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Lord Death Man

Batman (Classic TV Series)
by yo go re

This may be the most unexpected villain for Batman '66 ever!

Lord Death Man was a mysterious crime boss who could return from the dead. In one gruesome incident, he came back to life mid-autopsy. Lord Death Man also had superhuman strength and stamina, which he used to battle Batman, The Outsiders, and Talon. Ra's al Ghul even sought to siphon the regenerative fluids from Lord Death Man's body.

Well that's not right at all. Or, it is, but only for the regular continuity, not the Dozierverse (aka Earth-66). The solicitation for Batman '66 #21, the only issue where he physically appeared, is more succinct, saying "With Robin under the weather, Batman takes Batgirl with him to Japan as they meet Lord Death Man!", but that doesn't tell us anything about the man himself. In that story, he seemed kind of like a Japanese version of Scarecrow, using chemicals and psychological tricks to lead his targets to their death, but that's much different from the original.

In Batman #180 (cover-dated May 1966), we're introduced to Death-Man, a villain who dresses like a Halloween skeleton and is swiftly captured. In a classic case of "you can't fire me, I quit," he drops dead while the judge is reading his sentence. He confounds Batman by later coming back. Since it was a full-body costume and mask, you might assume it was just someone else wearing the disguise, but apparently that solution was too easy for writer Robert Kanigher, who instead revealed (by way of Bruce Wayne attending a party where the entertainment was a boring, David-Blaine-style magic trick) that Death-Man was just really good at yoga and so could choose to stop his heartbeat. The story ends with him struck by lightning and then promptly never appearing again.

But notice the date: 1966. This was one of the first comics published after the Batman TV show premiered. The show was a worldwide hit, and Batmania struck Japan particularly hard. The magazine Shonen King licensed the rights to make their own Batman comic, with artist Jiro Kuwata basically just adapting recent American comics - beginning with an adaptation of Batman #180, which was probably the newest issue available when he got the assignment. The plot is nearly identical, but doing a three-part serial in Shonen King meant there was a bit more room for the story to be told, and frankly Japan's version is better than America's. These comics were nearly unknown in the West, more obscure even than Toei's Spider-Man, until the publication of Chip Kidd's Bat-Manga!: The Secret History of Batman in Japan, a book that featured photographs of memorabilia and translations of the comics. That book re-introduced "Lord Death Man" to American audiences, which is why the character got his second-ever appearance just over a year later... as a forgettable Crossbones-lite "Army of Two" soldier guy. And then 10 months after that Grant Morrison really brought him back in the pages of Batman Incorporated.

While the modern Lord Death Man seems to have an actual skull for a head, the classic one was just wearing a bag over his head. Jiro Kuwata draew a much creepier version of the hood than Sheldon Moldoff did, however, so Batman '66 artist Sandy Jarrell sort of split the difference between the two - the head has a skeletal shape to it, rather than just having a pattern printed on close-fitting cloth, but it's still stylized enough that we can tell this is a design, not anatomy.

Death-Man was a skinny fellow, something that was apparent even under his Halloween costume, and putting him into the Earth-66 continuity wasn't going to suddenly give him a current-day superhero physique. It wouldn't be right! This is a very plain body, with all the bones simply painted on. Even the belt buckle is just paint. You know why? Because below the neck, this is McFarlane's Riddler body, just done in black instead of green. We can't complain about a choice that makes so much sense! We will note, however, that the '66 comic design gave him bones on his fingers, not just plain gloves, so this toy's paint is incomplete.

Although it's a common part of the design today, the original Death-Man didn't wear a cape - that was a feature invented for the manga, possibly because it made him look more like Skull from Cyborg 009 (similar to how Toei wanted to do Moon Knight because he looked like an existing character). The cape is removable, held on by the kind of C-clip used on old Super Powers figures, giving it a nicely vintage feel. It's softgoods, so it won't block the figure's articulation. Not that there's much to block. Lord Death Man moves at the neck, shoulders, elbows, wrists, waist, hips, and knees, the standard stuff for this line.

The figure includes an accessory, and it's not those goofy snap-on sound effects! It's a simple katana, which isn't something he used in the comic. Since he only ever appeared in a single Silver Age comic, Death-Man didn't have time to develop any kind of personality (though it's implied he learned his death-faking technique in South Asia). Although the manga was expanded, it didn't do anything with him, either. When Grant Morrison reinvented the character, he was active in Japan, but seemed more like a weeb than anything else, speaking about the country and culture from an outsider's perspective. Batman '66, however, treats him as though he's a native Japanese creation, with Batgirl commenting that she's glad he's speaking English since her Japanese is rusty. But none of that means anyone other than his army of ninja goons ever used swords. Lord Death Man had some gas bombs, and Batgirl's cowl, but that's it.

McFarlane's Batman '66 Lord Death Man gets a "Platinum Edition" variant, which could have been something really in-demand, but is instead just a curiosity: it's a glow-in-the-dark figure, with all his bones and even his sword being phosphorescent, but Todd chose to make them green instead of white. If they were normal and glowed in the dark, it certainly would have been worth hunting down that version instead of the standard release, but as it is, you're fine just getting the normal one.

"Lord Death Man," as a name, is a result of poor translation. The character's name in the manga was 死神男, or "Shinigami Otoko." As you and I know from watching Death Note, a shinigami is indeed a "death god," but without the context that the word "god" has in English - a better transliteration would be "spirit of death." So Japanese readers would have seen "Shinigami Otoko" and parsed it as something along the lines of "Grim Reaper Man," but when Anne Ishii did the translation, she kept it very literal, while also softening "god" to "lord." Thus "Death-Man" became "Shinigami Otoko" and "Shinigami Otoko" became "Lord Death Man," and when Grant Morrison brought the character back, the mis-translated name came with him. And it's stuck. So now Lord Death Man is his official name. Even when the Japanese story was adapted to animation in Brave and the Bold.

A guy who can feign death would not work as a character today; even sophisticated audiences in the '60s would be unlikely to know as much about forensic procedures as even casual fans do now. Consider his entire plan: get caught, go to trial, die, get buried, get dug up by his henchmen and do it all again. It seems fine until you give it even a fleeting thought. If somebody drops dead in the middle of the courtroom, there would absolutely be an autopsy - you can bet the first cut of the medical examiner's scalpel would have woken him up very quickly! And even if that were somehow skipped, not even unclaimed bodies are simply chucked in a box and dropped in the ground; I don't care how good at yoga you are, you're not going to secretly survive the embalming process. So upgrading him to a man who literally cannot die (or, at least, can die, but can't be kept dead) makes a lot of sense. Lord Death Man has never had a toy before this, so even if this isn't the best we'd want for him, it's a grand first effort.

-- 04/10/24

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