Today’s comics publishing landscape is vast enough to encompass everything from the most commercial, Hollywood-ready IP to the most obscure of pet projects and labors of love, and Bubbles proprietor Brian Baynes’ somewhat curious—but undoubtedly heartfelt—decision to issue an English-language collection of Inoue Kazuo’s formative “baseball manga” Bat Kid is definitely the latter. From a purely mercantile (or should that be mercenary?) standpoint, it’s hard to see how something as obscure as this stands a chance at breaking even financially, and one would assume that while Baynes would undoubtedly be very pleased if it were to do so, the odds of him expecting that it will are as slim as the book’s chances of doing so. Still, no matter - this appears to be a book propelled forward at every stage from conceptualization to realization by the power of the publisher’s sheer belief in it, and only the most hardened cynic wouldn’t find that a damned admirable thing.
Baynes’ latest issue of Bubbles, number twelve, likewise has a baseball theme, so it’s clear he’s riding something of a creative high merging two of his major passions in life, but who are we kidding? It’s not him we’re here to talk about, nor the work of translator/historian/essayist/all-around renaissance man Ryan Holmberg, who once again spoils us with both his exemplary attention to detail vis-à-vis Inoue’s work and the encyclopedic knowledge he brings to this volume’s immersive supplemental material. I mention all this, then, not so much for its value as preamble as I do its value as vital context - when a project this well and truly out of left field (pun only slightly intended) comes to fruition, it’s of at least marginal use to know the how and the why behind it, which is to say: love this comic, loathe it, or somewhere in between, you’ll be thoroughly impressed by the care that went into it.
It is, however, the care Inoue put into this strip, which ran in in the pages of the groundbreaking Manga Shōnen from 1947-49, that stands out the most - created under undoubtedly trying conditions during the Allied forces’ occupation of Japan post-WWII, what’s presented here is by no means a comprehensive collection, but there’s more than enough to give one a firm sense of the character it was imbued with, as well as an understanding of why it spun off so many imitators later, and why its legacy continues on to this day. By no means a complex work either literally or visually, there is nevertheless a kind of effortless charm to the exploits of our titular Bat Kid, Nagai Batto (literally “Long Bat”), his friends/teammates, and his gruff-but-lovable coach that makes these stories eminently readable even for those who could care less either way about the game of baseball in general, much less its Japanese variation.
That being said, minus the contextualization this volume almost literally overflows with, there’s not a tremendous amount within the strips themselves (as well as the selection of puzzle and activity pages that accompany them) that will necessarily burn itself into your memory in some appreciable way; designed to be a pleasant diversion and to teach kids a little about the game they’re centered on along the way, that’s precisely what they are and do - and while those well-versed in the minutiae of cartooning as an art from will take a fair amount of joy from the grace and inherently demonstrative quality of Inoue's line, as well as his classically literate figure work, the exigencies of tight deadline work also make their presence felt: backgrounds are sparse to non-existent, while shortcuts to imply (rather than show) motion and action abound. For readers such as myself who love seeing the ways in which an artist has to conform their work to fit the circumstances of its publication, this all adds up to fertile ground for hours of flight-of-fancy analysis and speculation, but fans reared on contemporary manga could certainly be forgiven for finding it all a bit crude and simplistic, even if it’s actually quite sophisticated in terms of its visual literacy.
So, where does that leave us? Honestly, right about where you’d expect to be going in - readers with a keen interest in manga history will be happy, readers with a keen interest in baseball stories will be happy, readers with a keen interest in baseball and manga history will be over the moon, and readers with little to no interest in either will find this to be a lovingly-packaged but ultimately disposable volume. The stories presented herein were all gleaned from one pocket-sized collection published in Japan many years after the strip folded due to Inoue's tragic early death, so whether or not they truly represent the “best” of Bat Kid, or simply what was most readily available, I guess we’ll never know, but there isn’t a whole lot to suggest monumental qualitative differences from one to the next regardless - Inoue had a particular job to do and, to his enduring credit, he seems to have doe it particularly well, and while I don’t hold out consistency as necessarily a “top-tier” artistic value, let’s be honest: if that’s what you need to do, it’s better to do it consistently well.
And yet, the aforementioned care that went into this strip on Inoue's part can’t simply be reduced to rote cartooning professionalism. His own sense of childlike enthusiasm—both for the game of baseball itself and, more crucially, for his tight ensemble of characters—shines through in the energy and vitality he brings to his illustration as well and in the gentle comedic touches he peppers his narratives with, most of which belie an impeccable sense of timing. These are, by and large, touching little tales of boys learning to play a game they love, and finding that they love it even more the more they learn about it - and if Inoue could see the respect and reverence that went into packaging and presenting them in this little collection, I think he’d be touched by that himself.