It’s no mystery why so many novels are about novelists, as the old adage “write what you know” becomes a self-devouring ouroboros. So too do some of the most entertaining manga-ka take themselves as a subject, creating works that provide an inside look at their lives and the workings of the manga industry. It’s not too surprising: If the popular image of manga creators is to be believed, they don’t get out much. What is impressive is the wide range of stories tackling this insular subject, from memoir, to comedy, to zombie apocalypse. Here’s a look at nine manga about making manga, from insider humor to stories you don’t have to be an otaku to enjoy.
Bakuman, by Takeshi Obata and Tsugumi Ohba
It’s almost mandatory we start with Bakuman, the most famous and most thorough examination of manga from the inside from Obata and Ohba, the creative team behind Death Note. The story starts out with two high school boys, Mashiro and Takagi, deciding to work together to become manga creators. Things are made considerably easier by the fact that Mashiro’s uncle was a manga artist, meaning they inherit his complete studio and huge library of manga; on the other hand, the uncle died young, and Mashiro spends some time musing over whether that was connected with his choice of a profession. There’s also a sort of ridiculous romantic angle, the less discussed, the better. Once the story gets moving, it’s a great insider look at the way the sausage is made, with Mashiro and Takagi working out different types of stories, visiting the Shonen Jump offices to talk to editors, and facing up to the steep competition in the field. In some ways, it’s just another shonen battle manga, with the protagonists tackling an ever greater series of challenges, but the setting makes for a fascinating story, and some of the characters are based on real Shonen Jump staffers. Because the protagonists have to learn about the industry as they go, the reader is introduced to it as well, so this is not a manga you have to be an expert to enjoy.
A Zoo in Winter, by Jiro Taniguchi
Taniguchi’s semi-autobiographical story has a very different feel from the frenetic striving of Bakuman. Hamaguchi, the protagonist, has to leave his boring job in a textile company after encountering some complications and goes to Tokyo to work as an apprentice in a manga studio. This beautifully drawn one-shot story opens a window into the everyday life of manga creators, including the clashes between different personalities, but it also goes outside the studio, when Hamaguchi meets a young woman at the zoo who inspires him to work on his own story.
A Drifting Life, by Yoshihiro Tatsumi
Tatsumi, one of the pioneers of gekiga manga and the creator of the bleak collection of short stories The Push Man, started his career early, churning out shonen manga from the time he was a teenager. In this fictionalized biography, he shows his lead character, Hiroshi, entering manga contests with his brother, meeting the legendary Osamu Tezuka, working with another prominent manga creator, going through moments of indecision and despair, dealing with publishers, and generally walking a zig-zag path toward becoming a real manga-ka. It’s a thick book, but a fascinating firsthand account of the way they used to make manga back in the old days.
Opus, by Satoshi Kon
The most meta of meta manga, Opus takes a manga creator inside his own work, a standard-issue action manga, where he finds the characters hijacking the story and sending him spiraling into a weird series of logical quandaries. The manga-within-a-manga is realistically drawn, but Kon keeps ripping holes in it, as the characters figure out how to sidestep the continuity and take control of their own fates. Or do they? This one-volume manga was sadly left unfinished, but the Dark Horse edition includes a final chapter that Kon, best known as the director of Paprika and other groundbreaking anime, sketched out before he died.
I Am a Hero, Vol. 1, by Kengo Hanazawa
I know what you’re thinking: isn’t this a zombie apocalypse manga? Well, yes, but the lead character, Hideo Suzuki, is an apprentice in a manga studio, and a good chunk of the first volume is set in his workplace. In addition to the usual visuals of everyone slaving away at their drawing boards, Hanazawa gives us an unvarnished look at the internal politics of a studio, with feuds, rivalry, and insecurity, not to mention a dollop of sex. Between the drama at work, the drama with his girlfriend (also a manga creator), and his own turbulent life, Hideo barely notices the zombies—until they become impossible to ignore. After the first volume, the action shifts elsewhere, but those first few chapters show a seldom seen (if perhaps exaggerated) side of the manga industry.
Disappearance Diary, by Hideo Azuma
All those long nights of work and self denial have consequences, and Disappearance Diary is Hideo Azuma’s memoir of checking out of the manga industry and living as a homeless person, sleeping in a park and scavenging food from the trash. Eventually he is arrested and returns home, but he walks out again and goes to work as a pipe fitter for a while. The final section of this one-volume manga finds him in rehab for alcoholism. Despite the theme, this book is not dark; Azuma shrugs off the more serious aspects of his situation and focuses on the day to day activities of getting by. He seems to be happier as a vagrant than as a manga-ka, but of course that’s only part of the story. In fact, he is a prolific creator of manga in a variety of genres, including comedy and sci-fi, and he is widely regarded as a pioneering lolicon creator.
Manga Dogs, by Ema Toyama
With this series, we arrive at the phenomenon of the high-school manga-ka, a situation that is invariably played for laughs. In Ema Toyama’s three-volume school comedy, Kanna Tezuka is already a published manga-ka at age 15, but her series, about a high school for Buddhist statues, is floundering in the ratings. A manga drawing class gives her an opportunity to get some work done while she’s at school—but then three of the guys in her class catch on and want to become her students. Hilarious complications ensue, including a kidnapping, and the combination of serious-but-awkward girl with three cute guys is a winning one. This story has a lot of insider humor, but the English edition includes translator’s notes to explain the more obscure references.
Otomen, by Aya Kanno
Otomen is a gender-bender rom-com about a teenage boy, Asuka, who loves “feminine” things like cooking and sewing, and his relationship with Ryo, a girl who is the opposite. There’s a third party, Juta, who keeps barging into their lives, but it turns out he’s not the third point of a love triangle—he’s secretly a shoujo manga creator, and is using Asuka and Ryo as the inspiration for his series Love Chick. The twist here is that he has switched their genders in his story. This series ends up spoofing a lot of manga conventions, as Juta tries to maneuver the reluctant couple into various standard setups, and there’s a totally over-the-top scene at a party for shoujo manga creators. It’s good fun and an easy read for casual fans; while the series is 18 volumes long, there are several story arcs, so it’s not as big a commitment as it seems.
Monthly Girls Nozaki-kun, by Izumi Tsubaki
Umetarou Nozaki is the handsome, silent type, and he makes classmate Chiyo Sakura’s heart go pitter-pat, so she’s excited and a bit nervous when he invites her to his place. But Nozaki doesn’t have romance on his mind, at least not real-life romance—he’s yet another high school boy who makes shoujo manga, and he needs help getting the artwork done. What follows is a comedy of misunderstandings, as Nozaki can create insightful stories on the page but is a bit of a lunkhead in the three-dimensional world. This is a four-panel gag manga with some really funny moments, especially as the cast expands to include other classmates and assistants.