Batman: Death Mask

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Every so often Western comics and Japanese manga are thrown together in an effort to create something “new”. Unfortunately many of these renditions are simply Western comics that look like manga, but lack any of the style or substance of the medium. There is a ray of light though, as from the entire body of Western comics, there are a few characters (e.g. Shang-Chi: Master of Kung Fu, Iron Fist, Dr.Strange, etc), who have the potential to not only cross the East-West divide, but also to successfully merge the two mediums into something truly different. Probably the most well known character though, is Batman.

Created in 2008 by Yoshinori Natsume (the author of Togari and Kurozakuro), Death Mask is the second time that DC Comic’s Caped Crusader has received the manga treatment. Unlike the first attempt, The Child of Dreams by Asamiya Kia, Yoshinori has adopted an approach that may be more pleasing to fans.

The story begins with a Bruce Wayne waking up in a black room that resembles a cage. Suddenly he sees a familiar silhouette in the doorway, yet he is unnerved by its appearance and its foreboding words “I’ve come for you”.

While this is a fairly simplistic Batman tale, there is a fresh feeling to it due to the fact that this manga iteration takes a slightly different perspective on the Dark Knight. One of Yoshinori’s strengths is working with darker, more conflicted characters, and his experience with Togari and Kurozakuro pays some dividends with Death Mask. The plot is well paced and flowing, however there is some initial stopping and starting while the introductions are made. Some Batman fans may be put off by the addition of the first few pages, however one should remember that with Death Mask being a manga, there will undoubtedly be a number of people who only have passing knowledge of the character.

Unlike the previous manga iteration, Death Mask is more of a re-envisioning of some tried and tested formulae in the Batman mythos. The concept of whether the true personality is the mask or the one who wears it is given a distinctly Eastern slant, and the addition of certain aspects of Japanese folklore further reinforces the supernatural flavour of the tale. This approach is something that works very well with Batman due to the fact that he, more than any other comic book hero, has developed an image that is closer to folklore than pop culture.

One thing I did like about Death Mask was the addition of George Woodbridge, as this helps to round out the glimpses into Bruce Wayne’s pre-Batman life and also raises the question as to whether or not Bruce Wayne is just as much a fiction as Batman. That said, my main gripe with the plot was the degree of predictability, as there were far too many occasions where I knew what would happen next.

In terms of looks Death Mask is more of a fusion of styles rather than an outright manga. The general look and feel is that of a manga, but there is a clear influence of Western comic book stylings in certain scenes. There is also a very clear difference in how the manga looks when Bruce Wayne is a young man, with much cleaner lines and more distinction between black and white. As and adult however, the manga looks more “shades of grey”, and this difference is one of the more interesting additions to the story (more on that in a bit).

The characters are generally well designed, and I especially liked the look of Batman himself in this version as the character seems sleeker, with a more realistic muscular structure, than one normally finds in DC comics. One aspect that I didn’t like though, was the fact that Bruce Wayne, as an adult, looks far more haggard than a billionaire playboy would look.

That said, there are occasions where the characters have a distinctly odd look about their posture, and some of the artwork isn’t as clean or clear as the rest of the series. However Yoshinori also plays around with the style to some degree, and in one sequence adopt a far more “rough sketch” approach to highlight the dreamlike quality of the scene.

As for the characters themselves, generally they’re well portrayed, but they lack any real depth or development due to the fact this is such a short story. In terms of the Batman comics though, the characters are more believable as Yoshinori has made the effort to add some detail to their lives. In addition to this, while I did enjoy the dip into Bruce Wayne’s past, this is something that has been done many times before, and while Death Mask does give a few more details into how the young Bruce Wayne thinks, there is too much reliance on the reader having some degree of knowledge about him in either form.

In all honesty Death Mask is a somewhat strange story that has some very good points, but also a lot of flaws. In comparison to the DC comic iterations, as well as to other manga, one can easily pick out the problems with character development, style, and how predictable the plot is at times. That said, kudos should go to Yoshinori for taking on the task of transferring the Dark Knight to a manga format, and many of the flaws with Death Mask mainly stem from his inexperience with the character and his desire to make the story appeal to exisiting Batman fans as well as manga newcomers.

I will admit that I did enjoy this series, especially the distinction between old and young. It was nice to see the author acknowledge how differently Bruce Wayne thinks as both a young man and an adult, and the fact that the look of the story changes to reflect this allows this aspect to have more impact on the reader.

All in all, this is a flawed series that, while formulaic at times, adopts an unusual approach to one of the age old Batman questions (i.e which one is real, Bruce Wayne or Batman?). Fans of the Caped Crusader may find much to criticise, however it should be noted that manga, as a medium, has no character with the status, background and history of Batman, so making a manga about him is essentially breaking new ground for any mangaka. It should also be noted that this is only the second time Batman has received the manga treatment and, like The Child of Dreams, the authors of both manga have made the effort to please everyone as much as possible.

That said, this is an enjoyable tale, and while it does have some issues, it also has much to recommend it.

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