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.