It doesn’t matter if you think your age might be a barrier to enjoying comic books; bear in mind that not all comics are the same.

If you long to immerse yourself into the fantastic world of Japanese cartoons, you’ve made a good choice: no cultural export offers such a diverse array of tastes and tales as manga and anime, its companion art form, do.

We’ll not go so far as to say you should become otaku – in Japan, that is a derogatory term for a person obsessed.

Still, if you’re casting about for where to buy manga and trying to decide which manga to buy, that means that you already know manga is a serial tale presented in graphic form, the number of volumes sold totalling in the millions.

And those numbers don’t include anthologies like Shonen Jump or Ultra Jump!

If you know all of this, you have already put one foot in the world of Japanese manga. Superprof now opens that door a bit wider by revealing manga fundamentals.

Come with us now for tips to help you understand what each frame expresses, with and without words, and how you too can ease yourself into the world of manga.

Check out various Japanese classes London here.

Selecting the Right Manga

Don't get overwhelmed at the many manga titles!
Once you seriously contemplate reading manga, you may be overwhelmed at the selections available! Source: Le Journal CNRS

The Types of Manga

Much as with any other literary work, there are types of manga that will suit your tastes better than others and some that are age-specific.

Some series are meant for young children, others for adolescents and still others for mature audiences.

Thus, when we say ‘the type of manga’, we mean – as do the manga artists, manga meant for a specific audience.

The first, most popular type falls under the general header of Shonen, meant for young and adolescent boys.

The publisher most often associated with this category of manga is called Shonen Jump, the weekly magazine that includes instalments of Dragon Ball, Naruto, One Piece and Yu-Gi-Oh!, among other titles.

If you are familiar with those names, then you’ve most likely had exposure to those stories.

Shonen stories are generally action, adventure and combat oriented. There is also a taste of humour and a touch of romance included.

The protagonists are often young males who gain a particular strength or talent to fight for a cause and the sagas tend toward the epic, running far longer than most other genres.

The second category, Shojo, is targeted to young and adolescent females. Big names in Shojo include Nana, Vampire Knight, Fruits Basket and Card Captor Sakura.

The principal theme of Shojo is romance – a cliché, to be sure, but it sells, and not just to young girls.

Shojo also features sports themes, music and elements of fantasy. The protagonists are generally young girls in the spring of their lives who fall in love with the most handsome boy in school.

Often, that is the scenario... but not always!

The third most popular type of manga is called Seinen, aimed at young adult males. Its feminine counterpart is called Josei but there is little distinction between them because both young men and women identify with the themes in Seinen.

The topics broached in these series are more mature, more graphic and a bit on the crude side.

You might already be familiar with some Seinen titles, such as Akira, Battle Angel, Parasite, Gantz, 20th Century Boys, and Berserk.

Such stories take us from science fiction to drama, through horror, to medieval fantasy and deeper into period history.

Keeping with adult lines, a warning about hentai: very sexual; quite nearly pornographic. We don’t have any titles to suggest in this genre because... well... surely you understand!

From one extreme (hentai is quite extreme!) to the other: Kodomo, the manga meant for the youngest readers.

Their graphics are not quite as elaborate and the storylines are simpler and easier to follow.

If you are learning the Japanese language, you might tease your hunger for more exquisitely drawn manga by starting with these light, easy-to-read tales.

All types of manga create heroes - popular characters that garner legions of devoted fans. Discover some of the greatest manga heroes of all time...

Manga Themes

While some comics series rehash common themes – good versus evil, for example, manga embraces virtually every aspect of the human experience.

Furthermore, while a series might have a main theme, you would also find elements of other genres woven into the story, so that several elements are visited within the same story.

Some of the principal themes in manga include:

  • Action
  • Aventure
  • Romance
  • Science-Fiction
  • Fantasy
  • Mechadealing with robots
  • Slice of life: everyday experiences
  • School life: an excellent way to peek into the Japanese school experience!
  • Horror
  • Girl magicians
  • Sports
  • Music
  • Ecchi (literally ‘perverse’)
  • Comedy

Do we hear anyone saying ‘spoilt for choice’?

Bottom line: if you are between 10 and teens, any Shonen manga would work for you. If you are older than 20, steer yourself toward Seinen types – the horrors, the romance and so on.

