Home > Comics, Manga > Good Manga: Bakuman (Plus a Brief Discussion about Comics & Literature)

Good Manga: Bakuman (Plus a Brief Discussion about Comics & Literature)

(I’m probably going to be the only one who cares about this, but I’m a little upset with how the column name “Good Manga” doesn’t roll off the tongue quite as well as Good Books or Good Games. I thought about naming it something different like Magnificent Manga, but I decided against it based on the small setback that that name is completely stupid).

Now, I love comics of all times. It’s one of my favorite mediums for storytelling. It’s amazing that something as simple as setting pictures to words can create stories that draw people into the world and the characters in some ways that novels simply cannot. Though there are some people who argue that comics shouldn’t be considered art, sequential art has created some of the most popular and lasting stories in modern culture (I mean, if you just want to think of the power comic books have had on the greater culture in general, try to think of the last time you met someone who has never heard of Batman). It’s gotten to the point where even if you don’t read comics, the characters are so real and so well loved that everyone seems to know about them and most really love to see stories in any medium about them. The true mark of great literature, I think, is its ability to allow someone to read a story about them and not want it to end, to endlessly ask questions about what happens next in that world or the characters that inhabit it. And yes, some comics are so damn good at it that the only reason to not consider it literature would just be plain prejudice against the medium just because it’s words with pictures instead of just words. I defy you to read something like Watchmen or the Sandman or 52 and tell me its not art.

Of course, most people who would make such claims about comics not being literature are the same people who may say sci-fi or fantasy or romance novels aren’t literature. I’m not sure why but there is a certain widespread pretension among many people to mentally narrow down what “literature” is to only 1) what they like and 2) wouldn’t be embarrassed to read in front of people. If a work with written words tells a good story, I would consider it literature, but many people treat the word “Literature” like its basically the intellectual Cool Kids Table. If someone walks up to the table, there is a group of people who will be like “Oh, you’re a sci-fi story…yeeeeah, sorry, but you’re gonna have to sit at the sci-fi table” or “A comic? Heh, yeah. Yeah no. Go over there. With your own kind.” It comes off as petty and ultimately meaningless, like most of the labels that get place on people during grade school. So yes, I believe comic books are literature and I love the medium enough that I feel the need to talk about one of my favorites.

A lot of my favorite comics are actually manga. If you’ve never heard the term, it’s basically just comics in Japan. Comics in Japan are a huge industry that makes of a very large percentage of what many people in the country read. It’s a legitimate industry which is very hard to get into and more complex than most people would consider.

The manga I want to talk about Bakuman is not only one of my favorite comics currently, but it also is a good look into the creative process, doing whatever it takes to achieve your dreams, and just how complex and interesting the comic industry (specifically the very intricate manga industry in Japan) can be.

Bakuman: A realistic manga about two kids who make manga. It’s very realistic, except for the blue hair. Japan does love its blue hair.

Now first of all, I should mention that this comic is created by Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata. Most of you may not have heard of them, but you probably have heard of a comic they created called Death Note. Now before you either squeel with delight or groan and swear never to read it (or just simply ask “What the hell is Death Note?”), I should mention that this story does not have a lot in common with Death Note. It has a lot of complex characterization like Death Note and there are moments where the characters talk a lot (which Death Note is famous for) it is very much grounded in reality. And surprisingly, the story is actually funny and fairly lighthearted. It has serious moments, but it’s not dark or unsettling. Anyone whose ever read Death Note will have a hard time buying that since Death Note isn’t exactly a light hearted comedy romp.

In case you’ve never read Death Note: this is Light Yagami, a character in Death Note. He wants to kill all the criminals in the world with a magic notebook and eventually become God over everything in a new utopia composed of only those he deems worthy. This character is the HERO of the story. This isn’t exactly Happy Days people.

As for the plot of Bakuman, its sort of hard to explain. Not because it’s too complex or anything, but because the plot seems too simple at first. It stars Mashiro, a disillusioned high school student (like 90% of all manga protagonists) who used to love to draw and wanted to be a manga artist like his uncle, until he tragically died. He keeps his drawings to himself until his notebook is found by Takagi. Unlike that other series where finding a notebook leads to all hell breaking loose, this leads to an unlikely friendship as Takagi convinces Mashiro to help him create manga so they can become professional manga artists. Mashiro is at first a wet blanket, but eventually warms to the idea. He also finds out the girl he is secretly in love with wants to be a voice actor. After a series of unlikely yet amusing events, Mashiro and the object of his affection, Azuki Miho, agree to follow both of their dreams and get married once they have both achieved them (it’s a long story and is pretty hilarious in the way it plays out, but not in the obnoxious romantic comedy way. It feels pretty authentic). So the new partners decide to create manga and try to become real professionals.

While it doesn’t sound all that interesting at first, the way it plays out is very interesting. Aside from the goal of becoming professional manga artists and chronicling their successes and failures in the industry, the manga doesn’t so much have a “plot” as it is just showing the day-to-day lives of all the characters as they all try to succeed as artists. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s “a show about nothing” since the main characters have that one consistent goal throughout, but eventually new characters are introduced and fleshed out to the point where the comic because more about all these characters and how they go about following their dreams. All the characters in the comic are very realistic and seem like real people. They’re all complex and have clear motivations for everything they do, even if the reader doesn’t agree with their actions. I don’t want to spoil a lot, but I do want to say that especially in the more recent chapters, it seems obvious the creators are making an
effort to make every single character developed and realistic, even if you didn’t think they would be a huge focus when they first appeared or even if you didn’t think you’d like the character at first. Almost all the characters are likable in their own quarky ways and they’re all unique and interesting. One of the hardest things to do with stories in any medium is to make people care about the characters and this is one of the best examples I’ve seen of a comic consistently doing that with almost every single character ever.

Also, strickly as someone who has aspirations to work in a creative medium, I find this story particularly inspiring. The main characters are very determined to follow their dreams and never give up on it, even when things don’t always work out the way they would like. It’s very interesting to see the sort of behind-the-scenes world of publishing manga in Japan and how the characters deal with it. Anyone who has any aspirations in a creative medium will be able to relate to this comic on some level, since seeing Mashiro and Takagi rise from amateur to professional is something anyone whose tried to do that before will be able to greatly sympathize with the protagonists.

Unfortunately, Bakuman is not available for purchase outside of Japan, but the wonderful folks at OneManga.com have worked hard to provide a translation of the manga for English audiences. Like the manga in Japan, the translation is updated once a week. I strongly urge you to read it, bookmark it, and watch for each new chapter. I’m sure you will not regret it. So go on and check it out.

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