I’m pretty agnostic when it comes to comics. Whether they’re webcomics, pamphlet comics, manga, fumetti, whatever… if they’re well done, I don’t really care. And right now, my favorite serial comic of any sort is a manga series called Bakuman. It’s by Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata, the same guys who did Death Note.
(Bear with me. This will circle back to webcomics.)
The basic story of Bakuman is that there are two teenagers who really want to become mangaka, professional manga creators. They’re both very talented and, together, manage to get their work published while they’re still in high school. The series then follows their progress over the next several years, along with several other aspiring mangaka who come to the profession around the same time. I had originally wanted to read the series because it promised to showcase something of how the manga industry actually worked; while I knew it to be different than American and European systems, I didn’t know much in the way of specifics. What I found, once I began reading, was that, while the series does indeed provide a wealth of background information about how the manga industry operates — in far greater detail than I had anticipated, too! — it also has many interesting and engaging characters conjoined in a fascinating story.
It’s become my favorite series because of several factors. As I said, it’s both informative and engaging first and foremost. Second, the storytelling is top notch. It always runs very smoothly and, even though I’m reading English translations of the original Japanese, it comes across sounding very natural. It’s not condescending at all; the current regular cast numbers around 30 and the creators juggle all of their individual stories without lots of cumbersome re-hashes. Finally, it’s always surprising. Every book brings with it new plot developments I would not have anticipated, but still make perfect sense for the story. It is, in short, a masterful work of comics art on many levels.
The most recently published volume here in the U.S. brought in a new story development that is relevant to webcomics. A new artist submitted a story to a print publisher. The editors were very impressed and wanted to snap him up quickly, but they felt the particular story he submitted didn’t quite fit with their reader demographic. They basically told him to dial back some of the more adult portions, and they would run the new version in their magazine. He agreed and promptly put scans of his original story online as a webcomic, along with a note about how this specific version wouldn’t be published.
Needless to say, the editors were not pleased and demanded he remove it immediately. But why exactly? They were very clear that it was not going to be published as it was. Well, in part, as is explained in the story, the creator was paid for the work and it was therefore owned by the publisher to do as they wished. But more interestingly is what the editor-in-chief tells the creator: “Wishing for others to read and appraise your work is a good thing, but giving away manuscripts for free is not the proper mindset for an aspiring professional.” The implication here is that the standard webcomic model of giving away the comic and making money on the ancillary material is inherently unprofessional. It’s unclear if this idea is one Ohba himself subscribes to, or if it’s just something he’s heard editors say. I suspect the latter as the editor-in-chief shortly follows up his statement with: “S-still, it might not be a bad idea for marketing in this day and age… uploading stories that didn’t get printed, I mean!”
That this echoes some of the dialogue that occurs with publishers here in the States speaks to how other cultures are wrestling with the same concerns, and that this story was written in late late 2010 suggests they’re running a little behind American publishers when it comes to webcomics. While most large American publishers don’t utilize webcomics very heavily, they’ve still been more involved than that — DC Comics had run the now-defunct Zuda Comics for nearly three years before this story was written.
While Bakuman is simply two creators’ interpretation of their industry, it still provides a surprisingly robust look at how a culture outside one we’re more used to operates. And while it focuses on the print industry primarily, it also highlights how publishers in Japan are facing many of the same issues that publishers elsewhere are facing. They all have to assess how they’ve been doing business for years, and decide whether it makes sense to continue in that vein given the larger changes going on around them.