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Back in 2007 Marvel Comics launched a bi-monthly series entitled Spider-Man Family. It was an anthology featuring original stories, reprints of older comics, and most importantly, the American debut of Spider-Man J! Created by Yamanaka Akira, and originally published in 2004 in Japan, Spider-Man J features the exploits of a young Japanese Spider-Man as he does battle with the animal themed forces of the mysterious Lord Beastius!
I found this series completely by surprise while browsing the bargain priced books on Amazon. At first I thought it was a collection of Ryoichi Ikegami’s Spider-Man: The Manga series, but upon further investigation I discovered that it was something else entirely! Originally published in Comic BomBom, a kodomo (children) magazine, the series presents a simple and straightforward superhero tale without any complex subplots and with virtually no out of costume content. It focuses heavily on the exploits of Spider-Man J, a young boy named Peter Parker, defends Tokyo from various villains, most of whom are armored animal themed minions of Lord Beastius. It really sticks to a monster of the week format which, combined with the armored animal themed villains, gives it a feel reminiscent of the popular Japanese tokusatsu superhero shows like the Super Sentai (Power Ranger) series or the Kamen Rider series. More often than not defeating the villains requires more than just brute strength, and as a result we’re often treated to Spidey using his abilities in a variety of ways as he attempts to out think and out strategize his opponents. Accompanying him along the way are a few supporting characters who seem to mirror the cast of the original Spider-Man. There’s his aunt May, a young Jane-Marie who seems to have a crush on our webslinging hero, and the chubby Harold Osborne. For the most these characters are simply friends in peril, plot devices used to add some immediate weight to Spidey’s battles and add complications to them, or even as cheerleaders encouraging him in times of need. About the only supporting character who breaks this mold is sidekick, Detective Flynn. That’s not a nickname either, the twelve year old Spider-Man J does indeed have a police officer for a sidekick. If this wasn’t enough, various other Marvel characters do pop up from time to time, including the Fantastic Four and Elektra.
Visually the book is fairly solid. Yamanaka Akira does a surprisingly good job with the action sequences, making each one unique and interesting and presenting a situation which gives Spider-Man J an opportunity to think up new uses for his powers. These range from traditional Spidey innovations like web balls/shurikens, to things like hot air balloons and a buzzsaw like wheel blade used in conjunction with some kicks. The armored villains, as mentioned above, look like they’d be right at home alongside various other Japanese superhero opponents, leaning away from spandex and closer to the armored forms of many Super Sentai or Kamen Rider villains. Spidey himself sticks to the traditional red and blue web themed tights, but with a few modifications. First off he’s got a lil’ J embedded within the spider design on his chest, and secondly… he has eyes. Little eyeballs in his more traditional big ol’ white Spidey eyes. The result is a younger looking Spider-Man who’s rather adorable! Something else worth noting about the visuals, is that unlike most manga from 2007, Spider-Man J is flipped. This generally isn’t a problem, but from time to time English text in the background and on storefronts goes un-retouched, resulting in backwards words, signs and the like. At one point even the J on Spidey’s back is facing the wrong direction. It’s not much, but hardcore purists might be turned off by the flipping and the way it could affect some of the visuals. Another odd visual point is that the sound effects remain untranslated. I can understand not wanting to remove them and then insert the English equivalents, but I kind of wish they had at least included little english translations of the sound effects alongside the original Japanese. Again, not a major issue but something that’s hard not to notice.
While the two volumes that make up the Spider-Man J series aren’t exactly an amazing, mind blowing take on the character or concept, the series is undeniably a fun, enjoyable read. The biggest disappointment is that it’s not longer. The story ends with no real climax to Spider-Man J’s battle with Lord Beastius whose identity is never really revealed beyond a close up on a human face and a black, monstrous silhouette. Despite this I definitely enjoyed it and thought it was a fun, unexpected and overlooked gem.
Spider-Man J: Japanese Knights & Japanese Daze is available now from Marvel Comics.
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