Exploring Ethnicity, History, & Tension With KATO

Exploring Ethnicity, History, & Tension

From creator-owned work to The Batman Strikes!, it’s fair to say that Jai Nitz can write, and has written, a bit of everything.  This May, he helms Kato: Way of the Ninja, a new book from Dynamite that covers a particular case for the original Kato during the heavy days of World War II.  We caught up with Nitz to get into Kato’s background and why he succeeds solo.

Newsarama: There’s been some discussion lately about the nature of Kato’s actual ethnic identity.  Can you speak to that with some definition, addressing perhaps the history of how Kato’s origin was changed circa the radio show?

Jai Nitz: Kato's ethnic identity is convoluted at best.  The first actor to play Kato on the Green Hornet radio program was a Japanese actor named Raymond Hayashi, and Kato was explicitly referred to as "Japanese".  Then Kato was ambiguously changed to Filipino as American/Japanese relations deteriorated in the face of World War II (remember, Pearl Harbor wasn't the first blow struck in the escalation to WWII, it was the last).  Then after Pearl Harbor Kato was explicitly Filipino (and you have to remember the closeness of the Philippines and the US at the time to understand why).  Whew.  All that said, Matt Wagner sets Kato as a Japanese soldier that becomes disillusioned with how the Japanese conduct themselves during the war with mainland China.  But, like the real-life radio dilemma, Kato hides his identity, in our story as Korean, when he and Britt return to the States due to the tensions with Japan.

Nrama: That established, how important is Kato’s culture and heritage to this story?

Nitz:  Kato's Japanese heritage, and the fact that he's hiding out as Korean, are central to my story.  My story takes place in 1942, after Pearl Harbor, and after the US set up internment camps for the Japanese.  So there is a lot at stake for Kato if he's found out.  Also, the story ties directly into Kato being "hidden in plain sight" and how that concept reflects the nature of racism in America in the 1940s.

Nrama: It’s been stated by other writers that Kato was never the sidekick; he was the partner.  That being said, he’s not the title character.  How do you take the second lead and elevate him into the main protagonist?

Nitz:  I thought it was really easy to elevate Kato thanks to Matt Wagner's story foundation.  Matt really sets up Kato as a partner rather than a second banana.  In comic book terms, Green Hornet and Kato are more like Power Man and Iron Fist than they are Batman and Robin.  They are partners, and my story has a Kato-centric situation that makes it best for Kato to deal with it alone.  Also, who doesn't want to see a well-done martial arts action comic?

Nrama: Why invoke the ninja tradition in particular?

Nitz:  Matt Wagner covers this specifically in his Green Hornet: Year One story.  I've seen the "behind the scenes" on his story, so I knew where I wanted my Kato story to jump off.  I wanted to have ninjas and spies and set them as saboteurs in WWII America.  Matt made it easy for me to tell a story that grabs the reader.

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Nrama: Dynamite is also putting out a book that deals with Kevin Smith’s female Kato and her relationship with her father.  What’s the degree of coordination there, and will we see how the event of THIS young Kato’s life influence the way that he fights?  Parents?  Makes decisions that have repercussions in the “later” books?

Nitz:  There's no formal coordination between books.  BUT... (big but), that book is written by Ande Parks.  Ande is one of my oldest friends and collaborators in comics, so I know what he's doing because we talk all the time.  In fact, we only live about 25 minutes away from each other, so we get together all the time.  He and I have talked about what we're doing and how we're doing it.  He's telling a father/daughter tale because he has a daughter and it's something that resonates with him; I think it's going to really ring true to readers too.  My story is about duty/betrayal and racism.  We're both telling stories that hit home for us, and I think that shows through on the final product.

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Nrama:  How did you become involved with the project, and what drew you to Kato in particular?

Nitz:  I got involved because of hard work and the good graces of Nick Barrucci and Joe Rybandt.  I wrote a Project Superpowers mini-series for Dynamite and they really liked what I did with it.  So when other projects came up they asked me to pitch.  Kato was one of the projects that came up.  It didn't hurt that I talked to Matt Wagner about his take for Green Hornet at the Dynamite panel in Chicago last year.  The hard work I put in researching the Project Superpowers mini showed up on the page, and it showed them that I could handle a period piece like Kato: Origins.  Everything fell into place neatly.

Nrama: The artist on the project is Colton Worley; in what ways is he shaping the project?

Nitz:  Holy moley.  Colton Worley is AMAZING.  I've seen the first issue of Kato and it blew my mind.  He's bringing a depth to the work of a twenty-year vet.  He's making each page his own by drawing exactly what I asked for and bringing something extra to the table.  He's a writer's dream.  His pages seem effortless.  Now I'm going back and reviewing my scripts to make sure I'm challenging him.  He's like an elite-level athlete; he makes the difficult look simple.

Nrama: Continuity-wise, where does this fit alongside “Green Hornet Year One”?  Have you had any had discussions with Matt Wagner about his take there?

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Nitz: Kato Origins: Way of the Ninja is a companion book to Green Hornet: Year One.  My book is set a few years after Year One, but it's easily recognizable as the same universe.  Matt is laying the foundation and crafting a beautiful story.  I'm trying to keep up with him the best I can.  I have nothing but a deep admiration for Matt's storytelling prowess and instincts.  Getting to carry his luggage would be an honor, but getting to tell a story alongside him is humbling.  I haven't spoke with Matt since I landed the gig.  We talked about his Green Hornet in Chicago last year, and he inspired me to check out the radio program.  I'm glad I did, because the experience is coming in handy today.  Our ace editor Joe Rybandt is keeping us on the same page without slowing us down.  It takes a keen editor to pull that off.

Nrama: What separates this particular tale from the other Green Hornet books, and why should readers seek this one out?

Nitz:  The first reason anyone should seek out Kato Origins: Way of the Ninja is Colton Worley.  He's gonna be huge.  Second is the universe.  Matt Wagner created such a deep and resonating climate for Green Hornet and Kato that no one could screw it up (even me).  The third reason is Dynamite's commitment to quality comic books.  Then, somewhere below the colorist, letterer, letters column, and the paper quality is me.  I'm dedicated to creating a comic that is worth every hard-earned penny that any comic reader spends on my book.

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