story by Tsugumi Ohba; art by Takeshi Obata; adapted by Tetsuichiro Miyaki
published by Viz; $9.99 US
The hard work of succeeding as manga creators becomes more obvious in this volume. For example, early on, Moritaka decides to copy “at least a hundred pages each of great scenes from ten popular battle manga.” It’s that kind of dedication that points out how the kids see comics as a career. They’re trying to make a successful series, not just write and draw what they want.
It’s so very different from the kinds of stories we see in American comics. There, aspiring comic creators draw for the love of it, or because there’s some story they just had to get out. Here, the kids are analyzing other manga to find out what sells. They’re working hard at building their skills through repetition and struggle and grunt work. They’re picking a subject and characters based on what customers want to read, not the story they want to tell. They’re working with cliches because that’s what’s familiar to their audience, selecting a genre with mainstream appeal instead of creating what they want. It seems rather calculated and heartless, but maybe these are the kinds of considerations that help build a career.
It’s all in how they frame their goal. Their dream isn’t to work on someone’s else’s characters or get a particular idea published — instead, it’s to be successful manga creators. And it’s at that point that I began wishing we knew more about Kaya. Early on, she’s hanging around the two guys, and they’re talking about working towards their goals. She says, “I wish I had a dream of my own.” She doesn’t know what she wants to do, and she doesn’t seem to have any special skills that suggest themselves. She struck me as more typical of their age group, but we don’t get very far into her head to see how she really feels about it or whether it’s even a problem. (The discussion, which continues with praise of her “big boobs”, suggests that for an attractive girl, it’s not. Her role, after all, is to be eye candy for the mostly male readers.)
In contrast to the commercially oriented Moritaka and Akito, we also see a lot more of Eiji in this book. He’s the manga genius introduced in book two, an otherwise immature 15-year-old who turns out pages so prodigiously it’s scary. He’s selected for a series, but he draws something else because it interested him more. Where the two lead boys have firmly bought into the manga system, working with an editor, Eiji is a classic temperamental artist, unconcerned with what’s he’s told he should be doing. He’s talented enough that he gets away with it, but there are hints that his approach won’t succeed in the long term.
The message seems to be that, whether or not you have natural talent, if you work hard and learn from those more experienced than you and pay attention to what people want, you still have a chance of working in manga. More touching is the background of a new character, Mr. Nakai. He’s mid-thirties and still working as a manga assistant, with no hope of his own series. Like the kids, he started by winning an award, but that was ten years ago, and nothing more ever came of it. He’s something of a cautionary tale, although he’s skilled at his role and provides a mature point of view for the kids.
The art, as is typical of any Obata work, is stunning in its detail but also in how vibrant it is. This is a story about people at desks drawing and writing, and yet it’s visually involving. (It helps that Eiji is so dramatic in his gestures and sound effects while creating.) The detailed settings, crowded offices and studios, help with the sense of realism.
There’s a lot of material for thought in this series, about what it means to be a working commercial artist and how you build a career in comics. Additionally, many specifics about making manga are included, which will interest dedicated fans. Plus, it’s all contained in a gripping story of youngsters working hard to improve and succeed.
I found one panel particularly enlightening, clarifying for me the importance and value of a manga editor. Moritaka and Akito’s editor tells them, “An editor isn’t able to create a story that will definitely sell. If they could, they’d make the manga themselves. The manga artist must always surpass their editor.” I realized that the editor challenges the artist, giving them guidance and then expecting them to move past it. (The publisher provided a review copy.)