Batman: Death Mask #1 (June, 2008)
Story and Art – Yoshinori Natsume
(Cover) Colorist – Jonny Rench
Letterer – Rob Leigh
Cover Price: $2.99
Boy, isn’t that a cover that just screams “buy me”? No? Are you trying to say that it’s an awful cover? Yeah… it’s pretty rotten, nothing about it says “cover”. I’d really expect so much more from DC… especially when it comes to a Batman book. I feel like this could have been an opportunity to get a few new eyes on the Bat-books. It also looks horribly dated… definitely not something that would have been produced and put on shelves this century… and yet, it was.
This is our first time venturing into and discussing DC Comics’ CMX imprint. CMX was DC’s manga imprint which was in business during the latter half of last decade (2004-2010). It always seemed to me like a really half-hearted attempt at cashing in on the manga craze… perhaps just a minute or two too late. Also, I recall there being a bit of a to-do over some censorship… naughty bits being covered up and what not. Not something that would’ve bugged me, though probably not the best way for DC to ingratiate themselves to purist manga fans.
For folks new to manga, I’ll include the reading instructions here… everything goes from right-to-left, so if I post some panels that don’t make any sense… just read’em backwards… and they’ll, err… kinda make sense.
We open with… masks. This will undoubtedly be the theme of this miniseries. Among the masks is one of the Batman… and hey, guess what… is Batman the mask, or is it Bruce Wayne that’s the mask? What a novel idea… that totally hasn’t been run into the ground throughout the past few decades of superhero fiction. Anyhoo… we shift to Batman on the streets of Gotham taking down down some baddies with ease.
From here we get a bit of an origin… complete with Batman: Year One homage. It’s concise, and well done.
We continue with a bit more exposition. This time in the form of an introduction to the Batman rogues gallery. It’s really pretty neat to see the baddie-menagerie done up in a manga style. We do get to beat the drum of “does Batman stop the baddies… or cause them?”, which we’ll just place neatly in the cliche pile with the “mask” bit… which they do drone on a bit more about here.
Suddenly, Bruce Wayne wakes up in a darkened room with bars over the windows. In the shadow stands a figure that bears a shapely similarity to Batman… it threatens Bruce that it’s come… for him!
Luckily… and obviously, this was just a dream… Bruce wakes up (again?). I’m not sure if the beating up baddies in Gotham bit was part of the dream… or if I just didn’t notice the scene change. That might happen from time to time during this issue. Anyhoo, Bruce is woken by Alfred who comes bearing a traditional Japanese breakfast. This causes our man to flashback to some time he’d spent as a younger man in Japan. He stayed with a family, and would eat this same breakfast daily. It also should be noted that he hid his “Bruce Wayne” identity while over there… that is to say, his foster family did not know he was really a bajillionaire Gothamite.
On this day, Bruce Wayne has an important meeting with representatives from the Agurama Corporation. We see a bit of a Gotham skyline… which confused me a bit. It took me a few reads to realize that this story is (maybe) happening in Gotham and not Japan… Hell, I’m still not completely sure. Anyhoo… Bruce has his meeting with Jiro Agurama, and is completely bored throughout… that is, until he sees an attractive woman in the room.
At this point, Bruce has tunnel vision… he walks right past Jiro, and tries to pick up the young lady, who introduces herself as Aya Himemiya. She seems flattered, however suggests maybe they’ll run into each other at a party the following night rather than go on an actual date. The sight of this Aya makes Bruce flashback to his time in Japan once more… he knew a girl who quite resembled Ms. Himemiya… though he doubts it was her.
We shift to a seedy Gotham street, where a seedy Gotham-dude cuts through an alley… only to find that he’s wound up in the middle of a bamboo forest! Eh?
A Batman-shaped shadow descends upon the man… and with a single slice, removes the fella’s face. It’s soft-gore… like, we don’t see a mass of coagulated under-face or anything… it’s more a clean slice… as though his head was a ball of processed cold cut meat. I’m sorry for that mental image. Perhaps this picture can fill in the rest of my thousand word explanation.
We return to the dream world… the Bat-shaped shadow asks Bruce Wayne what lies behind his mask. Suddenly, Bruce’s own face detaches, in that same cold-cutty way… and starts to slide off of his head.
Bruce wakes up in the back of his vintage automobile. He asks Alfred to pull over the car as something has caught his eye. Hey, lookit that… there just so happens to be a Japanese shop… which looks very un-Gothamy… making me again wonder just where in the hell this story is taking place. Anyhoo, this shop has a poster print of the “room with the bars” in Bruce’s dream. Here we learn that those bars represent a “cage around one’s heart”. Fair enough.
