Batman begins wondering who is wearing the mask. Is Bruce Wayne the mask of Batman? Is Batman the mask of Bruce Wayne? This questioning occurs at a time when Batman's dreams begin to get freaky and Wayne Enterprises forges a new partnership with a Japanese interest.
This isn't the first Batman manga. That honor belongs to Kia Asamiya. Five years ago, DC published his Batman story Child of Dreams in hardback. It's a book I highly recommended and still do despite my distaste for the manga form of art.
DC presented Child of Dreams in an American format. For Death Mask, DC preserves the Japanese backward paging. They thoughtfully provide instructions on how to read the book, and they decided to make it a serialized mini-series. These added complications help no one.
Asamiya's book is an original, action-packed story, unconcerned with specific Japanese themes. The menace is a crazed Batman fan. The execution of the crimes is extraordinary, and the love interest while having ties to Batman doesn't actually share his past. Rather, she is the product of his presence. Early in his career, Batman saved her when she was a child. She is now a strong young woman who reports for a Japanese news agency.
Natsume's Death Mask is a quiet fusion of clichés from J-horror and Japanese martial arts films. The aforementioned strange dreams and surreal serial murders are staples in J-horror. The menace comes from Bruce's past when he was studying martial arts in Japan. Bruce apparently had a crush on a cute Japanese student who seems to have been coincidentally hired by the firm doing business with Wayne Enterprises.
Asamiya's Batman is sane and sure of himself. He is a potent Bruce Wayne and an effective, scary Batman. Asamiya portrays him as "the world's greatest detective" and a super-hero interested in saving lives not just avenging deaths.
Natsume's Batman is getting on in years, according to Alfred, and it's always an unwise move to bring up Batman's age. His strange dreams take a toll on his stamina, and this is a Batman who is unsure of whether or not he makes a difference. Worse, he wonders if he actually "produces" the crazies of Gotham. It's a typical broody, angst-ridden Batman that writers seem to love so much. Got news for you fellas. Bruce Timm and company put an end to this issue once and for all in the Batman: The Animated Series episode "Trial". In that story, the inmates of Arkham put Batman on trial under the charge of the chicken-egg question. The new DA who doesn't even like Batman and believes him to be the catalyst for the lunatics of Gotham must now defend him. During her defense of Batman, she comes to a conclusion; it is in fact the maniacs that created the Batman. Natsume brings nothing new to the argument against Batman. So why bring it up at all?
Asamiya's artwork and Natsume's have their strengths and weaknesses. Asamiya has a much surer hand when it comes to shading. His Batman was much more evocative and of course gifted with the long ears that the Bat-Gods intended. However, Asamiya also had a nose fetish; all his characters, male or female, have big noses.
Natsume renders some very nice characters, especially those of the female persuasion. Unfortunately one of them isn't Batman. His Batman fits right in with the stubby-eared Helmetman version of the current continuity, though as seen through a film of manga, and his Bruce Wayne is a pug-nosed goofy looking dude.
I prefer Asamiya's artwork over Natsume and in fact over some American artists' versions. Asamiya's illustration is simply overall richer and better conveys the symbolism of Batman.
Ultimately we have to ask the question whether or not Death Mask is any good. It's average, and it wobbles on Batman's formative years in Japan, which has been done better in comics and other media. Death Mask being mere manga clearly breaks no new ground, and the artwork, although sometimes attractive, doesn't send a chill up one's spine when Batman arrives on the scene.
What did you think of this book?
Have your say at the Line of Fire Forum!