By Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata. Released in Japan by Shueisha, serialization ongoing in the magazine Weekly Shonen Jump. Released in North America by Viz.
I should note right off the bat that I've never read Death Note, the previous series by these two creators. The premise struck me as 'random sympathetic people get killed', a genre that has never appealed to me unless they come back (hi, Higurashi). However, Bakuman is supposed to be something completely different, a look into the art of making and selling manga, with lots of Shueisha in jokes and the like. So I gave it a shot two years ago when it debuted and the scans first appeared.
I dropped it during Chapter 2, for reasons I will get into later. This time I powered through and read to the end of the volume, and I'm mostly glad I did, as there's a lot to like here. It's very much a geek title, where you don't have to know all the obscure references they're making but it serves as an added bonus joke for those who do. One of the two heroes, Moritaka, interests me as I originally thought he would be the standard reluctant wussy shonen hero, but that was subverted almost immediately. I like his fire. And the manga information contained herein really is a fascinating look at the Japanese publishing industry.
There is, however, Chapter 2. The setup for this is that the other hero, Akito, is trying to convince Moritaka to create a manga story with him, and talking about why he noticed him. He notes the 3 smartest people in the class are the two of them and Azuki, the girl Moritaka has a crush on. Moritaka notes that her grades are merely average, and Akito notes that Azumi instinctually knows the best way to look cute is to be earnest and get average grades, in preparation for becoming a docile Japanese wife (this despite her dreams of being a voice actress). What's more, he disparages the girl with the best grades in class, Iwase, as prideful and unlikeable because she acts smart.
Now, one can argue that Akito is not necessarily an author mouthpiece, and he could just be set up to look like a jerk later on. But not only is it hard not to take two male leads as mouthpieces for the authors when it's a series about two male authors making a manga, but the entire 'revelation' about Azuki is set up to sound like some sort of dramatic shonen truth, analyzing Azuki's bloodline and upbringing to show how they created what she is today. The whole thing left a bad taste in my mouth. There's also a swipe at shoujo manga in a later chapter that also reads poorly, but that reads more like 'guys are guys', so I'll give it an easier pass. If guys continue to be guys through the whole manga, though, this will be rough going.
It doesn't help that Azumi is presented very much as a prize to be won by the hero. I'm hoping that her character gets fleshed out later and we have more to her beyond 'has a secret crush on Moritaka and wants to be a voice actress'. We do meet her grumpy karate friend here, which leads me to hope they might do a few chapters from the female perspective as the time goes on. Most of the manga, though, is devoted to its dynamic male leads. Who are very dynamic, and easy to like when they aren't talking about women.
I do note that Viz seems to have an editorial decision that shonen manga can't have endnotes detailing the more obscure references or Japanese cultural habits. We've seen them at the end of some shoujo GNs and the like, but Bakuman, like Hayate the Combat Butler, has nothing whatsoever. Which is a shame, as the manga is adrift with Shonen Jump references going back to manga from the 1960s. Ashita no Joe in particular is the favorite manga of Moritaka, which likely means nothing to a great deal of today's casual manga readership, especially Death Note fans who haven't read much else. Some history would be appreciated.
Ambivalent as I was about some elements of Bakuman, I will be getting the next volume. It's actually managing to make manga writing fairly shonen, and its two leads bounce off each other well. I do hope the 'smart girl' in class kicks Akito's ass at some point, though.