At first glance, Bakuman doesn’t seem to have much in common with Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata’s other manga series, the astoundingly popular and highly influential Death Note. The latter, after all, is a black humored, plot-heavy fantasia about a boy who uses the murderous powers of a supernatural book to become the most powerful person on Earth, while the other is about a pair of doofus teens who want to make comics for a living.
Closer examination, however, suggests that the two works share more than one might initially think. For example, Death Note can be viewed an impish twist on the classic “Jump Manga” structure, in which the protagonist decides to better himself by taking on a task of heroic proportions, and finds success through perseverance—though in this case perseverance simply means being more ruthless and evil than the other guy.
But if Death Note is a clever perversion of an overly familiar structure, Bakuman is the flip side of the coin, a manga so firmly planted in the shonen genre that its feet threaten to sink in the ground. As with Prince of Tennis, Hiraku No Go, and just about every other Shonen Jump manga published by Viz, Bakuman follows a familiar, set path. To wit: two crazy, wet-behind-the-ears kids who have nothing but talent and a dream—in this case the chance to become all-star manga-ka—face off against a series of increasingly difficult challenges and worthy rivals before reaching success.
The catch here is that while Bakuman plays by the rules much more closely than Death Note did, its authors are no less self-aware. And that self-awareness allows the series to transcend its cookie-cutter-like structure.
The central figure in Bakuman is Moritaka Mashiro, a teen-age boy who is coerced by a classmate, Akito Takagi, into joining forces and making manga. At first Mashiro demurs, because, while he may be a pretty good artist, he’s well aware of manga industry's cutthroat nature, especially since it drove his late uncle to an early death.
The chance this presents for him to impress a cute classmate (who, it just so happens, has her own dream of becoming a popular voice actress) is too much of an incentive to resist, however, and he signs on with Takagi.
From there Bakuman is off and running. The two naturally prove more talented than first appearances would suggest, and they catch the eye of a young editor at Jump magazine. They show a lot of promise and work extra hard, but success is far from a sure bet, especially when challengers like the Eiji Nizuma show up, an oddball genius only a year older than them who seems to produce great material with an ease that takes everyone’s breath away.
What I find especially fascinating about the series is there’s no concern or discussion of art. These guys aren’t in it for the love of the medium, they want fame and fortune—a frustrated Takagi even screams “I want to be popular” on a city street in volume three—and in Mashiro’s case (which I’ll get to in a minute), love and sex. While they devour classic manga and talk about character development, story structure, and what makes for a good read, they never really seem to enjoy making comics or feel much in love with manga as an art form—it appears as nothing more than a tool for them to achieve their dreams. It’s as though their naked ambition has snuffed out any pleasure they could derive from the process of making comics, which, Ohba and Obata not so subtly hint, is exactly how it’s supposed to be. There’s no room for the weak in the manga industry—not if you want your own series.
More to the point, there’s little room for self-expression and experimentation. That’s for the suckers selling their XXX-rated dojinshi at Comiket. “Think of the readers” is the mantra repeated again and again in Bakuman. Mashiro and Takagi routinely agonize over winning various contests, surveys, and awards, because they know that getting, say, third place instead of first can be the difference between getting a regular series (and, by extension, making a living), or becoming a permanent assistant to a more popular author.
Again, it’s interesting to compare their attitude and demeanor to that of Nizuma, the one, true “arteest” of the cast and a complete flake. He talks to himself, makes sound effects while he draws, and is completely unreliable—at one point he abandons a series for a completely different one, screwing over his editor. If anything he’s more flaky and borderline autistic than L, Death Note’s antagonist. It is clear he lacks the sort of discipline and drive that Mashiro and Takagi have. On the other hand, while the boys must constantly conjure up scenarios they hope will be popular with readers, Nizuma is able to rely solely on his own intuition. All the same, the true path to success lies in plain view, and by volume three, Nizuma grudgingly agrees to start using storyboards and meet with his editor in the hopes of fine-tuning his craft. The message is clear: there’s little room for the rugged individualist in this comic-book world and “following your muse” will give you nothing but a one-way ticket to obscurity and poverty.
And yet, what a penetrating and fascinating look at the manga industry Bakuman is. Some of the most engaging, involving sequences in the series thus far involve not personal moments of introspection but simple shop talk, especially in the scenes where Mashiro and Takagi meet with their editor, Akira Hattori, a big-eared, open-mouthed schlub of a man who nevertheless doles out astoundingly good advice time and again. (“I don’t want you to just do whatever I tell you to," says Hattori. "You need to try and surprise me.”) Mashiro and Tagaki are mostly ciphers so far, but the ways in which they discuss and learn their craft make the series enjoyable.
A word or two should be said about the cast’s female characters. Death Note was roundly (and rightly) criticized for this, as most of the women in the series seemed to function as little more than plot contrivances, window-dressing, or comic relief. (Critic Shaenon Garrity dubbed supporting cast member Misa the “stupidest creature on planet Earth,” and she had a good point.) At first glance, Bakuman seems to be following a similar path. The gender issues—or should we say the sexism—are writ pretty large. For instance, after Mashiro’s mom objects in volume one to his decision to pursue a career in manga, she is voted down by her husband, who says (off-camera), “Men have dreams that women will never be able to understand.” Later on in the same volume, the boys comment on how “a girl won’t look cute if she’s overly smart,” and that “the best thing for a girl is to get married and become somebody’s wife.”
And then there’s Azuki, Mashiro’s object of desire and sort-of girlfriend, though she’s too busy being placed on a pedestal to actually interact with anyone. I’m not kidding: Azuki refuses to even hang out with Mashiro—this girl’s idea of romance is that the pair must stay apart until they realize their dreams, communicating only by cell-phone text. Takagi and other characters frequently mock Mashiro for this ridiculous, neutered relationship, which suggests that the authors find it a bit silly as well, though it’s hard to tell how firmly in cheek that tongue is planted.
One of the things that suggests to me that Ohba and Obata are playing with shonen’s sexist clichés and not simply reveling in them—though they may just be trying to eat their cake and have it too—is their depiction of Takagi’s girlfriend, Miyoshi, an athletic, aggressive young girl, who, to some extent, resembles the archetypical force-of-nature/tough girl found in these sorts of manga. Her desire for a genuine relationship with Takagi—even though he clearly isn’t as interested in her as she is in him—along with the way she obviously feels like a third wheel whenever the boys start delving into their work, gives her a poignancy and depth that the rest of the cast tends to lack.
But if Bakuman doesn’t have particularly compelling characters, the narrative itself is propulsive enough to keep readers moving forward. While I do think the authors are winking at the readers — there’s too many reflexive moments to suggest otherwise — it can be difficult at times to determine just how self-mocking Bakuman is intended to be. It is easy to believe that the stone-faced tone of each volume must convince at least some readers to take it purely at face value. But then consider scenes where an assistant rails at an editor about the the magazine’s rigged survey system. This seems like a minor thing until you remember that Bakuman is serialized within the real-live version of the very magazine the assistant is criticizing. Is this manga meant to be a sly critique of the industry, or a wallowing celebration of it? I can’t quite tell at this point, and it’s not knowing that answer yet (savoring the tension as it were) that has made Bakuman one of my favorite new comics so far this year.