Thursday, September 8, 2011

Urasawa Naoki/Nagasaki Takashi: Billy Bat (2008-present)

Here's an entertaining take on the opening of the first volume of this manga.  Complete with affectionate hardboiled-pastiche prose.

So:  Billy Bat ビリーバット, by Urasawa Naoki 浦沢直樹 and Nagasaki Takashi 長崎尚志.  It's been serialized in Morning モーニング since 2008, and the book version is up to Volume 7.  It's the first thing I've read by Urasawa, but it won't be the last.  For at least the first couple of volumes, I was convinced this might be the greatest comic ever written.  It loses a little intensity when it decides to spend a full volume on a ninja story, but it's still pretty cool.

For the first couple of volumes it's following a Japanese-American comic-book author named Kevin Yamagata who, in immediate postwar LA, has a hit series called Billy Bat.  Billy Bat, the comic-with-a-comic, is a furry story with a bat as a hardboiled detective.  It's black-bat noir.  Kevin's proud of his creation, but a visiting cop makes an offhand remark that he saw a similar comic as an Occupation soldier in Japan.  This gives Kevin the Anxiety of Influence, since he himself is an Occupation Vet;  he rushes back to Japan to find out whether he has unconsciously plagiarized someone or something.  Once in Japan he gets caught up in a conspiracy to subvert the democratization of Japan by assassinating an industrial leader.  And, oh yeah, Billy the Bat starts talking to him...

It's a wacky story, when you put the elements of it down like that.  And it just gets wackier:  it jumps back centuries to follow the fortunes of ninja clans in Iga, ahead decades to encompass the moon landing and the JFK assassination, way back to Jerusalem in Jesus' day;  and I think they're going to work their way up to 9/11, too.  In addition to Kevin we get a host of other characters, from cops to other comics artists to cowboys to Lee Harvey Oswald.  We also get excerpts from episodes of Billy Bat, both Kevin's version and that of his successor (his assistant, who usurped the series)  And then, of course, there's the bat:  it pops out of the page from time to drop cryptic clues about good'n'evil and the destiny of man...

So the series is, among other things:  an occult alternate history of the world in which comix artists (cave painters, picture-scroll makers) are the oracles of a Manichaean struggle between good and evil, light and darkness, creation and destruction, the avatar(s) of which are bats;  a commentary on the uneasy relationship between American comics and Japanese manga in the postwar period;  an elegy to the betrayed postwar promise of both America and Japan;  a meditation on Disney;  and a hell of an adventure story, presented in art and writing that manages to have all the dynamism it needs to keep you turning the pages swiftly and an almost gratuitous subtlety that makes you want to linger over every composition, every facial expression.

This guy's a genius, and I can't wait to see where the story goes from here.

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