Bruce arrives at his office, and takes a look at the daily newspaper. He learns of a faceless corpse being found… so, I guess that really happened. Bruce calls back to his own bad dream where his own face fell off.
He brushes it off as coincidence, and before he can think too hard on it, an assistant enters holding a pamphlet for the pending Agurama party. The theme of the night will be… get this… masks! Betcha didn’t see that coming. I know I sure didn’t. Anyhoo, he decides he’ll attend so he can see Aya.
Let’s move on to the party… Jiro gives a speech before revealing three unique and sacred masks. The crowd oohs and aahs… and suddenly I get the feeling a moon with a scary face is about to descend upon Gotham.
Bruce is looking on, and doesn’t appear to be terribly impressed. Thankfully his boredom is short-lived as Aya (I think) arrives with some saki. I’m almost positive this is supposed to be Aya… but facially she looks different. I suppose she is wearing make-up, and has her hair done up. Either way… we’ll figure that this is Aya and move along. Here we (and Bruce) learn that this lady is, well… probably not the girl Bruce remembers from Japan… because, this young woman is still a teenager. Whoops. He shrugs it off claiming that it’s hard to judge the age of an Asian woman… which, probably won’t hold up in court, pal.
Now their chat is interrupted by a presentation on the stage. Jiro asks for a volunteer party-guest to try on one of the masks. One fella is all too happy to raise his hand. He jokes that maybe it will imbue him with super powers. The mask is fastened over his head… and suddenly, he lets out a terrific scream! He’s… just kidding. The mask didn’t give him any powers, that would be silly.
He then tries to remove the mask, only to find out he can’t. The party guests think he’s still trying to pull a fast one, but two members of the security detail try and help him anyway… they got socked in the face for their trouble.
The masked man panics and makes a bee-line to the door. The rest of the guests think this is all part of an elaborate act, and so they are expressing their appreciation by laughing and applauding. Bruce Wayne isn’t so sure this is an act, and so he gives chase. Outside in the alley, Bruce comes upon a face-down corpse… when he flips it over, guess what… it’s got no face!
Bruce looks up and finds himself standing before the Bat-shadow-thing from his dreams!
It swoops down and takes a swipe at Bruce. Several security officers barge onto the scene guns a’blazing which causes it to flee. Bruce composes himself and remembers the first time he’d seen this shadow-figure… back in Japan when he was a young man.
Not only do we go back to the “Which is the ‘mask’, Batman or Bruce?” well yet again… we find ourselves with a pretty lackluster story overall.
Also, it isn’t clear if this story is taking place in Gotham or Japan. Bruce just stumbles upon a Japanese shop in Gotham… on the very same morning Alfred just so happens to serve him a traditional Japanese breakfast… after waking up from a Japanese nightmare? It all feels a bit forced, no?
Also, Bruce’s “dreams” happen concurrently with things happening in the waking world… and there is no artistic note to tell us which is which, and where one ends and the other begins. Perhaps this would read better in a complete tankoubon volume, or serialized in a weekly format… that is to say, all at once… or in smaller bite-sized installments to build the story. Trying to fit this to a more Western(ish) comic book format might just be doing it (and the reader) a disservice.
The art, when not looking at it from a storytelling perspective… is very good. Bruce looks right in and out of costume… and the two-page spread with the rogues gallery is really quite nice. Most of the supporting characters look identifiable… Aya ambiguity notwithstanding. The saki-shiller at the party is almost definitely Aya… however, at first I thought maybe Bruce would meet several young girls during this tale… now I wonder if it’s just the one who will be drawn a bit differently every time we see her, who knows?
Back to our story. Tale as old as time… Which is the mask, the hero or the civilian? We’ve seen it so many times before, I can’t help that my immediate reaction is to simply sigh. I know there was a point in time where such a concept was not only novel… but even deep… but that time is, in my opinion, long passed. It’s become a trope, and I really didn’t need to see it again. We get a nebulous baddie at the close… and some light gore… however, I’m still pretty disengaged.
Overall… can’t say I’d recommend this one. It’s a quick read… like a lot of manga tends to be. It’s also in black and white… like a lot of manga tends to be. There’s also the reading right to left, which may be a deal-breaker to some. I kinda dig it… then again, there are times in my life where I’d read so much manga at once it was difficult to go back to “normal” left-to-right storytelling! I’d say grab this if you really wanna see Batman in manga format… and don’t mind a trip down a well-trodden road, story and trope wise.
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