From the stack: Bakuman vol. 3

I probably wouldn’t have picked up Bakuman (Viz) on my own. I can’t remember the exact reasons for that decision, but I’m sure they had something to do with the notion of people who make comics making a comic about people who make comics. It’s not a favorite subject unless the people who make those comics happen to be French.  But Viz sent me a review copy of the third volume, so I figured, “Why not?” Now, in spite of the fact that Bakuman has few of the elements I usually look for in a comic I’m likely to enjoy, I have to go find the first two volumes.

So what are those things that I usually like that are absent here? For one, I like engaging protagonists. Writer Tsugumi Ohba and illustrated Takeshi Obata (you may recall them from Death Note, also from Viz) tell the tale of would-be mangaka, writer Akito Takagi and illustrator Moritaka Mashiro as they try and build their careers. They’re in high school, but that’s not improbable on its face, and they seem to be making some traction. Unfortunately, they’re boring people. Neither displays the quirky passion that makes for a great shônen hero with a dream.

For another, I like a story with stakes. While the stakes are enormous for Takagi and Mashiro, I didn’t share their urgency at all. Maybe I’ll be better able to invest in their dreams after reading the first two volumes, but that still leaves the fact that these boys don’t have much going for them. On the subplot front, each has a girlfriend of sorts. Mashiro’s wants to be a voice actress in anime, and Takagi’s is the sporty, outgoing type. If either girl ever went an inch beyond type, I can’t remember it. And I also like interesting female characters, so there’s another strike.

And while I generally have no problem with dialogue-driven storytelling (hi, Fumi Yoshinaga!), Bakuman indulges in this approach to a ridiculous extreme. I remember thinking that the final volume of Death Note was just one big word bubble, and Bakuman shares that tendency to natter. It’s all tell, and virtually no show.

So why do I feel compelled to pick up the previous and future volumes? It’s because I suspect that Bakuman’s failings as shônen are entirely the point. Why else would Ohba and Obata go to such lengths to have their characters articulate what makes great shônen manga, to fully explore its key elements, only to willfully avoid incorporating them into their own actual manga? I’m casting my vote with “intentionally postmodern.”

Ohba an Obata talk a lot about manga, not simply as a creative process but as a profession. They talk about the vagaries of popularity, the self-perpetuating structure of magazines like Shônen Jump, the tyranny of reader polls, the weird formula of creative inspiration and commercial instinct, and so on. It’s not quite cynical, but it’s certainly frank, especially when you consider the fact that it actually runs in Shônen Jump, the very magazine it routinely criticizes. Of course, the criticism is generally reasoned and sounds fair, but still.

Without the almost clinical self-examination of the manga industry, there really wouldn’t be anything to take away from Bakuman. But the examination is there, and it’s undeniably compelling. I don’t really care if Takagi and Mashiro become big successes or fail miserably, but I don’t think I’m supposed to care. I think I’m supposed to enjoy the fact that Ohba and Obata are peeling back the curtain and showing that the creation of thrilling fantasy can be very dull indeed.

Update: Deb (About.Com) Aoki spreads the word about Viz’s Bakuman Fan Art Contest.


  1. It’s interesting to see a different point of view on Bakuman. I love this series, but I am coming form a biased point of view as I am very interested in the process of making comics and writing. What attracted me to this manga is how the characters are just ordinary people with a goal that I can actually visualize. You are correct about the female characters in this story, they are terrible (and it doesn’t get any better). If I wasn’t so into the comic industry and the creative process, would there be much else to hold my interest? Hard to say…I do so love Takeshi Obata’s artwork.

  2. I liked the first two volumes better volume three was a little dry for me unless the charcters where talking about what manga they liked or how Shonen Jump could be imrpoved (see the I”s speech by one Eiji Nizuma’s assistnets) Another point I didnt like was the completelly pandering fan service involveing Kaya I also thoguht when the naritive voice switched over from being mostlly done in Mashiro’s voice and a more third person omnipresent it lost some of the passion it had.

    • David Welsh says:

      I’m very curious to read the first two volumes. Wish I had time to swing by the bookstore today, but I’ll have to practice patience.

  3. So you think it’s purposefully “bad”? That they’re spewing out all these shonen quick tips, but not following them themselves on purpose? Hmm…..
    I’m not really sure what to think of it yet. I’m kind of annoyed by it. I’m not sure how seriously we’re supposed to be taking it. I’m somewhere in the middle of volume 3 right now, and I just want to punch Nizumi (is that his name?) in the face for causing so much trouble. I can’t help going, “Why won’t they fire him? Anyone else would.” He must be SPECTACULAR, because there’s no way I can believe that a total new comer with nothing to his name but a single amateur award would be tolerated for defying his publisher, causing trouble, not writing the manga he is contracted to write, etc.
    I’m also really annoyed by how much the main guys are trying to manipulate their story. I’m not sure what I’m supposed to feel about that. Are they saying that manga creators calculate every little element to appeal to the widest audience? The characters OBSESS over this. Does that really make good manga? Or is that the “joke”? I’d kind of just rather not bother with it really, lol.

