Author’s note: It was recently announced that manga legend Jiro Kuwata passed away on July 2 at 85 years old and I wanted to share this in his memory. This piece was originally published in Atomic Elbow #25 and is being posted here with permission. Check out the Atomic Elbow here. As a wrestling fan, a superhero fan, and a manga fan, this story is the perfect intersection of my interests. Jiro Kuwata, rest in peace and thanks for the comics.
In 1966, Batmania took America by storm with the smash-hit live-action Batman TV series. Little did we know here in America that the show also gained a hardcore following in Japan as well. Out of this popularity came a Batman manga (Japanese comic) that ran from 1966 to 1967. The series was written and drawn by Jiro Kuwata, who was most well known for providing art to the cyber hero action series, 8 Man. Kuwata was a pioneer when it came to manga featuring superheroes so he was an obvious choice to bring Batman and Robin to Weekly Shonen King.
About halfway through his run, Kuwata presented a story called The Hangman of Terror, which centered around a mystery that was tied directly to professional wrestling. In 1966, the Japanese wrestling industry was still in its relative infancy. Rikidōzan had been dead for a bit over two years and his Japan Pro Wrestling Alliance, the country’s first promotion was only thirteen years old. Antonio Inoki was still six years off from starting New Japan and, at the time, he was being pushed as the top star of the soon to close Tokyo Pro Wrestling. It was a time when wrestling was still real and the industry as we know it was a long while off.
Before I get into the details of this story, I should note that you can read it for yourself in the second volume of DC’s recent Batmanga release. Finer comic shops across the world should carry the book or, at the very least, be able to order it for you.
Our tale begins where all good stories do; a Japanese wrestling event. Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson are using some of their free time to attend a show main evented by Apache Arrow taking on the hated Hangman. While the Hangman is a dominant force in the ring, he fights dirty and the fans want to see him get taken down. The ring announcer says that if Apache Arrow wins the match, he will rip off the Hangman’s hood, which causes the fans to go wild. Based on the timeframe in which this story was released, my best guess is that Apache Arrow was based on Billy Red Cloud, a wrestler with a Native American gimmick that won the All Asia Tag Championships in 1965 with the Destroyer. At the very latest, this story was released in 1967 and even then, it would have been very unusual to see a non-Japanese wrestler in the babyface position as Apache Arrow is here. It shows that Kuwata meant for this Gotham to be the same American Gotham we know from the show and not a new Japanese Gotham.
Apache Arrow starts off the match strongly, but it doesn’t take long for the Hangman to turn things in his favor.
Hangman shows off the devious actions that he’s known for, pulling Arrow’s hair and hitting him with closed fist punches. Once Apache Arrow has been sufficiently worn down, Hangman lifts him into the air for his finishing move, the aptly named Hanging. Hangman holds Arrow up as though he is going for a Razor’s Edge, but clutches him by the throat instead, before slamming him down headfirst into the mat. The match comes to a close as the Hangman scores the pin. As the referee raises Hangman’s hand in victory, a fan yells out “Why don’t ya go hang yourself?!” which seems a little harsh to me. The other fan that calls Hangman a jerk seems like a more sensible person.
Following the match, Dick floats the idea that he and Bruce should dig into who the Hangman really is, which is a wildly irresponsible use of their detective abilities. Instead of reprimanding Dick for his unethical idea, Bruce just says that they can’t slack off of their real duties to satisfy their own curiosities. The pair change into their Batman and Robin costumes and begin their nightly patrol of the city. As they drive down the road, a girl jumps into the street to get their attention. Batman attempts to tell her the dangers of foolish behavior, but she cuts him off, telling the dynamic duo to go to Pearl Jewelers and stop her brother from committing a crime. Batman asks for some clarification on the situation, but the girls say that there’s no time.
When Batman and Robin arrive at the jewelry store they find the burglar alarm going off and the Hangman jumping out of a window. As the crime fighters give chase, the Hangman runs up a fire escape to the top of a building where he is cut off by… the Hangman? This second Hangman lifts the first Hangman over his head and tosses him from the top of the building to the ground below. It’s clear that the Hangman was very influential to American deathmatch legend, Zandig. The not dead Hangman excitedly points out that the man impersonating him to commit crimes is dead and tells Batman to deal with the corpse. Batman tried to get Hangman to hold up and explain what’s happening, but the Hangman say “WAHAHAHAHA! All I did was take out a murdering burglar! Ta-ta!” I enjoy a good ta-ta as much as the next guy, but this doesn’t seem like the time or the place.
Batman and Robin go up to the roof, but the living Hangman is gone. They look down on the street below and see the girl from earlier, crying at the side of the dead Hangman. When they climb down to ask her what the hell is going on, she has disappeared. Trying to make sense out of any of this, Batman unmasks the dead Hangman to find that he is Tiger Kid (this story predates Tiger Mask, so he’s not a rip off), a wrestler that recently retired after hitting his head very hard in a match. That little detail sounds oddly ahead of its time.
In the middle of all this mess, the Hangman became a hero as the stories hit the newspaper. It would be easy to accept Hangman as a hero for stopping a criminal that dressed like him and killed two security guards, but Batman rightly notes that something isn’t adding up. How did Hangman know that his imposter was going up to that roof? Why did that girl tell the costumed crimefighters that her brother was going to commit a robbery when Tiger Kid doesn’t have a sister? This seems like a mystery that only Batman and Robin can solve. The two split up, with Batman trying to dig up more info on Hangman and Robin trying to track down that girl.
