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Do the Wrong Thing
Excerpt from ¡Journalista! for November 10, 2008
(Note: Red text indicates a dead link.)

 

"First, Bat-Manga is not just about the work of [Jiro] Kuwata, although that of course makes up the bulk of the book. Rather, it is about chronicling the phenomenon -- however short-lived -- of Batman in Japan in 1966. To that end, the book itself as an act of pop-culture reconnaissance is entirely the product of Saul Ferris, Geoff Spear, and myself. Mr. Kuwata is prominently mentioned on the front flap (as is translator Anne Ishii) and on the back cover, so it's not like we're trying to deny him any credit. I would not have made the considerable effort to track him down, interview, and photograph him if that were the case. It is worth noting that before we took it upon ourselves to do this, NO ONE had any interested in collecting this material for reprinting, least of Shonen King (and they still don't -- Bat-manga has amazingly failed to find a Japanese publisher)."

 

"I call bullshit on all of this, all of this fake fanboy outrage. I'm sorry, honestly, if this is an affront to your sensibilities? But. BULL. SHIT. You know who the legal author of those comics is? DC FUCKING COMICS. Kuwata owns or is owed nothing, because That's The Way Comics Works. Kidd went out of his way to see Kuwata credited and compensated above and beyond the call of duty. If you can't see that, then your naivete is like a fucking cyst in your eye."

 

"I do understand Kidd's argument and the distinction he's making, but to me, the issue of how to classify the book has more to do with content than intent. As a reader, I didn't experience Bat-Manga as a book of material about Batman in Japan; Kuwata wasn't just example C in the context of a broader theme. His work is the book, the heart and meat and soul and sun of it, and everything else is just supplementary gravy. Maybe that wasn't Kidd's intention, but that's how it turned out."

 

Walt and Skeezix Vol. 3, the Chip Kidd remix.

 

What she said.

Last week, questions arose as to why the new book Bat-Manga included the names of its designer, photographer and editor on the cover, spine and title page... but not the author of the vast majority of its pages, Jiro Kuwata. Commentators wondered whether this was some sort of contractual thing with DC, or whether it was Kidd et. al.'s own doing. Now we know. Let's step lightly over the "How dare you miserable peons criticize me" portions of Kidd's defense — aside from noting that far from defending him, they only make Kidd look like a bit of a dick. Here's the closest that Kidd comes to explaining the decision to credit the book's producers over its author:

But I would put forth the analogy: when Ken Burns made his documentary on the Civil War, the subsequent book had his name, and his writer Geoffrey Ward, on the front. It did not have the names General Ulysses S. Grant, Robert E. Lee, or Abraham Lincoln, or any contemporary historians that Burns interviewed. That may sound like a stretch, but it's the same situation. We took it upon ourselves to put this project together because of our love for this material. We spent far more of our own money amassing everything then we'll ever see out of sales of the book; and without going into details, any money we did get as an advance went right back to Mr. Kuwata, who was thrilled to get it. As he is thrilled with the book — I've heard nothing but compliments and thanks from him.

As anyone who's ever actually looked at Burns' book should realize immediately, this is a bullshit argument. Burns' book, like the television series that inspired it, was a densely interwoven oral history drawing upon dozens of writings and anecdotes, with analysis and context by Burns, Geoffrey C. Ward and Ric Burns. If they had, say, produced a book that was 80% Frederick Douglass essays and excerpts, augmented with Civil War photos by Mathew B. Brady, and released it as Ken Burns' My Bondage and My Freedom, is there any doubt that literary critics from coast to coast would be racing to see who could build the biggest bonfire with which to roast Burns' reputation?

As Hudson argues, by contrast, Bat-Manga is at least 80% Kuwata comics, sprinkled with seeming non-sequitur photos of toys amongst its pages. If this is a book about "the Batman phenomenon in Japan" rather than Kuwata's comics, then it was ineptly edited and produced, to say the least — the cover says "Bat-Manga," and the pages and pages of Batman manga found within fairly scream This is a collection of Japanese Batman comics! As Brandon Soderberg notes, "if you took out all of Kuwata's comics, the book would [be] 20 or so pages of Japanese Batman toys."

I don't mean to overplay the extent of Kidd et. al.'s actions, here. Kidd declares himself as having the purest intentions in bringing this work to English-language readers, and there's no reason to doubt him on this point. Likewise, while it's tempting to hurl moral opprobrium over the matter, you can't argue that downplaying authorship is the same as denying it altogether. The book does basically acknowledge itself as being primarily the work of Jiro Kuwata if you squint hard enough, despite the fact that Kidd himself refuses to admit that it's primarily the work of Jiro Kuwata. Likewise, there's no reason to doubt that Kuwata was anything other than pleased to discover that a brief, throwaway phase of his comics career, producing work-for-hire for a paycheck, has been dusted off and given such a handsome treatment. That said, we should probably assume that Kidd didn't actually ask Kuwata about the placement of credit...

"Excuse me, sir, but we're going to make this book primarily composed of your comics and put our names to it specifically in place of yours, with a few photos of toys scattered around as a figleaf. You don't mind, do you?"

...for no other reason than that it's difficult to imagine how a rational human being could do that without feeling like a complete and utter shitheel.

But I get the feeling that this isn't what Kidd initially thought that he was doing. In an interview linked last Friday, Kidd explained how the book evolved over time:

Early on in the process, I was worried that we would have enough for a substantial book, and thought, "Oh, we'll pad it out with tons of toys." And, of course, by the end it was like Cut, cut, cut, cut, beg for another 40 pages from the publisher.

In short, it would seem from the available evidence that the book actually did begin as a collection of Japanese Batman ephemera, and as Kidd and his collaborators discovered more comics material it began to almost spontaneously take shape as a comics collection — the first such collection that Kidd has ever edited, if I'm not mistaken. My guess would be that the book's producers were happy to bring the comics to a new generation of superhero and manga fans, but never quite came around to realizing or acknowledging that there were added considerations (such as authorial credit) that came into play when the book's form began to change. Or maybe they really, honestly doesn't believe that it had changed somewhere between planning and execution. Maybe Chip Kidd and his pals are just kinda dense that way.

 

Credit where credit is due.

 

(An aside: While I'm willing to cut Kidd some slack in how he's handled this, I'm a bit more dubious about Chris Butcher's attempts to defend him. If nothing else, he ignores the laborious efforts that DC Comics has made to track and provide authorial credit for their stories as they've been reprinted. The irony of Butcher's argument is that if Bat-Manga had been a DC release rather than a Pantheon release, Kuwata's name would've almost certainly been given more prominence on the cover than those of Kidd and Co. — Butcher owes DC an apology for comparing them to Chip Kidd, I think.)

It seems obvious to me that we should refrain from burning Chip Kidd, Geoff Spear and Saul Ferris in effigy — given the circumstances, this is at most a venal, not mortal sin that we're discussing — and there seems to be no doubt that they did a good thing for Jiro Kuwata by bringing one of his works to public attention, however haphazzardly they did so. Nonetheless, it's pretty much impossible to conceive of a credible argument that doesn't acknowledge that the producers of Bat-Manga committed at least a minor publishing-ethics lapse by crediting themselves as the authors of the book. They weren't and aren't, and one hopes that Kidd will get over himself and correct his mistake, should sales warrant additional printings. Also, when he writes letters defending himself in the future, he should maybe show them to someone else before hitting the send button and ask, "This doesn't make me look like a dick, does it?"

 

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