story by Tsugumi Ohba; art by Takeshi Obata
published by Viz; $9.99 US
Wow, the problem with a monthly manga series is that you get a little behind, and suddenly you have a bunch of volumes to catch up on. What am I saying? I meant “dive into”. When there’s a soap opera as addictive as this story of young manga creators struggling to become successful, spending more time with them is just more of an escape. Plus, given the sprawling cast, reading more books at once means it’s easier to keep up with all the artists and assistants.
As book 14 opens, the manga creative team of Akito and Moritaka are judging a submission for a Shonen Jump contest. “Listening” to them talk about what they like and don’t in the manga, and the characteristics they think a good series should have, provides the insight that makes Bakuman such an enjoyable read. Especially since they’re educating through contrast.
Those little tidbits about how the Japanese manga market works are my favorite part, shedding nuggets of wisdom about creating comics to entertain readers, match the market, and drive sales. It’s a business-oriented view that provides a refreshing contrast to the art-centered take in American stories about making comics. (I’m not saying it’s better — the state of American superhero comics shows that a drive for money over creativity can be detrimental — but it’s a different viewpoint that I find thought-provoking.)
The submission creator becomes a new character, Tohru (that’s him on the cover), who’s being groomed for a Jump series. I can’t believe the creators are introducing still more artists at this point, given how many they have already, but because Tohru started as a fan of Akito and Moritaka, at least he provides a new take as another generation. He’s also extraordinarily enthusiastic. His youth means he’s making mistakes, including blathering on the internet, although since everything amazingly seems to work out for him, perhaps his errors aren’t quite as unintentional as they seem.
The debates continue, discussing how much a professional should rely on an editor and how much input a creator should take from readers. In today’s connected age, these are relevant questions that don’t have easy answers, although the obnoxious attitudes Tohru demonstrates shade the questions by quickly making him unlikable. I suspect portraying the arrogance of the young is intended to show the virtue of speaking from experience.
For comic relief, there’s Hiramaru, the depressive artist with a crush on Miss Aoki. The ups and downs of his feelings for her make for nice bits of lightness amongst all the drama and competitiveness.
Book 15 completes the Tohru arc, as events spiral into crazed extremes before reestablishing the way things are supposed to work. People are willing to take desperate steps for success when they feel they have nothing left to lose; it’s coming back from the brink that’s hard. There’s also the idea that we’re in part defined by our competition, that our rivals are important in motivating us.
This volume also has the New Year’s party (although by now in the story it’s 2016), an excuse to get all the creators together and catch up with how they’re doing. It’s fun to see the rich cast, but things later turn disturbing when a couple of artists decide to fight over one of the female creators. It’s another example of how the women in this series are seen as prizes, unfortunately, although it’s also realistic, in how some men who can’t succeed in dating blame the objects of their crushes for their own failures.
The next major storyline has the guys questioning their stories after a copycat crime takes place. Akito begins struggling with the writing, having difficulty coming up with ideas as he tries to balance good stories with being responsible for influencing their young readers. It’s a reminder that what makes an artist a professional is delivering on time, and how to handle that when ideas are deserting you. The ending is abbreviated in order to start a new challenge in the next volume.
Book 16 reminds us of the original rivalry, between our pair of creators and Nizuma, the manga genius. He’s stepped up his game to consistently gain first place in the reader surveys, which leads to the other groups of artists taking the challenge to attempt to outrank him.
Nizuma is a wonderful character, dementedly odd, with such great observations as, “Do you seriously think people who have put their storyboards and final drafts aside to come here can actually beat me?” They’re all worried about how he’s doing, but even during the group conversation, he’s still working — and pointing that out to his friendly competition. He’s the one with the most natural talent and the potential to go furthest, but he raises them up higher as well. Ultimately, they all realize that rivals are an inspiration and a way to practice a lonely art without being alone. They have partners, some of them, or assistants, but now, they also have peers.
Late in this volume, another new creator appears — only he’s a fifty-year-old man, which raises questions about how young artists should be to create for young readers, whether an older person will take editorial direction, and whether someone can be too old to fit into the magazine. Azuma has brought the editors a project called “Panty Flash Fight”, in which two girls face off and the first one to show her panties loses. It’s immediately praised for its cosplay and franchise potential. The only woman in this chapter, Kaya, calls it “lame” and its fans “perverts”, which nicely matches my reaction, but everyone else is more interested in how successful it is.