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Artist Moritaka Mashiro and writer Akito Takagi are the creative duo Muto Ashirogi, best known for the hit Shonen Jump manga PCP ("Perfect Crime Party"). Lately, they've seen the magazine's editors take an interest in the work of older, formerly washed-up manga artists—and something about it seems suspicious. These suspicions are confirmed when an old enemy of theirs re-emerges, intent on shaking up the industry once more. The Ashirogi duo, as well as the rest of their peers, get caught up in trying to prove that corporate assembly-line methods will never beat manga made by creators and editors working together. Meanwhile, Shonen Jump editor-in-chief Sasaki has big changes planned for the orgazniation—as well as some long-hidden information he's been meaning to share with Mashiro. The generation gap, it turns out, isn't as wide as it seem, and in some ways it leads to the future.
The previous volume already dropped some noticeable hints, and the very first chapter of this one gives it away, so let's just come out and say it: Nanamine's back. The scheming, cynical villain who once idolized Muto Ashirogi and aspired to make it into the pages of Shonen Jump has returned for a second round of sneering at everyone and screeching at his army of minions. And why not? He's one of the most galvanizing personalities in the story, and his crusade to overthrow the traditional editor-creator system inspires great debate. Even as readers root for him to lose, one can't help but admit that Nanamine's methods are impressive—and those are the best kinds of villains, the ones who are detestable but worthy of respect.
However, this also means recycling many of the points from the first Nanamine arc: once again we get scene after scene of seasoned artists screaming "How dare he go behind everyone's backs!" and "How could he use others to produce manga for him?!" Meanwhile, Nanamine goes through the same old routine of cackling about how all his submissions ranked high in the reader polls, and how the Ashirogi duo will finally succumb to the power of crowd-sourced creation. The storyline finally breaks out of the repetition at the halfway mark, when editor-in-chief Sasaki offers one final challenge to determine Nanamine's fate. At that moment, the excitement kicks into high gear as Ashirogi and pals all brainstorm their best ideas, and the finale—contrived as it may be (washed-up artists to the rescue!)—brings the showdown to a thrilling close.
This arc also proves that plot development and how-to instruction can be woven together; some the most engaging moments come when Mashiro and Takagi are dissecting the elements of a successful manga piece. Aspiring artists can study ideas like "a stand-alone that doesn't stand alone," or how to devise a mainstream battle premise without being predictably mainstream, while still being entertained by the story. Even better, the last few chapters teach some great life lessons—not necessarily moral lectures, but human, heart-to-heart moments where the characters connect. Mashiro learns things about his deceased uncle that deepen their bond, while Azuma, the veteran who worked with Mashiro's uncle, gets some closure of his own. Considering that this whole story arc began with a bunch of old-schoolers coming out of nowhere, there's a sweet symmetry in the way it ends, as the accomplishments of past masters pave the way for Mashiro and Takagi's future.
The artwork in this volume remains consistent as it's always been, with great detail poured into the scenes that occur at the art studio and the publisher's office. Messy desks, stacks of books, and cartoon memorabilia here and there create a realistic portrayal of how manga professionals really work. If there's ever a place for unrealism, though, it's in the characters' outsize expressions: Nanamine grimacing with malice, Mashiro frowning in concentration, even the occasional shot of prodigy Eiji Nizuma frolicking in the throes of artistic passion. The sharp, delicate lines of Takeshi Obata's art also give the visuals a polished appearance, even when the action itself is chaotic. (Yes, a sedate occupation like drawing manga can be chaotic, with people pulling out their hair or jumping around the room trying to invent story ideas.) Simple, mostly rectangular panel layouts also keep the storytelling organized, which becomes especially important when lines of dialogue are scattered all over the place.
Wait, did that say lines of dialogue? Make that blocks of dialogue—the wordiness of Bakuman. is once again the series' double-edged sword, helping as much as it harms. For serious-thinking fans, the characters' long explanations about the creative process are fascinating—from Nanamine's ill-advised business plans to Nizuma wildly describing why his new character concept stands out from imitators. But the dialogue still gets too mired in "shop talk," with dry accounts of the artists' current poll rankings ("you're in 3rd and need X votes to place 2nd next week"), or Mashiro and Takagi planning their schedules for Christmas break. That stuff's boring in real life, and seeing it in a manga doesn't make it any more exciting. The translation does its best to keep the text understandable, but ultimately, the roundabout writing style—where someone often takes five sentences to say what could be said in five words—remains a major hurdle.
Sometimes, a series comes up with an idea that's so good, it deserves a second go-around. Thus a familiar villain returns to Bakuman. in this volume, with the exactly same goals and mindset—yet his viciousness is so entertaining that it's just as fun as last time. The do-or-die challenge that seals his fate ultimately leads to everything a fan could ask for: suspense, competition, exhilaration, and even a handful of tricks and tips for budding artists on the side. This part of the series also does a fine job of tapping into the personal side of the characters, with Mashiro's elders providing a much-needed bond to his long-dead uncle. For all its polished artwork, striking personalities, and in-depth subject matter, the last few chapters in this volume of Bakuman. prove a point that's actually mentioned by one of the characters. The key element of shonen manga—as even a rookie editor can tell you—is heart.
Overall : B+
Story : B+
Art : B
+ A much-hated adversary returns, leading to a story arc with a thrilling climax and some heartwarming moments for the "old guys" of the manga business.
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