By Wm. Garrett Cothran
Think of the history of comic books. Not the funny little periodicals of Sunday funnies reprinted to make money. Not the romantic tales of some red head from Riverdale. Not even the shocking suspense stories told from someone called the Crypt Keeper. Instead think of a superhero. At the end of the day a comic is about superheroes. Men and women with strange powers in fantastic costumes battling the forces of evil in the name of justice! The first was Superman. It was April 18, 1938 and Action Comics #1 came out at newsstands all over America. Siegel and Shuster, just high school kids at the time, made their hero a god amongst men. Faster then a speeding bullet, more powerful then a locomotive... and all that. Some will even point out how the first incarnation of Superman was in a magazine made by Siegel and Shuster (even if they only printed out five copies which they hand staple together) was made in 1933. Sure the Reign of the Super-man was about a telepathic villain but most would agree this 1933 publication was the start of the very concept of superheroes and other worldly powers. Superman was the first real example of a superhero in comic books. Except no. No he was not. For if one was living in Japan then when in 1938 when Superman hit the shelves (or in the case of Japan 1939 and hitting a few library exchange programs) then the idea of a superhuman saving people from strange and exotic foes was not new. If anything people like Suzuki Ichiro and Takeo Nagamatsu felt that "the concept is not new. The idea of [Superman] is as American as the sun rising in the morning." That is to say, "[Superman] is just an idea people already had and frankly have done better." Now who in the hell is Ichiro and Nagamatsu to say that Superman, the Man of Steel, the Man of Tomorrow, the icon of Truth, Justice, and the American way is a rip off? Well to understand this we need to go back to 1929. It was the Empire of Japan which was, at that time, Korea, Taiwan, and scattering islands of the Pacific. Japan felt the Great Depression but where Europe saw tens of millions out of work Japan saw only hundreds of thousands. In fact at its worst Japan's experiences with the Great Depression are negligible set against the rise of militarism and the take over of the democratic state by the military and its cult around the Emperor of Japan. There was this need for jobs and entertainment amongst the populace.
What occurred was the creation of Kamishibai, or more accurately taking the Buddhist temple tradition and making it a secular affair geared at children and the more than occasional drunks waiting for the subway. Kamishibai was a mixture of street theater and story telling. A small display would be put up on a street corner. At the top was a large box which held images and under it was a variety of sweets and snacks. Standing before a crowd was the kamishibaiya ("kamishibai narrator") who would tell the story and change the image as needed. The images and stories were purchased or rented from their creators. By 1930 a million people in Tokyo were unemployed. This number would drop in time but for a few short months people needed jobs. So Kamishibai was seen as an accepted thing by the government who removed regulations towards street performers and thus by June of 1930 there was 2,500 Kamishibai stands inside of Tokyo alone. Going by the population of the period that means for every 2,000 people there was one kamishibaiya selling sweets to audiences hearing the latest tale of true crime, horror, and adventure. It was easy money in the depression. You had the narrators, the men who built the Kamishibai stands themselves, confectionary sellers, and of course the content makers. This is where we find Suzuki Ichiro and Takeo Nagamatsu once more. In 1931 the twenty five year old Ichiro and the sixteen year old Nagamatsu, both of whom had made "decent enough pocket change" from copying and coloring other Kamishibai stories decided to make their own. Ichiro had some savings and knew that Ichiro could handle the art work. So instead of working for others Ichiro would make his own works and sell directly to the Kamishibai. Only this was not targeted at the public in general but children. No true crime tales. No "heroic" stories of a train conductor being crushed on the tracks after saving a little child. No strange ghosts getting revenge. It was instead going to be a tale about science and heroism. Not ghastly ghouls and grimacing gangsters. And what did they call this hero? Ogon Bat or Golden Bat. Odd name right? Not when you realize that Ichiro was hoping to gain sponsors in particular that of the Golden Bat cigarette brand, which still exists today as "the cheapest cigarette in Japan." Nothing came of it but the name stuck. Who was Golden Bat? His origin story is brief but will sound perfectly in line with the American Golden Age of comics. Once there was a great technological civilization called Atlantis where a perfect being was sent forward in time to combat the evils the machines of Atlantis foresaw plaguing the earth. This man was Golden Bat! He came to the present era from 10,000 years in the past, a super-being from a ancient Atlantis sent forward in time to do battle with evil forces threatening the era. He had no alter-ego, but lived in the snow-covered peaks of the Japanese Alps, flying in to save the day when needed. Golden Bat wore a red cape and had super strength, energy beams shooting from his eyes, the ability to fly and even more powers allowing him to do battle with evil forces threatening Japan. While sounding similar to Superman one must focus on how Golden Bat had a golden skull. Not a mask... his head was a golden skull. He dressed like a pirate with a long red opera cape and even carried a sword.
