Manga-ka: Yoshinori Natsume
Rating: Older Teen (16+)
Release Date: November 2008
Synopsis: “In present day Gotham City, there is a new killer on the loose. Its appearance coincides with the arrival of an ambitious Japanese businessman, who female aide is a dead ringer for a woman young Bruce Wayne met years ago. Suddenly, Batman finds himself haunted by his past, when he trained in Japan and came face to face with the darker side of his own nature. Is this killer a man, a demon, or some twisted manifestation of the Batman himself?”
This book mixes together two of my favourite things, Batman and manga, so it’s a wonder how I’ve gone this long without picking up CMX’s release of Batman: Death Mask. When Batman begins to suffer from horrible nightmares, he realizes they may be connected to a face-stealing serial killer attacking Gotham City. When his past returns to haunt him, coincidences become too much for him to ignore and his search for the killer takes a personal path.
The book starts out pretty strong with some semi-cryptic dreams that Bruce Wayne (Batman’s alter ego for those unfamiliar to the story) begins having while some new business ventures for the millionaire brings up some memories of the past when he meets, or re-meets as the case may be, a very familiar face. I enjoyed the flashbacks to his training in Japan where his initial arrogance leaves him amusingly stunned when a student of the dojo easily defeats him. Neatly balancing business dealings, training, past flashbacks and classic inner debates of true self, this story contains most of the classic elements of a Batman story, though despite some of the darker scenes, has a much less brooding feel than many of America’s Batman stories today.
As Batman beings to tie together the threads of clues from his past and present, the story remains pretty strong with consistent pacing and a fine balance between exposition and action. I found the climax of the story felt a little convoluted as revelations came to light, mental battles are fought and a supernatural force spirals about to cause some surprisingly unnecessary trouble. Though well-worked into the story with some legend telling, there was enough strength in the characters alone, though predictable as they were, to go without making the Death Mask in-question a real supernatural threat. At least, while it didn’t bring a lot extra to the story (past more chances for cultural crossover), it was still wasn’t much of a detractor.
Yoshinori Natsume, better known to manga fans perhaps as the artist of Togari, has a style that is, for the most part, complimentary to the story with the exception of one key aspect that I couldn’t get over. This would be Bruce Wayne, well designed as a younger man, but in his present day appearances has such chiselled definition in his face that he looks well beyond his years and certainly lacks the slight pretty-boy charm that’s prevalent with nearly all versions of Batman’s alter ego. On the flipside, I did like the slight design of Batman, which sports a believably muscular frame, and a form-fitting cowl design that won’t leave readers wondering where his ears are. Action scenes are a pleasant blend of American comic-style set-ups and manga execution though I did have a little trouble figuring out who was going where in a few of the battle sequences.
Other aspects of the book that crossover American and manga-style visual styles are the text bubbles, which unlike the more organic by-hand bubbles of manga, most speech bubbles here are clean and round with straight-point arrows to the speakers. There’s also a bit more first-person in box narration than manga readers may be used to. I found CMX’s font size to be a little small at times but you can see the necessity of it due to moments where large amounts of text need to be fit into very limited space.
Ultimately I think Batman: Death Mask well serves its purpose as a manga-version of the dark knight that can appeal to fans of both the character and the medium, though artistically it does leave a little to be desired. The combination of Asian mythology and Batman’s more recently made-canon training in Japan comes together naturally in a story that’s a little overbearing on the self-reflection but in a way that only better suits the source material overall.