The Mike Toole Show
Japan's Superhero Legacy

by Mike Toole,

I was at lunch when I got the notification: somebody had bought that Yu-Gi-Oh! card I had on eBay. I don't play Yu-Gi-Oh!, but I get a couple of cards every year as part of my Shonen Jump digital subscription. The cards are immediately placed on eBay, and more often than not, I end up earning more on them than I spent on the subscription. That's what I'm all about, man: getting paid to read manga.

I get asked about how I keep up with Shonen Jump sometimes, because I'm not really a Bleach guy, or a One Piece guy. But for me, there really only need to be a couple of titles to make Shonen Jump worth keeping up with. For a long time, one of them was One Punch Man. The wonderful girls' lacrosse manga Cross Manage was another, though that one sadly got flushed, a victim of reader disinterest. Lately, I've been all about Food Wars (which I wrote about recently), and also My Hero Academia.

My Hero Academia is of interest to me because it's something that reflects both the recent, global fascination with superheroes, and Japan's own rich history of superhero comics and animation. See, Japan's been steadily making its own hero comics since the postwar 1950s manga awakening, and even prior to that there was some activity. The country's first costumed hero, Golden Bat, was created in 1931.

Golden Bat wasn't created for the comics or the small screen, though. The hero, a masked ally of justice, was created by Takeo Nagamatsu for his kamishibai business. Kamishibai is an old folk art form that involves an itinerant storyteller who enthusiastically narrates a series of action-packed pictures in front of an audience. Before TV and radio, folks had kamishibai. Golden Bat survived the decline of kamishibai and the ascendancy of TV and radio because the character was awesome.

Clad in a flowing cape and a shining golden skull mask, Golden Bat appears openly sinister, and his approach to cackling incessantly while dunking on his foes is more similar to the Shadow than other western pulp heroes like the Phantom and Doc Savage. Another cool thing about Golden Bat is the bad guy, Dr. Nazo, who is carefully designed to be as terrifying to small children as possible—he's got cat ears, 4 horrible staring multicolored eyes, no apparent legs (he sits in a metallic control chair), and a sharp claw for a hand. There's a funny comic villain stereotype where the head bad guy constantly threatens consequences for his lackeys, but Dr. Nazo actually murders his failed lieutenants on the regular. He's a bad man.

Golden Bat made the jump to manga and live-action film in the 1950s, but for me it really comes alive in the 1967 anime TV series from Tele-Cartoon Japan. It's in blazing full color, and both Golden Bat and Dr. Nazo look much cooler and scarier than they do in the live-action film. I've managed to watch part of the series thanks to its DVD release in Brazil (never, ever sleep on DVD and BD releases of obscure classics from outside of just your country and Japan), and it's a reliably fun, wild-looking action cartoon where Golden Bat fights off everything from gangsters to aliens and dinosaurs in his quest for justice.

My Hero Academia has its share of creepy-looking heroes (the dour, crow-like Tsukuyomi is actually my favorite secondary character), but the series and its protagonist Izuku “Deku” Midoriya are really all about elevating regular people to hero status, and that's my favorite kind of superhero story. Sure, you can have your stories about powers of the gods personified (Thor, Saint Seiya, etc.), or tales of super-powered alien visitors (Superman, Dragonball Z, et al), but I love it when an earnest schlub is suddenly endowed with fabulous secret powers. It's used to great effect in everything from Spider-Man to One Punch Man. At the start of My Hero Academia, Deku doesn't have any powers – he just wants to do good. Golden Bat always had his strength and invulnerability, but one hero from the past didn't—that'd be 8 Man.

If Golden Bat was Japan's first costumed superhero, 8 Man, created by SF author Kazumasa Hirai and artist Jiro Kuwata, was the first costumed hero with a secret identity to hit the mainstream. (Maboroshi Tantei wore a mask, true, but he didn't have super powers.) 8 Man was originally police detective Hachiro Azuma (itself a clever pun, as “hachi” means “eight”), killed in a shootout. Revived as a cyborg by Professor Tani, he returns to policework, both as Azuma (to his friends and colleagues) and as the shape-shifting, super-strong, super-powered 8 Man, so named because he's the sole member of Tokyo's secret 8th police division.

Hirai and Kuwata created 8 Man thanks to a remarkably simple commercial cue—Astroboy was extremely popular, so their editor at Weekly Shonen magazine asked them to put together a version of Astroboy that was an adult, and the star of a somewhat grittier series. Their original title, Tokyo Tetsukamen (Tokyo Iron Mask), was tossed on the wood pile, but 8 Man went to press in 1963, and hit TV screens later that same year.

It's a shame the manga's never been officially translated – it's not that long at five volumes, and it's got some great art and storytelling. As 8 Man, Hazama is aware of the strangeness of his continued existence, and so is frequently plagued by a sense of vague existential unease. Many of his missions aren't just about routing gangsters or outwitting the nefarious Dr. Spectra, he also acts in the service of defusing or diverting US and Soviet entanglements during the Cold War. He also runs really fast, has an amusing propensity for detatching his left arm and using it as a cudgel, and smokes special cigarettes to recharge his internal battery.

Not surprisingly, this zippy, hard-boiled action manga was a great fit for a children's cartoon. The cartoon—56 of its episodes, at least—even made its way to American shores, where it ran in syndication, complete with a bizarre new opening sequence featuring the hero flying (he cannot fly in the show) and fighting space monsters (he does not fight space monsters in the show). At the end of the sequence, a completely different-looking Detective Azuma winks at the camera, just like Clark Kent in the 60s Superman cartoon. See?