    • David Welsh says:

      It’s “Nizuma,” but I wouldn’t have remembered that if I hadn’t looked him up. I just think of him as “this is the body language Obata uses for quirky geniuses” guy. I can kind of buy the editors giving him a chance, what with the portrayal of the rushed turnover for unsuccessful newcomers. He’d have to reward the risk fairly quickly in the form of popularity, but I can sort of see them saying, “Yeah, he’s a flake, but he’s really good, so let’s let him try it his way. We can always dump him if the series bombs.”

      I’m definitely in the camp that believes that it’s the joke, though I’m not sure if anyone is there with me. It’s entirely possible that Ohba and Obata are absolutely sincere and think they’re making a moving slice-of-life portrayal of young men with a dream, but I hope that they’re smarter than that. It’s also possible that they’ve made Jump so much money with Death Note that, like Nizuma, they get a free pass, even if that results in them talking smack about Jump without fear of reprisal.

      It’s like looking into a mirror while standing with your back to another mirror.

      • OK, I just got to the part where Miyoshi is volunteering to help the boys with their representation of the heroine in their manga. And Mashiro actually says, “It’s a boys’ manga, so we just need to come up with a boy’s idealization of a girl.”
        Which is exactly what they do in Bakuman. I just…is it all one big joke? It HAS to be. It’s got to be. Otherwise I don’t think I could read this without throwing up. It’s all one big joke at their profession’s expense. …. Right? I’m confused…..

        • Oi, I need to stop posting here before I give out my entire review in the comments here. : ) I’m working on it for Monday. At least this is getting my brain going.

  4. I’m seriously torn over this series. I really enjoyed Death Note and was able to overlook its shortcomings and bought the first volume of Bakuman with high hopes. However, having read the first volume I’m really not compelled to carry on. The art hits the right notes for me and the topic although having the potential to dissapear up its own backside doesn’t grate. Its the characters, as you say. Dull, grey nobodies with barely a quirk to lift them above the manga average, like the cast of a particularly low grade American sit com all seem to have been given personailities by committee.

  5. I really like the behind the scenes look at the (shounen) manga business, but the misogyny makes me raegy and there’s just so much of it. One thing I really like about the series, though, is all the in-story series, both by Ashirogi Muto and by the other characters. Some of them sound really good, better than Bakuman itself, and I would love to read them (in fact, one of them, Otter 11, did have a single chapter published as a special in Shounen Jump a few months ago).

    (I am also a huge sucker for Obata’s art and would likely read it just for that, but it’s definitely a series I’m very ambivalent about.)

    • David Welsh says:

      I didn’t detect any active misogyny in the third volume. It seemed more like rigorous disinterest in giving the female characters anything like inner lives. I’ll be interested to see if that changes after I’ve read the first two volumes.

  6. Much like you, I skipped the first volume and read vol 2 as a review copy. I’m glad I did, because I think I would have missed the point if I had started with volume 1, which is all about rather vanilla characters and terrible misogyny. Volume two is where it starts to get critical of Shounen Jump and its processes, and not only was it infinitely interesting to me to see the inner workings of that magazine, but it’s very obvious in volume two that it’s firmly in the category of… I don’t know, self-parody? They discuss elements that usually fail in a manga, all of which are descriptions of Death Note. And none of what they say makes a good manga are in Bakuman. What’s the point, if not to miss as much of this criteria as possible while discussing it at length? Is this the new Shounen Jump-ified Even a Monkey Can Draw Manga?

    Also, I feel like the joke is on me when I review this series.

    Also also, my heart skipped a beat when I clicked on that link about French meta-comics, hoping that I had missed an announcement about Fabrice Neaud’s Notebooks being translated (which aren’t terribly meta, but I’ll grasp any hope I can).

  7. Margaret says:

    In volume one Ohba made a big point of asserting that even a mangaka who creates a hit series won’t make enough off it to survive very long once it’s over if he can’t come up with another commercially viable idea pretty quickly. (I suspect this is more of an issue when you have to split the creators’ profits with an artistic collaborator than it is when you draw your own stories like, say, Rumiko Takahashi.) Considering that “Death Note” got turned into an anime and two live-action movies (plus the spin-off film “L: Change the World”), in addition to being a pretty big seller both here and in Japan and generating collectible merchandise such as keychains, figurines, etc., you have to wonder how big *Jump*’s cut of all this income was if the writer and artist were really left with the relatively modest sums that Ohba implies. The thinly-veiled chip on the shoulder Ohba seems to have about this may well have something to do with his rather critical depiction of *Jump*’s inner workings, as well as motivating him to defy/thumb his nose at *Jump*’s standard editorial approach in various ways in “Bakuman.” And if *Jump* really made more off “Death Note” than he or Obata did–and, possibly, is still in a position to make more than they do off “Bakuman” and any resulting merchandise, anime/movie deals, etc.–they may well consider him enough of a reliable, albeit cantankerous, cash cow that they’re willing to let him get away with spilling a few somewhat unflattering beans about how they operate.

    • David Welsh says:

      Maybe we’ll get the answers to those questions in the fourth volume? Our heroes will have a long talk with established Jump artists about how small their piece of the pie is!


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