story by Tsugumi Ohba; art by Takeshi Obata; adapted by Hope Donovan
published by Viz; $9.99 US
I praised the previous volume for its range of characters, and looking at the introductory character sheet, I continue to be impressed at the number and diversity of personalities. There are over 20 artists, writers, and editors grouped on these two pages; it’s not a “story so far”, it’s more like a mini comic convention! Many of them even play significant roles in this installment.
As this volume opens, the young creators are facing yet another new milestone: their first graphic novel, with a print run of 100,000 copies. That’s astounding, especially when you compare it to the U.S. market, where a book with a print run of a few tens of thousands can be considered a success, and a book that has 100,000 copies printed gets its own press release. (To be fair, their editor does tell them that it’s rare for rookies to get so many books made.) To those familiar with the U.S. market, it’s a reminder that a) Japan is different and b) this is fiction. Although the lessons can still be valuable; remember, we were reminded in the previous book that artists cannot live on their page rate alone, given their costs for studio space and assistants.
It’s also interesting to note, when the editor in the story compliments their cover design, how different the creepy figure staring at the reader is from the cover of this book itself. The Bakuman series is very much a shonen manga in structure, with its young male protagonists having to polish their skills and overcome obstacles to succeed, but by taking as its area of competition manga itself, there’s a post-modern layer of self-referentiality that I find fascinating.
It also provides some cover to the creators. When an editor or other voice of authority in this series gives advice or states a declaration about how the industry works, it can be seductive to believe that it’s the absolute truth. But it might also be specific to a particular situation, relevant only in cultural context, slightly out-of-date (since we’re three years behind the original publication), or even just necessary for dramatic purpose but not actually accurate. As always, you can’t learn everything you need to know about an industry from its fiction; there’s no substitute to doing it yourself.
Of course, that the creators of this series, Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata, are also responsible for the immensely popular Death Note manga does lend an air of influence to the wisdom of Bakuman‘s characters. Death comes closer in this volume, as young artist Mashiro pushes so hard that he risks his own health.
Fans will recognize in that dramatic plot twist another common element of the manga industry: artists taking time off in order for their health to recover. A weekly manga production schedule is unforgiving and demanding, and from his sickbed Mashiro is still insisting, “You can never take time off from a weekly series!”
I was surprised at how effectively the emotional impact was portrayed. The conflict becomes “should we help Mashiro draw when he’s in the hospital and supposed to be recovering?” The answer, the one given by his editor’s boss and the doctor and Mashiro’s mother (I’d forgotten he had a family, since we rarely see them) is obviously “No!”, but the passion of some of the other characters to keep fighting for their desired manga success is attractive. It even swayed me to understand why they’d consider it, briefly leading me to think “maybe they should” — even though that’s completely impractical and dangerous.
The whole chain of events is somewhat ridiculous in its extremes, but it’s wonderful reading, as various characters from the web of creators visit and share their thoughts. It’s impressive how dramatic Obata can make visiting someone in a hospital bed, through image angles and character expressions. Plus, we get a major development in Mashiro’s relationship with Azuki, his dream angel of a girlfriend. It’s nice to see her have some thoughts, memories, and decisions of her own, since she’s been more of a plot device than a person so far.
Events continue spiraling out of control based solely on the bad luck of Mashiro falling ill, and I found myself caught up in the excitement of “what happens next?” I couldn’t imagine reading this in serialized fashion; there’s too much going on, and the suspense is dreadful to endure. Obata’s work is clear and easy to follow, even with so many characters interacting, and to avoid giving it short shrift, I’ll reread this volume once I know the outcome. That way, I can focus on the images and give them the attention their craft deserves.
Besides, I’ll need something to do while waiting for the next volume. The cliffhanger in this one involves the possibility of the doom that every comic series faces: cancellation. To fight that foe, the young creators ponder how much to listen to fan input, which leads to a scalding lecture from their editor about how fans shouldn’t be allowed to write the manga. To anyone active on the internet, it’s eye-opening and a bit disturbing — but realistic, I’m sure.