Batman: Death Mask #1, June 2008, DC Comics
writer/artist: Yoshinori Natsume
cover colorist: Jonny Rench
letterer: Rob Leigh
Blogger's note: Entry for Monday, April 14, 2008.
I received an e-mail from Allan Cypes, Media Manager for Harvey Dent's District Attorney campaign in Gotham City, last Sunday. I was too late to view Mr. Dent's live press conference on his website, IBelieveinHarveyDent.com, but I imagine that the candidate was quick to respond to recent allegations of corruption and malice. He seems like a very proactive politician, not one that would leave his political career up to, say, the flip of a coin.
Yes, the viral marketing campaign for this summer's The Dark Knight has been innovative, entertaining, and interactive, from the Joker's gang recruitment to Harvey Dent's run for D.A., which, though a deter to respect Heath Ledger's untimely passing in light of the marketing's Joker-heavy imagery, is a sly parallel with the real world's current controversy-ridden American Presidential election. As with any year Batman makes his way to the big screen, Warner Brothers is making the usual multi-media, cross-franchising rounds, from this pre-release Internet presence, to a new DVD anime Batman film and proposed The Brave and the Bold Cartoon Network series, to this, Batman: Death Mask, a continuity-free manga comic book adventure readers of all ages can enjoy. Yes, the manga/anime niche seems to be the way to go to assert Batman's approachability and relevance, considering how mainstream Japanese-inspired entertainment has become.
I don't want to say that I've been resistant to this insurgence of manga and anime in the Western world; indeed, comic book stores now have as much manga as anything else, thanks to the sheer volume of material available. Therein lies my point -- I'm intimidated by the medium. (I was going to call it a "genre," but surely manga is a medium in itself just as a traditional "comic book" differs from a "graphic novel" in the scope it conveys its content, or mediates, to the reader.) I wouldn't know where to begin! I assume that manga and anime have their own sub-genres, just like comics. So, while some fanboys would insist that The Dark Knight Returns or The Watcnmen are the best starters for newbies (if only to prove that those caped types are all camp and can be sophisticated, too), those less dedicated to the superhero shtick might suggest Strangers in Paradise or Preacher. Does manga have its own equivalents? Is there a Manga for Dummies or Anime 101 course I can take?
I thought that Batman: Death Mask would be my bridge. I was sadly mistaken. I have problems with this issue on both a technical and creative level, and while neither facet actually consumes me enough to completely dislike this inaugural issue, that both co-exist is cumulatively bothersome. First of all, Death Mask retains the traditional manga right-to-left format, but it also retains the traditional American comic book size, which, in my opinion, is an unfair compromise. If DC sought to publish a fresh manga Batman story, I would have preferred the complete experience, specifically a digest-sized manga volume. This might have meant including the entire story arc in a single offering, since a twenty-two page single's worth of content would make for a very thin digest, but if you're going to go manga, go manga. As this issue stands, I will file it with my other, regular Batman comics. If it were truly manga-sized, it would most likely end up on a bookshelf, where I might revisit it more often.
Remember, this is the size kids like -- the kind of thing they can put in the front pocket of their backpacks (where mom, dad, or their teacher might not suspect to look for a "funnybook") or roll up into their back pants pocket. It's portable, relevant, and more suitable for their little hands -- I'm serious.
So, since I felt a bit of a disconnect with this issue's format, I thought I'd find some solace in its story . . . for naught. Unfortunately, Death Mask is one of the least original Batman stories I've read in a long time. Oh, visually it's beautiful; Yoshinori Natusme is a very accomplished comic book artist and successfully combines iconic stature with fluid motion and character expression, which is what most folks like about manga, myself included. No, it was the plot was just too vapid for me, a veritable piecemeal of concepts we've seen in plenty of Batman comics already. Here's this first issue's summary: As our hero wonders which is his true identity, Batman or Bruce Wayne, a rash of gruesome murders plagues Gotham City, and when Wayne Industries' latest negotiations with a visiting Japanese corporation culminates in a cultural exhibit of masks, Bruce is confronted with a mysterious woman from his years of training and a dark version of his vigilante self. When you put it that way, Batman fans should realize, we've seen it all before.
If you need tangible examples, this is what readily comes to mind: Death Mask is Shaman (from Legends of the Dark Knight #1-5) meets Darwyn Cooke's Batman: Ego, with the potential for a Year Two or Mask of the Phantasm connection if this woman from Bruce's past becomes a significant player in the mystery.
Still, the first few pages of this issue betray this series' real intent: to show the world what a manga Batman adventure looks like, and probably to prime the audience for this summer's Gotham Knight anime DVD release. Those first few pages recapture the Waynes' murder and boast a two-page spread of Bats' most classic villains, and, really, the whole issue could've ended right there. Of course, I'm going to pick up issue #2, in the hopes that I'll be proven wrong -- in the hopes that I'll find something new. Like I said, I'm not resistant to manga, but instead I'm merely intimidated . . . especially now, as I begin to think that the sheer mass of material available might just regurgitate the same thing over and over . . .