Sporadic Sequential
Sunday, November 09, 2008
Holy Cover Credit Controversy, Batman!

Regarding the controversy over Jiro Kuwata's name not appearing on the cover of Bat-Manga!:

First of all, I love the book. The comics contained in it are entertaining in their own right, beyond the obvious appeal of seeing Batman interpreted for a Japanese audience. I'm already clamoring for the hinted-at sequel. And like Laura Hudson, I'm definitely thinking it's a contender for best of 2008.


I do think putting Jiro Kuwata's name somewhere on the front (back) cover would have been a good move. It's something that seemed strange to me after finishing the book. It's not something that would cause me to discard the book or boycott future work by Kidd, but it's still something that makes me less than completely satisfied with the book. (Another point of dissatisfaction with the book: Given the aged presentation of the material, I would have preferred a rougher paper stock than the glossy material used — something like the paper used for Drawn & Quarterly's oversized anthology books.)

It's interesting to me how the rhetoric over this issue has escalated so quickly. I suppose since the issue touches on creators' rights, it was inevitable that feelings would quickly turn raw. Perhaps it was because my own response to the omission of Kuwata's name on the cover was more mild displeasure than seething outrage (mock or otherwise), but Chip Kidd's defensive response surprised me and, in my opinion, only made matters worse.

Kidd's opening paragraph succeeds in getting things off on exactly the wrong foot:
First of all, I’d like to say to all the relevant reviewers/bloggers/whomever: I am heartened that you all have such concern for Mr. Kuwata’s welfare. So here’s a question: where were YOU for the last thirty years, while he was languishing in obscurity both here and in his own country? I won’t bother waiting for an answer.
Of course, the appropriate response to Kidd's question is: What the heck does this have to do with the issue of giving Kuwata cover credit? Why do readers or reviewers have a responsibility to be well-versed in the personal and/or professional status of a creator in order to ask questions about how the creator was credited in a particular book that featured his work? If Kuwata is indeed "languishing in obscurity," you wouldn't learn that fact from reading Kidd's interview with Kuwata in the book. According to Kuwata's Wikipedia page, it sounds as though he's still an active artist, even if it's not in the medium of manga anymore, so I'm not sure what Kidd is getting at here. If he's asking if we're hip enough that we knew about Kuwata before Bat-Manga!, well, then color me guilty. I had never heard of him before this book, but now that I have experienced his work, I'd love to read more if it's ever made available in English. So I guess my answer is... All this time I was waiting to read Mr. Kuwata’s manga, even if I wasn't aware of it until I saw it?

Kidd goes on to make the point that
Bat-Manga is not just about the work of Mr. Kuwata, although that of course makes up the bulk of the book. Rather, it is about chronicling the phenomenon—however short-lived—of Batman in Japan in 1966.
This actually raises an interesting question about the book. What is the book really about? I'd argue that the book is about the manga created by Jiro Kuwata. Look, the title of the book is Bat-Manga. Yes, the book has a secondary title, "The Secret History of Batman in Japan," but I'd argue that the promise of this subtitle is never fulfilled. Kidd argues that the book is about "chronicling the phenomenon ... of Batman in Japan" but there's nothing to back up this asssertion. By my count, 90% of the book is devoted to the actual sequential art created by Kuwata. Yes, there are lovely photos of miscellaneous Batman memorabilia in between the manga chapters, but again they comprise at most 10% of the book, and there's no detail provided to explain the context of the merchandise. When were the toys produced? By whom? How much did they originally cost? How much did they sell for on eBay? How popular were the toys in Japan? By positing that Batman was a "phenomenon" in Japan, a whole host of questions are raised, questions that never get answered.

