There’s a scene in Naoki Urasawa’s Happy! where the main character Umino, who’s gotten herself matched up against a player who should be by all rights an easy win, gets mixed up in a match-fixing gig. Due to her honest nature, she still tries to win the game, but finds herself stymied against an opponent playing much harder than she normally would, at a level that one informed observer remarks she’ll “never reach again” as a result of considerable pressure heaped on her from outside sources.
You know who else is under crushing pressure all the time? Mediocre manga authors.
I’ve been rereading Dragon Quest-Dai’s Big Adventure (a 90s Jump manga which sold around 50 million volume) recently, and I’ve had some thoughts regarding special properties manga has as a continuously running serial medium. In particular, I’ve hit on the idea that a good number of major serialized manga, especially those by authors who didn’t amount to much later, nevertheless managed to be very good, I daresay outperforming the level of their creator’s talents, for an interval starting 1-2 years after their serialization lasting about 6-8 years. This observation led me to an interesting theory, the core of which is this: specific traits of serialized manga as a medium can cause certain authors to perform well beyond their abilities. When these traits overlap, and author is drawing power from the Fake Genius Zone.
This idea derives from a couple of assumptions. I’ll break them down in detail, but first, here they are:
1. Manga authors struggle to succeed.
2. Pressure produces creative drive.
3. Stress produces a willingness to listen to editors.
4. Success reduces the level of pressure on an author.
5. Popularity reduces the ability of an editor to moderate an author’s ideas.
6. Some authors have the ability to succeed long term, others do not.
(Consistently distinguishing between these two types based on one work is impossible, though.)
If you’ve read a fair amount of literature, you probably know where I’m going with this already, but let’s get into the nitty-gritty.
Assumption 1: Manga authors struggle to succeed.
While there’s ample evidence that authors like Yoshihiro Togashi, who have achieved steady serialization, don’t need to worry about money, the fact is it’s tough to succeed as a manga author for the same reason it’s tough to succeed in any artistic field: there’s a lot of competition and not a lot of openings. Rising out of that seething mass of aspiring talent requires either a once-in-a-lifetime genius or (much more often) half a lifetime’s worth of hard work.
Assumption 2: Pressure produces creative drive.
The naive expectation a lot of people hold is that the best way to let an author manifest his talent is infinite time and infinite money, but in practice, the best way to draw out the lion’s share of creative juice is to give a guy five bucks and see what kind of art he makes. Having limited opportunities forces an author to go through and carefully consider every idea, meaning only the best ever make it out of his studio desk. Provided said pressure doesn’t break the creator, it’s usually beneficial.
Assumption 3: Stress produces a willingness to listen to editors.
This is, in many ways, similar to assumption 2. Even for the greatest geniuses, not every idea that exists is a good one. Editors exist for 2 reasons: first, to make sure and author makes deadlines, and second, to filter out the bad ideas an author has. When an author is thinking about tangible success (read: needs money), he’s more willing to listen to such advice.
Assumption 4: Success reduces the level of pressure on an author.
When an author has sold several million volumes of manga, he’s rolling around in royalties, often ones large enough to make it possible for him to live in lazy luxury for the rest of his life. He’s also likely achieved fame at that point, at a level sufficient to stoke all but the most hungry egos.
Assumption 5: Popularity reduces the ability of an editor to moderate an author’s ideas.
With success comes confidence. Sometimes that confidence can become complacence, as is the case when an author starts to ignore advice from his editor and put in his second- and third-tier ideas into his work. It’s also harder for an editor, especially a new one, to justify dropping the hammer on an author who has, from a business perspective, already achieved success.
Assumption 6: Some authors have the ability to succeed long term, others do not.
Here, I’m just assuming that there’s a distribution of talent among the pool of people competing to become mangaka, and not all of those competing for success will have talent on the level needed to succeed.
What I call the Fake Genius Zone pops right out of these assumptions. The Fake Genius Zone (hereafter FGZ) is the temporary period in time where an author has been given access to vast resources while still feeling large amounts of pressure to succeed, the combination of which causes them to produce at far beyond their natural level of talent. These people’s careers contrast with those of authors like Takehiko Inoue and Naoki Urasawa, who have both produced hit after hit over decades of work.
There wouldn’t really be a point in making up this term if I didn’t have both concrete examples and modern candidates, so here are the series that led me to this theory and the ones I think it now applies to. (Note: An author can’t be benefiting from the FGZ if he’s already finished multiple successful works.) This lists will be controversial by nature, so if you see something you disagree with, say so in the comments.
Past FGZ Occupants:
1. Michiaki Watanabe – Violinist of Hameln
The author’s only accomplishment since VoH ended in 2001 is a short unpopular comedy and a subpar rehash of the same series.
2. Hisaya Nakajo – Hana Kimi
Her longest work since her mainstay hit ended in 2004 has lasted less than 2 years.
3. Miyoshi Yuki – Devil and Devil
By all accounts, this is the only manga the author ever worked on himself.
Current FGZ Candidates:
1. Kentaro Miura – Berserk
I can’t be the only one thinking this series took a huge quality downturn after the golden age arc ended.
2. Masashi Kishimoto – Naruto
The series has collapsed under the weight of a bloated continuity and has largely failed to deliver on promise shown early.
3. Kio Shimoku – Genshiken
He got no monthly or weekly serial work in the years between the end of the first series and his rather shallow decision to reboot a manga that ended near-perfectly.
I’m not trying to hate on anyone’s favorite series here, I’m just trying to highlight a possibility a lot of people overlook. When I see a series by an author that doesn’t have anything else to his credit run long, I worry. As often as not, that series is going to collapse under its own weight if it keeps running. I also don’t like to heap praise on an author with only one series to their credit, for the same reason.