A Life Lived in Comics Day 24: Bakuman

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On Monday I read both the conclusion to Bakuman‘s halfway point in volume 10 and the conclusion-conclusion in the latest Shonen Jump Alpha. Since Alpha launched in January with Bakuman chapter 162, just a few weeks behind the Japanese serialization, I’ve had the odd experience of following the same narrative at two different points simultaneously (volume 10 brings us up to chapter 88).

It’s not been an entirely unpleasant experience, since the actual plot points of Bakuman are less important than the smaller-scale twists, meaning that cliffhangers still held tension despite my knowing about later developments, and besides the ending has never been at all in doubt. It was fun to read a weekly series, even only for a few months, knowing that I was doing so not long after the Japanese audience, something that wouldn’t have been plausible before digital comics (of course, I’ll still follow Toriko and One Piece and am curious to see what replaces Bakuman). I suppose it would be better to have the story in order, which will soon be possible thanks to Viz speeding up the book releases now that the series is done, but I can’t honestly say it’s bothered me much. Just reading Bakuman has been so much fun that I haven’t given it much thought.

So, I should back up and explain what I’m talking about. Bakuman is a shonen manga series by Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata following a pair of friends from middle school to young adulthood as they pursue their dream of creating the biggest, most popular manga in Weekly Shonen Jump magazine, the real-life magazine that Bakuman actually ran in. Meta. There are also romantic comedy elements, and while those are cute and enjoyable in a ridiculous way, the manga making is the main attraction for me.

Way back in volume 1, the thing that hooked me was how utterly mercenary the two kids, Mashiro and Takagi, are, with the series mildly subverting the common manga trope of the main characters striving to be the best something. Instead, they seem more interested in being the most successful, which is a variation on best, but still strikes me as a substantively distinct concept. Early on, their editor Mr. Hattori tells them that great manga is created by one of two types—”the genius type who draws what he wants to draw” and “the calculating type who masterminds a hit”—and instantly pegs them as the latter.

Ten volumes in, it’s beginning to look like part of Mashiro and Takagi’s character arc is a movement toward more personal work, and I’m excited to see how that leads into where we find them in the post-162 chapters.

It’s a pretty fascinating series to follow as a comics professional. The entire publishing system is different in Japan, and the role of the editor seems pretty different. Instead of a large slate of short-run publications and standalone ongoings, publishers have a few large magazines aimed at different demographics, and the series they develop run together in those magazines. Imagine if Marvel, DC, Image, DH, etc. each published just a handful of 500-page weekly magazines featuring 20 or so of their major properties and that was the main format they competed in.

Within the magazine, each of the 20 features compete with each other and are subjected to weekly reader polls, with the top serials getting the best treatment and the bottom few in danger of cancellation. This means that editors within the same magazine are competing with each other as well. In the exclamatory fashion of shonen, the editors are just as likely to shout about how they won’t lose to each other as are the mangaka (manga artists). Where other series might have fights or detailed explanations of the maneuvering of players going into battle, Bakuman instead dramatizes frequent white-knuckle waits for reader poll results to come in.

There’s also a huge emphasis in Bakuman on the cultivation of talent, with artists staying under contract even when they don’t currently have a series, under the assumption that with the guidance of their editor they will develop a new one. Of course, I have no idea how accurate most of this is, but the series depicts frequent story meetings, often taking place at the artists’ homes and studios.

Editor Hattori is treated as one of the heroes of the series, a great judge of talent and a master at leading writers and artists to the personal and creative breakthroughs they need. Younger editor Miura reminds me more of my own position, though I like to think I’m not as inept as he is, misjudging Mashiro and Takagi’s talents and too quick to accept the lesser work they create under his guidance. Still, I find myself rooting for him to get the hang of it, and recent volumes have seen him begin to see the mistakes he’s making and become more ambitious.

I wouldn’t want to see American comics subject to quite so harshly Darwinian process as the reader polls, though obviously sales are a kind of reader poll, but part of me does admire just how focused on delivering it makes the comics that survive. That particular obsession with making comics actually entertaining and not just rewarding for their clubbiness is something I wouldn’t mind seeing more of in the mainstream market. Western superhero comics are constantly repeating the old line of, “Don’t worry, it’ll be better next time,” taking for granted that readers are already hooked and will forgive a dull month or three, while shonen is deeply aware that any loss of interest could be the end and so focuses on hitting pleasure receptors this time. The best shonen manga is essentially crack, hitting readers with as much incident as they can fit into 20 pages, with reliable, addictive cliffhangers at the end of each one. The supreme example is probably currently Naoki Urasawa’s 20th Century Boys.

Bakuman is not only an excellent example (as was Ohba and Obata’s previous collaboration, Death Note), but it’s doubly thrilling in that it simultaneously dramatizes the process of creating exactly the addictive narrative that it is itself. While I don’t know how much I’d be into the new series the protagonists develop in volume 10, watching them develop it is intoxicating, and without spoiling the series’ ending, it’s great fun to watch them debating the question of whether and how to end a serial even as their own story is wrapping up. For all the series’ silliness and problematic sexual politics, it’s hard not to love, and especially difficult for someone who does something similar for a living not to relate to.

I’ve been reading a lot more manga since I’ve worked at Dark Horse. Some of that is the free availability of DH’s manga in the editorial library and now through our app, and some is certainly just the fact that my taste has been expanding at a steady rate for years and I was bound to start getting a lot more manga in my diet eventually. But I also think that a big part of it is that, while it is still reading comics, it’s different enough from the type of material that I work on (and I love noticing all the ways it’s different, from the different visual cues to the pacing to the way balloon placement is completely different) that it doesn’t contribute to burnout the way that going home and reading a bunch of Western comics might. I still get my comics fix without it just feeling like more of the same thing I’m looking at all day.

Manga series I’m currently reading include 20th Century BoysBakumanGantz, Gate 7, The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service Saturn ApartmentsToriko, Yotsuba@!—my beloved Twin Spica has come to an end. And I know there are way more I should be reading. Suggestions welcome.

This is the last week of this monthlong project, so I’ll have to get around to my visit a few years back to the Osamu Tezuka Manga Museum soon.

Next:  More MIND MGMT logrolling.

Why’m I doing this again?

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