Forgotten Masterpiece: The Superman Manga of Tatsuo Yoshida

This is another of those overseas publications where, thanks to both the scarcity of information and the language barrier, I’m only going to be able to tell you so much. But it’s an interesting and forgotten bit of DC history, and worth shedding a bit more light on. In 1959, thanks to the ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN television program, the Man of Steel began to be recognized around the world as the show was translated and localized. One of the areas that it played in reruns was Japan, which led to a blip of local interest in the character. A Japanese publisher–given the scant materials I have to hand, I can’t turn up more specifics than that–decided that the time was ripe to serialize Superman comic book stories in his phonebook-sized manga weekly, and then to collect them into hardcovers volumes once that serialization had run its course. This was the standard publishing strategy for manga and continues even today.

The thing is, American comic books and manga storytelling are completely different. Especially in the late 1950s, when this experiment was playing itself out, American comics were almost like picture books, heavy on copy, with each image summarizing a ton of narrative information. Maga, however, had developed along more cinematic lines. In Japan, most comics seemed copy-light, because the same information would be dramatized over a greater number of panels and pages. After some initial experimenting with simply translating American comic, which did not find success, the publisher decided that the only thing to do was to have local manga artists adapt the American stories, reinterpreting them taking into account the different tastes of the manga audience. The young creator chosen to do this work was Tatsuo Yoshida, who became a storied figure in the world of manga and anime.

Tatsuo Yoshida worked on Superman long enough to fill 14 hardcover volumes with his adaptations of American stories. But his more famous works lay in his future. In 1962, along with his two younger brothers Kenji and Toyoharu (who usually worked under the pen name Ippei Kuri) he founded the animation studio Tatsunoko Productions. In 1966, they would create a racing series, Mach Go Go Go, which would be translated and air in the United States as Speed Racer. In the early 1970s, they innovated Science Ninja Team Gatchaman, which became a worldwide hit, and was broadcast in America as Battle of the Planets. Yoshida died in 1977, but Tatsunoko has continued on as a force in anime to this day.

Yoshida followed the storyline of the original comics he was adapting very closely, including the look of all of the principle characters. At the time, Wayne Boring was the dominant Superman artist, and so Yoshida took his cues from Boring;s work. That said, as you’ll see, Yoshida also expanded on the events of the story as necessary to transliterate it into the style favored by Japanese readers. This particular story is from SUPERMAN Vol. 14, published in 1960, and adapts “The Super Key to Fort Superman” from ACTION COMICS #241, which was written by Jerry Coleman and illustrated by Wayne Boring. Curt Swan did the ACTION COMICS cover, which Yoshida closely adapts here for the first page.

This is a good illustration of what Yoshida does throughout this story. As you can see above, the first story page from ACTION COMICS is exploded out into three pages of content in the manga iteration. As much as he can, Yoshida bases his master images on what Boring has done, filling in the gaps with panels inspired by images from other Superman stories or simply from his own imagination.

Oh, I should probably mention for the uninitiated that manga reads from right-to-left, in a reverse of American comics’ left-to-right flow. So Yoshida’s work is a mirror image of Boring’s in terms of its panel layout. This was a strange story to adapt, in that much of the plot (spoilers) turns upon Superman’s friendship with his fellow crime-fighter Batman, with whom he was sharing the pages of WORLD’S FINEST COMICS. But Batman was still largely unknown in Japan at this point, so the whole thing must have been extra mysterious to Japanese audiences.

Unlike American comics, manga was typically published in black and white, and the Superman manga was no exception. For these book collections, the initial sixteen pages were printed in full color, but the rest of the book was in black and white, with different sections being printed on different colored paper to help give it some variety. It doesn’t matter that this transition takes place mid-story like this; Japanese audiences were used to this.

The closing page of this story is situated next to the full color splash page to the next story, which was adapted from “The Reporter of Steel” from ACTION COMICS #257. The volume also adapts a Superboy story from SUPERBOY #53.

The color splash page for “The Super Zoo From Krypton” is very different from its source material, probably for the better.

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