So you want to start reading manga?
We’re here to help. Here, we break down the basics you need to know before delving into the wide, fantastic world of Japanese graphic novels, a.k.a manga.
What is manga?
Manga is an umbrella term for a wide variety of comic books and graphic novels originally produced and published in Japan. Unlike American comic books, which are usually printed in full color, Japanese manga are almost always published in black and white. Full-color prints are often only used for special releases.
Japanese manga is read right-to-left rather than left-to-right, which is the norm for English language publications. This can take some getting used to if you have only ever read English publications, but you will hardly notice once you’ve practiced enough.
In Japan, manga are typically released on a monthly or a weekly chapter-by-chapter basis through manga magazines such as Weekly Shōnen Jump, (which has been in circulation since 1968). If a series is popular enough, its chapters are then collected and published into volumes called tankōbon volumes, which usually feature a few chapters of the overall story.
Most manga series are long-running and can span multiple volumes. This is something to keep in mind when starting a new series as it is imperative you read the volumes in the correct order. This might be easier for small series, such as Naoko Takeuchi's Sailor Moon, which only has about 12 volumes, versus longer-running series such as Akira Toriyama's Dragon Ball, which has 42 volumes.
What is the difference between manga and anime?
Anime is yet another umbrella term for all forms of animation created and published in Japan. When most people hear the word 'anime,' they think of adaptations of manga series, such as Dragon Ball Z and Sailor Moon. Both television shows boosted the popularity of Japanese anime in the west when they aired on American TV during the 1990s.
If a manga series is popular enough, it might then become an anime, as was the case with both Dragon Ball and Sailor Moon. In some cases, the opposite is true; a popular original anime will be given a manga adaptation. However, the two terms are not interchangeable.
Anime is animation. Manga is print. That is the difference.
Where should I start?
The most important thing to remember about manga is there is something for everyone. Whether you like high school romantic comedies or high-fantasy epics, there is a manga for you.
Manga is chiefly categorized by audience first, then genre. For example, CLAMP's Cardcaptor Sakura is a shojo (young girls) "magical girl" (sub-genre) manga. However, this does not mean a boy cannot enjoy the series. That is simply how they are marketed. If you were looking for manga for a young boy who likes fantasy or mystery, you would search for "shonen (boy) fantasy" or "shonen mystery" manga.
We would need an entirely different blog post to cover the gargantuan number of manga genres and sub-genres that exist so, for now, we will simply cover the types of audiences to which manga are marketed. If you are looking for more information on manga genres and subgenres, then check out: Beginner's Guide to Manga 3: Genres and Subgenres.
Don't forget to check out our handy Manga for Middle-Schoolers guide for further recommendations!
Primarily, there are five demographics of manga:
For more Shonen titles, check out our list of Award-Winning Manga 3: Shonen Category!
For more adult-oriented titles, check out Award-Winning Manga 1: General Category!
Is there anything else I should know about manga?
There is no rule stating a grown man cannot read a shojo series or, likewise, a teen girl cannot enjoy a seinen series. It all boils down to personal taste.
Many manga series cross gender and age divides to be enjoyed by everyone, such as Hiromu Arakawa's Fullmetal Alchemist. There are also manga that defy the conventions of their genre, such as Kaiu Shirai's Promised Neverland and Kiyohiko Azuma's Yotsuba, which are technically shonen manga, although both feature female protagonists.
We mention this so readers can have a better understanding of what differentiates certain manga series. More often than not, people assume all manga is geared towards teens or children, which can lead to problems if a well-meaning educator, parent, or librarian unwittingly gives a young child access to a sexually explicit manga meant for adults.
As with any other form of narrative, manga can run the gamut from serious, heart-wrenching drama to silly, mindless fun. Most manga feature over-exaggerated situations, comedy, or art, as over-exaggeration is practically a staple of the brand.
A Brief Warning: Fan Service and Oversexualized Characters
Fan service is also something to keep in mind. This refers to art that only exists to please or titillate the fans. Acts of fan service never further the plot or offer character development, and simply serve as gratuitous content, such as featuring a series' prominent character in a revealing costume or pseudo-sexual situation. Nakaba Suzuki's Seven Deadly Sins is a high-fantasy series that features an overabundant amount of fan service that makes it unsuitable for young children. Fan service appears in almost all types of manga and can range from harmless fun to seriously disturbing.
Unfortunately, a large chunk of manga (specifically those targeted towards the male demographic) tend to feature a disproportionate amount of oversexualized female characters. It is not unusual for female characters to randomly lose their clothing, wear revealing clothing, or be accosted in a sexual manner by the other male characters. Sexual assault is not something to be taken lightly, however, it is often played for laughs within these manga. For this reason, we encourage you to double check and read through the manga yourself before giving them to your children, especially young impressionable boys. There are plenty of thoughtful, well-developed series out there that are perfectly appropriate for readers of all ages. We have listed several titles for younger children in our Manga for Middle-Schoolers guide.
Our job is not to censure readers, but we do want to empower and inform our patrons so they can make their own decisions. Again, we mention this as a warning to parents, educators, and librarians before they unwittingly give someone the wrong material.
The world of manga is vast and there are plenty of aspects we did not cover here. This is meant as a beginner's guide to give readers a basic understanding. Not every manga series will fit into the basic guidelines written here and that's fine! Part of the joy of reading is discovering new genres, tropes, and narratives you've never encountered before.
When in doubt, do your research. Ask your local librarian who handles the manga section, or search online for appropriate titles. With all that in mind, you’re ready to get started! Discover more recommended manga titles with these popular blog posts!