Writer/Artist: Yoshinori Yatsume
Collects: Batman: Death Mask #1-4
I've got a bit of a love/hate relationship with Japanese entertainment right now. On the one hand, I'm fascinated by the culture - and there are genuinely good things in entertainment from there - but I long ago found myself annoyed with the quirks of their creative works. What was once endearing and different - back when the Japanese style was something new and totally different to our American sensibilities - long ago grew old and stale, their own tropes having become their own worst enemy.
However, I do still hold some affection for what they do, though I could probably fool you with the way I talk about it these days.
So, add in Batman. He's a character that's very much open to interpretation, which makes seeing other countries take a crack at such an enduring icon interesting. In the case of a mangaka taking on the Dark Knight, that hits my radar pretty quickly, despite my reservations. We don't have much in the way of Japanese takes on Batman readily available, save Bat-Manga, so already it's somewhat unique. So I gave it a try.
Storywise, we find our hero besieged by nightmares of a shadowy figure. Naturally, he's not too worried, so he goes about his day. A Japanese company is in town apparently, looking to show off some masks. At the meeting, he seems to find a familiar face, one from his past in Japan. About the same time, a string of murders begin with an unusual MO; the face of the victim is sliced clean off and taken from the crime scene. When Bruce finds himself face to face with this killer, it stirs memories of his time in Japan. The past is there to haunt his present and Batman must figure out what it all means.
This story has several things going for it. For one thing, it uses Japanese culture effectively within the context of Batmans world. The bulk of the story concerns masks, from the mask Bruce Wayne uses to become Batman to the traditional masks of the Japanese. In particular, parallels are drawn between Batman and the Oni, which I actually thought was fairly clever.
Much of this is accomplished by generous amounts of flashbacks to Bruce Waynes time in Japan. Bruce Wayne's journey around the planet, learning everything he can, is something that is largely unchronicled, or at least not in great detail. This aspect of his past allows for these kind of stories - a similar use occurred in the Tao story of the Batman International trade - which allows Batman to fit into just about anything, anywhere, anytime.
I also like how Batman is written, here. The Bruce Wayne written here is one that seems to have it together, for the most part. He's not the impossibly brooding dark avenger that was in vogue since Frank Miller made such a splash with it. He's probably more akin to the Batman we know from the O'Neil/Adams era on. He's a bit more open and sure of himself, which is something I really like. The story kind of slots into the general era entered after Infinite Crisis, where Batman started lightening up again to great effect.
If there's a negative to this, it's that the story is perhaps a bit overwritten. There seems to be more dialogue than necessary at times, which reminds me of comics from the early eighties on back. It's not quite that bad, but the obvious is stated a bit too much.
A bit more of Batman could also have gone a long way. We see Bruce in costume from time to time, tracking down some leads or trying to get to where he needs to be next, but most of the Batman action we get is contained in the climax. Death Mask is a bit more of a Bruce Wayne story, focusing on his past in Japan and his dealings in the present day. The rogues are completely absent, aside from a two page splash showing the majority of them, but that's not necessarily a problem; I'd rather have a story refrain from using them rather than try to shoehorn them in.
The art pulls its weight well. The book carries many of the problems somewhat typical in manga - background detail being mostly an afterthought, faces being a bit too clean or perfect and so on - but the minimalistic style actually seems to work to this particular stories benefit. Natsume puts in detail where necessary, but pulls back when it's not; and he accomplishes it so well that, unless you're really paying attention to everything, you may not notice until late in the story or a second read through.
He can also put together some striking panels and give the feeling of motion to the visuals. There's a panel late in the story - at the climax - where Batman is chasing the figure that's haunted him through the story. The figure has raced up the stairs and the panel in question shows Batman in hot pursuit. The determination on the face, the pose, all of it; I could practically visualize Batman running up those stairs in my mind. It's a small panel, but it struck me. A part of comic reading is being able to fill in the blanks between panels, visualizing in your mind what is happening; what strikes me is how some panels in this story make that very easy.
It gives me the impression that the author behind the book really knows his craft and leaves me with some positive feelings I haven't had for a manga in a long time.
The Score: 7.5 out of 10
In all, this is a very solid outing. It's not something that's going to change things as we know it or have great importance down the line, but I was entertained by what I read and genuinely enjoyed it. It feels like a worthy addition to Batmans long legacy instead of the disappointment I was steeled for. I enjoyed it enough that if Yoshinori Natsume and DC ever decide they want to do a sequel, I'd be willing to read it.