All of which makes Kidd's closing argument all the more strange. He compares Bat-Manga! to a documentary by Ken Burns, arguing that the accompanying Civil War book didn't list all the sources and historians cited. If Bat-Manga! truly were more expansive in scope, explaining how the Batman phenomenon swept Japan — what episodes of the Batman TV show were broadcast in Japan; who the voice actors were; what the ratings were; what toys were the best-selling; what reader response to the Batman manga was; analyzing the ways in which the Batman manga overlapped with and diverged from the American comics (such as Go-Go The Magician being a dead ringer for Flash villain the Weather Wizard)*; etc. — then I could probably come closer to seeing Kidd's point about leaving Kuwata's name off the cover. But the fact is that Bat-Manga! is almost entirely comprised of Jiro Kuwata's Batman manga. The pages with the Japanese Batman toys serve as chapter breaks and remind me more of the extras you'd find in an American trade paperback collection: Interesting and nice to have, but not essential. For me, this is actually a good thing. When the book was announced, I was worried it would be bogged down with photos of the Batman toys, so I was pleasantly surprised to find that the book is devoted almost entirely to Kuwata's manga.

A more accurate analogy that came to my mind was: What if Viz, in their presentation of Takehiko Inoue's Slam Dunk, had called it "Slam Danku!: The Secret History of Basketball in Japan" and left Inoue's name off the cover? After all, Inoue's sports manga is widely credited with driving Japanese interest in basketball, so there's the whole "phenomenon" angle in common. And Viz's presentation of Slam Dunk does have additional material in it, such as descriptions of basketball terms and glossy color pin-ups of NBA stars. Wouldn't that have seemed... odd?

Kidd would probably reject this analogy as dissimilar (he rejects another good analogy in the comments here), perhaps because Viz works as diligently as possible to clean up their manga, whereas Kidd and his co-authors treated the manga as aged, imperfect artifacts, photographing the old manga pages directly rather than scanning and retouching them. The appoach does give the work a distinctive look and feel, but the end result as a reader is still that of reading a sequential narrative that engages the imagination. It's not as though Kidd presented the pages out of order or interrupted the narrative to comment on the pages presented. In the end, it still reads like a comic, so the production behind the book is interesting but inessential.

And, yes, Kuwata is mentioned several times inside the book and on the little wraparound banner that comes with the book. And it's clear that everyone involved with the book has nothing but the utmost respect and admiration for Kuwata (the term that is most frequently used to describe Kuwata is "Manga Master"). But it still would have nice to have seen his name listed on the front. (And if you don't think being mentioned on the actual cover matters, consider how bitterly credit and billing are fought over throughout all entertainment media.) Perhaps such a credit wasn't required, but it would have been great to see it there. (And wouldn't a cover credit or some statement to the effect of "based on manga by Jiro Kuwata" have given Kuwata even more recognition? Wouldn't that have been a good thing?)

So in closing: Love the Bat-Manga! book. But hate the arguments and invective being thrown at those who feel a cover credit for Kuwata would have been a nice touch.

* Perhaps I should do a book about similarities and differences between the two. I'm convinced that the "Professor Gorilla" story has an American comic counterpart, so perhaps I could track down the closest matches for each manga story. Then I could take photos of each page of the Bat-Manga! book, add in a couple pages of other material, and put my and Jiro Kuwata's names on the cover while thanking Chip Kidd for his work and inspiration inside the book.

Update: Over at io9, Graeme McMillan rounds up reaction and offers his own opinion:
I have to admit, I disagree; for the majority of people, Chip Kidd is the draw for this book - well, that or "Hey, look, it's funny old Batman comics from Japan". Kuwata doesn't have the audience or awareness in the US to be the selling point for the majority of people who'll be picking up this book, and while it would've been nice to see Kuwata's name on the front cover, the fact that he's not only credited for his work inside but also interviewed for the book makes me think that any outcry over usurping of authorship is slightly melodramatic... which, admittedly, seems kind of fitting for a book about Batman.
I've seen others make similar arguments and it strikes me as odd. Why do the options have to be mutually exclusive? I don't think anyone's asking for the removal of Kidd's credit, just the addition of Kuwata's. Would adding Kuwata's name to the cover somehow lessen the draw of Kidd's name? And why do concerns of marketability drown out questions of authorship, fairness, or just plain stand-up behavior? Plus, as Graeme points out, I think the real draw for most people who pick up this book will be "Ooo, crazy vintage Batman manga!!" Is Kidd's name really such a selling point for others?

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