Interestingly, 8 Man's never really gone away from the Japanese superhero lexicon since then. There were a pair of live-action projects in the late 80s and early 90s (the former, a 1987 TV movie, was reportedly only broadcast in one region because it was pre-empted by a baseball game everywhere else in the country. Hey, anyone tape it?), a 1993 OVA that functions both as a remake and a weird sort of sequel, a Neo Geo beat-em-up game, and most recently, a “true” sequel manga, 8 Man Infinity, fully authorized by the author Kazumasa Hirai. The series is periodically looked at as a candidate for a new TV or OVA project (I'm pretty sure there's a 90-second pilot out there somewhere, made in the mid-2000s), but 8 Man hasn't been on patrol just lately.

8 Man isn't Jiro Kuwata's only superhero work, either. The artist, who actually had to cut 8 Man short thanks to a jail sentence(!), also worked on a series about a dapper millionaire who dresses up and fights bad guys at night – a dude called Batman.

The existence of vintage Batman manga wasn't entirely a surprise – when DC Comics announced that they'd found and were preparing to publish licensed Batman manga from the 1960s, we'd already gotten some of the 1970 Ryoichi Ikegami Spider-Man manga (which, incidentally, is very badly in need of a complete, finished re-release). What enticed me was the involvement of Kuwata, whose clean, strong line and streamlined character designs seemed entirely suited to caped hero comics. The eventual Bat-Manga! book was puzzling, though—it was a glossy, coffee table affair that laboriously preserved the original Shonen King newsprint's bleary coloring, and sought to further affirm this “authentic” presentation by way of a deliberately stilted, awkward translation. It was also slightly incomplete—understandable, as the project curator, Chip Kidd, was obliged to track down individual issues of Shonen King, because the chapters were never later compiled into tankoban. The manga stories take up most of the book, and are bookended by photos of 60s Japanese Batman kitsch like toys. Kuwata's name wasn't mentioned on the front cover of the spine, which made me feel pretty salty, as I was one of the few who only cared about Kuwata's involvement. It's moot now – DC eventually scared up the 60s rest of the run, cleaned it up and translated it properly, and released it in two volumes.

The reason I bring up Bat-manga is because, as soon as American fans and creators got wind of it, they immediately sought to assimilate it back into Batman lore. The villain through much of the Shonen King series, Lord Death Man (special power: he can die), was seized and worked into the comics… and then this happened.

Yep, a portion of Bat-Manga was stuck right into Batman: Brave and the Bold, and even done in the style of 8th Man. I love stuff like this, clear evidence of a creative feedback loop between western creators and manga/anime artists. It's twistier than a regular feedback loop, though. Maybe it's a feedback cruller.

My Hero Academia is similar to 8 Man in its depiction of a “normal” hero who's suddenly gifted with extraordinary powers, but it's different in one big way—creator Kohei Horikoshi addresses superheroes as a distinctively multi-generational phenomenon. Its protagonists and antagonists live in a world where their parents had superpowers. The Japanese superheroes that came before were obviously too new to have mentors, and most western superheroes similarly didn't have older heroes to look up to – at least not until DC Comics did that whole Crisis on Infinite… you know what, I don't really remember the details, I only know that it means we get to read about the golden age Flash with the cool helmet teaming up with the modern version of the same character. But it's a pretty new thing, and it's something that Horikoshi uses to great effect.

As a result, we see Deku not just rising up to do good, but to continue the work of his hero and mentor, All Might, who's drawn in a hilarious pastiche of over-muscled, Rob Liefield-esque brawn. He has to face down a rival whose father has a grudge against All Might, and team up with classmates who have complex family and fraternal relationships of their own. Horikoshi ingeniously melds the “justice league” approach of a team of heroes with a school setting. Through it all, Deku remains the humble everyman, trying to learn to use his immense power safely without breaking every bone in his body in a place where even the cafeteria cook is a superhero, imbued with the powers of making really good meals for cheap.

One thing I particularly like about the My Hero Academia manga is the way the artist really lets you in on his creative process, with detailed notes about character development and how he decided to assign superpowers. Deku himself isn't that surprising, a normal kid who receives his power from an external source, but the artist writes in detail about how he developed his cast by looking at a mixture of shonen manga, American superhero comics, and older Japanese costumed heroes. He spends time considering which character will be the hero's rival (it wasn't originally going to be Bakugo!), how to make the “R-rated superhero” character attractive without going too far, and how to craft superheroes out of characters whose special powers involve tapping into headphone jacks and tape dispensers.

One last Japanese superhero wrinkle: all the heroes I talk about above are from the “seigi no mitaka” (“ally of justice”) mold, good guys who might be troubled, but work hard to do the right thing. There's also “dark heroes,” a la Kamen Rider, SoulTaker, and Garo… but that's some talk for another column. Check out My Hero Academia and enjoy its links to both western superhero and classic Japanese hero tales. If you want to dive into the old, like I said, you'll have to dig those overseas Golden Bat DVDs up. But a handful of 8 Man episodes are actually on Amazon's streaming service as of this writing, though they look a bit sketchy. Dig how the new intersects with the old... and enjoy the cruller.

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