculiarly charming experience. It, like the 1966 Batman TV show whose mania sparked the manga’s creation in the first place — is like revisiting a forgotten time. In the decades since, and with more stories than you could fling a mountain’s worth of batarangs at in the process, how we have come to understand Batman’s existence in storytelling has become such a consensus that anything that runs counter to that is immediately novel.
It’s not just that Batmanga is evocative of Batman’s golden and silver age presentations. Like the Bright Knight that dazzled as its contemporary, Kuwata’s Batman is a gung-ho spirit, an action adventure hero as compassionate as he is boastful, as daring as he is cunning. This is in many ways Batman the performer, a swashbuckling hero who, given the sci-fi vibes of the series, almost feels less inspired by Adam West’s on-screen bravado and more like a reaction to him in the form of the Tokusatsu heroes of Japanese TV at the time. It’s a modern world where science reigns supreme, and Bruce’s adventures almost always involve the theft of some miraculous invention that could change the world. Kuwata’s Bruce Wayne, give or take the goofy bat-costume, wouldn’t feel out of place in something like Ultra Q. Hell, with the costume, give him a bike and another ten years and he’s practically Kamen Rider.
But it’s not just in the tone of his adventures or the fact that the foes are different that makes these tales stand out. Batman’s iconic rogue’s gallery is nowhere to be found, replaced with sinister scientists, supernatural oddities, or deeply horrifying tricksters. What truly makes Kuwata’s Batman stand out is how imperfect he is. Batman and Robin are constantly put in peril that forces the former to work through, as the reader does, just how he’s going to get out. He’s outgunned, outnumbered, foiled, and put in direr and direr situations until he gets that “aha!” moment and puts it all together — but only after he’s been caught off guard and scrambled to survive.
There’s a reason the Batman is always prepared personality trait is a thing in the first place — modern versions of the character have taught us this time and time again, he always has a plan, is always five steps ahead of everyone, even his closest friends. The times we are asked to examine his vulnerabilities are deeply personal moments; when we see him open himself to others and get burned for it, or the way he compartmentalises eons of grief. Batman is lauded as a hero because he stands tall alongside gods thanks to his singular, human mortality, but so often the only way we get to see that humanity is as a tragic weakness, hidden away to survive in a world as dark as his heart is.
That Kuwata’s Batman rejects this to consider instead that Batman’s humanity is that he doesn’t always have things figured out — that he has to work through things no matter how dire, against all the odds, lean on Robin to help him get through — is a fascinating way to make the character feel relatable. Kuwata’s Batman is still the world’s greatest detective, but his strength doesn’t rely on having solved everything before we’ve even seen the trap sprung. He can be outmatched or fumble and has to have the strength to persevere until he’s finally figured out how to save the day (and his and Robin’s skin). It’s always a thrill, but it makes him feel far more human than the tragedies we rely on so often to humanise our current Dark Knight.
Batman’s legacy of course, stretches across over 80 years of stories and in so many mediums; not just in the comics, but in books, movies, games, TV shows. A “definitive” Batman doesn’t exist because there are so many different ways to interperet just who Bruce Wayne is when he puts on that mask, why he does it, and hell, if it’s him or not. But in that sea of interpretations, all these years later Kuwata’s take on the world’s greatest detective feels thoroughly unique — and a special part of the bat-tapestry that makes up those decades of stories.