BAKUMAN, by Tsugumi Ohba & Takeshi Obata. First published in 2008, and first published in North America in 2010.
Moritaka Mashiro is an average student with no particular goals or ambitions in life. His only joy and talent is drawing, which draws the attention of class genius Akito Takagi. Takagi proposes a bold plan for the both of them: join up and become mangakas! Mashiro is reticent, thanks to a beloved (and now deceased) uncle who was a washed-up mangaka himself, but Mashiro's hand is forced after Akito confesses their plan to Miho Azuki, the cutest girl in class and the object of Mashiro's crush. She turns out to have a dream of becoming a voice actress, and emboldened by her announcement and actual contact with a girl Mashiro makes a bold proposal: neither of them will see one another until they have achieved their dreams, and once they do they will marry. Shockingly, Miho accepts, and now Mashiro and Takagi have to figure out how to draw a manga, with nothing to help them save for Mashiro's uncle's studio, his reference materials, and their own imagination.
It's a manga about making manga. When you say it out loud, it sounds like a joke or a meme (yo dawg, I heard you like manga, so I made a manga about makin' manga...). What's truly strange is that the writer makes this concept work. It's got a lot of shonen sensibilities, with that whole "I'M GOING TO BE THE GREATEST [insert occupation/activity/etc] EVER!" spirit, but it's tempered with real facts and perspective on the incredible odds of creating a successful manga and the fact that the boys have to learn their craft from the bottom up. Unlike most shonen heroes, they are not the best right away and neither do they magically upgrade through ki or some other sort of BS. Instead they have to learn through research, trial, and error. That's a very healthy perspective for such a goal, and I'm pleased to see it here.
The problem with the story is that the plot points that involve the mechanics of making manga don't always match up tonally with the rest of the story. There, those aforementioned shonen sensibilities run strong, sometimes to the point of ridiculousness. Sure, it's a grand, romantic notion to propose to a girl practically from the moment you talk to her, but when it's put into action it's kind of crazy and more than a bit creepy. It feels at points like things happen solely because the writer wills it. Akagi becomes friends with Mashiro because the plot demands it. He wants to be a mangaka, despite his superior grades and intellect, just because the plot demands it. Maho wants to be a voice actress and accept a marriage proposal from a classmate she barely knows just because the plot demands it. Are you picking up on a trend here?
There are also some scenes where the writer clearly has some...interestesting ideas about women, like how blatant displays of intelligence lessen one's attractiveness. I know that such sexist ideas are more common and more socially acceptable in Japan, but it bothers me. Such moments are brief, which kept them from bothering me to the point of not reading the series (god knows I've seen worse in shoujo manga), but it is there and it's uncomfortable at times. Also, while one reference to themselves or their previous work, Death Note, is fine, but a few in a single volume feels a bit too self-indulgent.
Bakuman, much like the boys' careers, have a lot of promise and an interesting hook. It just needs to even out its tone and find a way to make the personal part of the boys' lives mesh better with the professional parts.
Like the story, the art style is a mix of shonen earnestness and grounded realism. I understand that they probably wanted to do something different from the relatively realistic designs of Death Note, but putting that same level of detail onto a simpler face makes for a weird and occasionally off-model look. It doesn't help that everyone's face is oddly flat, like someone smashed them with a shovel. Obata clearly loves drawing clothes and hair, though, because he puts a lot of detail into them, be it the way a button-down shirt wrinkles whiles worn, the detail of the pattern on someone's sneaker soles, or the bounce of a woman's large sausage curls.
The composition is fairly standard, but Obata does play with the visual angles within the panels, using odd, dramatic ones during major moments. The backgrounds are also well detailed, even if they are not above breaking out the speed lines at times. I do like that after every chapter, they include both the writer's and artist's storyboards from a selected scene in the previous chapter. It's a nice touch, and thematically appropriate.
No extras to speak of here.
Bakuman can be a bit uneven in art and tone, but the fact that they can make something as mundane and meticulous as making manga look exciting and fun has to count for something.
This series is published by Viz. The series is complete in Japan at 20 volumes, and is expected to be completed in the USA this summer. All volumes are currently in print.
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