Batman goes to Hangman’s next match where he is now treated as a hero. I wonder if the guy that wanted Hangman to hang himself has changed his tune. In his match, Hangman easily defeats a man named Mammoth Red, which just so happens to be my favorite flavor of dollar store gum. Following the match, Hangman drives home with the top down and his mask on. Batman follows from a safe distance in the Batmobile until Hangman blocks the road. Both men step out of their cars to have a little chat. When the Hangman questions why Batman is following him, Batman rudely asks Hangman to take off his mask. Hangman rightfully declines, saying that he won’t take off his mask unless he is beaten in a match. Not looking for a match, Batman begins to question Hangman about the robbery, to which Hangman responds by saying that Batman is just jealous that he is the newly minted hero of Gotham. Hangman gets all fired up and says that if Batman wants his mask, he’ll have to take it. This kicks off a brawl on the side of the road. Batman defends himself, popping Hangman in the mush, to which Hangman responds by saying “Now you did it. Do you think you can beat a pro wrestler?!”
Hangman picks up Batman by his ankles and slams him into a light post. “Now do you understand how strong a pro wrestler is?” Hangman says to the woozy Batman before knocking him out with a double axehandle to the side of the head. If it’s any indication how legitimately tough wrestlers were viewed in this era, one of them just beat the tar out of Batman. Hangman reaches to pull off Batman’s mask, but he gets spooked and runs off when he sees Robin coming to the rescue on his motorcycle. Robin gets Batman home to rest after his first encounter with a wrestler and then heads out to continue searching for the mystery girl.
Robin finds the girl at the very last second as she jumps off a bridge into a watery grave below. Luckily Robin got to her in time and saved her from drowning. At the hospital, Robin gets confirmation from a doctor that the girl will be okay and phones Batman to update him on the situation. When he heads back to the hospital room to get some answers, the girl has once again disappeared. Batman should really consider taking her under his wing with the way she has been able to evade these two. She sneaks off to her home, which Robin tracks down and he’s finally able to get some answers. The girl, Cathy, doesn’t give up much to Robin, but once a large man comes through the door with scars all over his face, things start to make sense. Cathy calls the man her brother and begs him to not kill Robin. A fight breaks out and Robin can’t overcome the brother’s super strength, a strength so great that he might be a pro wrestler. The brother knocks out Robin and then discovers that Cathy once again disappeared.
Needing to get rid of the boy wonder, the brother ties up Robin in the backseat of a car and then pushes the car into a body of water. Luckily Batman finds Robin in the car and saves him from drowning, thanks to a phone call to the hospital from Cathy. Using the scarring that Robin described, Batman makes a profile of who the Hangman is to discover his identity. Three years earlier, a wrestler called Ultragun (what a tremendous name) was involved in a terrible plane crash and his body was never recovered. All these clues give Batman an idea and we speed off to our thrilling conclusion.
The Hangman handily defeats an unnamed wrestler and is then challenged to a mask versus mask match by Batman. It’s worth noting that Batman might actually be one of the very first manga protagonists to step into a wrestling ring. The Tiger Mask manga was still over a year off at this point, making Kuwata a manga pioneer once again. The bell rings and the two men exchange bombs, hitting blow after blow. Hangman rocks Batman just as he did in their last encounter and then finishes the job with the Hanging. With Batman down for the count, Hangman pulls the hero’s mask off and gets a shock when he sees the scarred face of the brother that tried to kill Robin looking back at him. “Wha… That’s my face!” the Hangman exclaims as he backs away in terror. Batman stops playing possum, taking the opportunity to strike back at Hangman with two hard punches, knocking him out.
Batman pulls off Hangman’s mask, revealing the scarred face of Ultragun, confirming his suspicions. Hangman/Ultragun wakes up and sees that Robin is alive and well. Ultragun takes off running with Batman and Robin in hot pursuit. The dynamic duo manages to corner the wrestler, who begins to spill his guts. Ultragun tells them the whole story about how he got his scars and became the Hangman to hide his face. The crowds hated his new masked persona and all he wanted was their respect. This is where things take an evil turn. “So I tricked former pro wrestler Tiger Kid, who had mush for brains,” Ultragun explains, pointing out that he took advantage of a wrestler with brain damage to look like a hero and then killed him. Ultragun wasn’t trying to rob that jewelry store, he was trying to make himself look like a hero and usurp Batman’s spot in Gotham.
Once Ultragun finishes his story, Batman tells him that it’s time to go to the police. Ultragun declines the invitation and instead elects to jump off the roof to his doom. Cathy reappears to run to her dying brother’s side. He asks for her forgiveness and take his last breath. The story ends with Batman and Robin looking on from a distance as Cathy cries into her dead brother’s chest. There is no happy ending to this story and no real justice delivered either. Batman cracked the case, but there isn’t any other positive outcome. Several people are dead and Cathy watched as her brother took his own life. This is a textbook definition of a tragedy when it comes to storytelling.
For the most part, these Batmanga stories are fun and have happy endings, making this one stand out. Kuwata was a man that once spent time in prison for owning a gun, which he had planned to use to kill himself, so he was no stranger to darkness himself. The suicide and attempted suicide in this story are given a little more weight knowing that Kuwata battled with suicidal feelings himself. Maybe he saw the professional wrestler as a tragic figure that he could relate to. Like all artists, wrestlers, no matter how good, are beholden to the whims of the fans. I’m likely reading too much into this because, at the time, wrestlers were viewed more as athletes than entertainers or artists so it is a leap to say that Kuwata would make this personal connection. At the end of the day, we’ll never know why this oddly revolutionary story was given such a tragic ending, but I would like to believe that Kuwata truly saw the storytelling possibilities that pro wrestling offered, long before anyone else did.