Not exactly what one thinks of when they envision a superhero. Still Golden Bat had done battle with bank robbers, kidnappers, and smugglers but he also had a rogues gallery of foes able to match his powers. There was the dark opposite of Golden Bat called Dark Bat who had all of his powers but none of his morality. Yet the biggest foe was that of Dr. Nazo, the Master of the Universe, who wanted to take over everything... and for some reason just focused on destroying the earth. The story and characters evolved over time yet Golden Bat often fought giant robots, sea monsters, hypnotic rays, and colorful foes and creatures. While it may seem odd to Western audiences the Kamishibai street theater operated with a focus on the same story being told every single time. So while a man was saying a story to a crowd while changing the images he did voices, made sound effects, and more. As a side note, if one finds themselves able to watch a Kamishibai they should do so. It is a unique experience which even with a language barrier is fun just to watch the sheer excitement on children's faces when Golden Bat it hit by the stun rays of Dr. Nazo's latest Walking Death Robot. In case it is not clear yet, Golden Bat came out in 1931. A full seven years before Superman was made into a comic book. Roughly two years before Siegel and Shuster wrote their Reign of the Super-man story. Ichiro was producing one story a week until in 1934 he and Nagamatsu sold their idea to a larger publishing house. Given the unique way that Japanese publishing worked at the time the two men gave up their rights to the character but would go on to make Kamishibai well into WWII. The two men survived and even enjoyed a hefty pension from what would become manga and films staring their creation. They did not retire on some beach but they did not suffer dying alone in some paupers apartment like many Golden Age American comic book creators. The nature of Kamishibai combined with the destruction in World War Two leaves very little of the original works of that period around. During the Second World War Golden Bat was not above being used for propaganda. Dr. Nazo continued but now he was working with the British or the Americans to make an army of giant robots to destroy Tokyo. Dark Bat was convincing people via his hypnotic sound wave machine to surrender. Golden Bat wanted people to fight for the Empire of Japan and accordingly to some sources the phrase "and die for the Emperor" was used quite a bit. Yet this did not get mixed into other Japanese works of World War Two and get treated as proof of Japanese militancy or war crimes. If anything Golden Bat seemed rather benign as it had examples of Imperial propaganda but always the focus was on the story being targeted to children.
Yet Golden Bat held a popularity that continued as Kamishibai declined in the post-war occupation period of Japan. While the need to plop your kids down in front of a Kamishibai was replaced by turning the television on the character still was popular. While many would think of Japanese superheroes and envision a quartet of primary color clad Super Sentai (or Power Rangers to most Western audiences) this held its roots in the actions of Golden Bat. His adventures easily transplanted themselves manga and would be handed over to the "Father of Manga" Osamu Tezuka. While more known for his creations of Astroboy, Black Jack the Surgeon, and more his work on Golden Bat kept the character in the public eye for quite sometime. Under Tezuka Golden Bat manga grew to sell at its height in 1958 of two million issues a month. By 1966 there was a feature film staring Sonny Chiba, who either is "that Sonny Chiba" to those fond of Japanese samurai and gangster films. In 1967 Golden Bat had a fifty two episode anime produced and directed by Noboru Ishiguro of Macross and Legend of the Galactic Heroes. While some can point to Superman as the first real concept of a superhero that distinction actually goes to Golden Bat. A hero from 10,000 years ago named after a cigarette brand and made by two people writing for street theaters to have something to show while selling kids candy.