Or you could just pick up the manga that piques your interest!

Criteria to Consider when Making Your Selection

Besides settling on a genre that interests you the most, there are other criteria to consider before picking up your first manga magazine.

One of the first factors to think about is length.

This presumably being your first time to read manga, it is quite possible that you might want to conclude an entire story arc within a reasonable amount of time.

To that end, you may seek out such a graphic novel series that does not exceed 15-20 volumes.

Plenty of serials comprise of fewer than 10 books. The so-called One Shot manga is deliberately short, usually only one chapter, less than 100 pages long.

Interesting manga fact: most one-shots were drawn for entry into manga contests and some, like Dragon Ball and Bleach, went on to become series!

The second point to ponder regards the works’ popularity.

If you know nothing of manga, you might conduct an Internet search for ‘best manga’ and follow your favourite search engine’s recommendations.

Blindly following search engine recommendations is not always the best idea and, in the case of choosing your first manga, it would be best to blend your gut feeling with those suggestions to make a choice that would be uniquely yours.

What gut feeling?

Think of the stories you typically enjoy. What elements feature in them that you would like to find in Japanese comics?

You may be surprised to find that even though you didn’t care for the Jack Sparrow movie franchise and thereby assume that pirates are not your thing, a pirate tale such as One Piece, with all of its fantastic elements, could be just what you're looking for!

How does your manga library stack up to popular choices? Find out which are the most popular manga of all time...

Don't be surprised to find manga in strict black and white
Manga is not read like other comic books, nor is it necessarily as colorfull Source: Kana

How to Read Manga

You might already have heard that manga is read ‘backwards’ - a statement not actually correct.

Manga follows Japanese writing rules, even the stories themselves have been translated into English.

Quick catch-up: that writing system goes from top to bottom and right to left; a far cry from our system of writing.

For instance, to start your manga adventure, you would open the back cover to reveal the beginning.

Where our books have a title page, a dedication page and a table of contents, the first pages of your manga would greet you with an author’s message, a list of characters and a brief summary of the tale.

What Order to Read the Panels and Text Bubbles

As with American comics, manga comics are organised to the progress of the story. Not all panels are the same size and one page may look drastically different from the next.

Perhaps the most difficult aspect of reading manga is where to start – what order to read the panels.

If the panels are the same height, simply read them, right one first and then the left one, all the way down the page.

If the layout is more complex, you would still follow the right-to-left reading pattern. Even if a panel on the top-left of the page is twice the size of the right panel, you must still read that right panel in order to understand what the left panel represents.

The text bubbles within each panel follow the same right-to-left order... but dialogue order is often secondary to other aspects of the panel so, should you drop the conversation thread, no worries! You can go back and re-read it in the proper order once you get the sense of the story.

The Background

Generally, the action in manga plays itself out on a background of white – the better to highlight detail.

There will be instances when the background will be black rather than white. That is a clue!

You might gather from context, through the action or the dialogue, that the character in question is casting back through memory but, in case you don’t, the black background signals an inward turn.

You may find such as a backdrop to a dream, a period of deep thought or to illustrate an alternative reality.

Transitioning or graded backgrounds signal the departure of the current state. Here, the manga artist uses either black on white to signal a flashback or white on black to indicate a return to ‘normal’.

Other Coding to Watch For

Manga is full of subtle clues and nuance
As you read, watch for nuance and subtle clues to what else is going on Source: Kana

Facial Expressions

As in everyday transactions among humans, manga characters use facial expressions to show feeling.

However, unlike our interpretations of such expressions, the Japanese meaning may become lost to the uninitiated manga reader; happiness or rage might be easy to intuit but other expressions are much more subtle.

To signal a sigh, the character's eyes close and the mouth opens. The general countenance is one of sadness; a small cloud would depict the expelled breath.

In anime, you may easily capture such nuance through the sounds that accompany the image but, in manga, catching the tone of a panel is a bit more involved.

Blushing is a common feature in Shojo manga; it reflects traditional Japanese spirit. It is not easy to indicate the delicate rose of a blush when your medium is strictly black and white, so manga artists cleverly code the act of blushing through hatching.

Hatching on the character’s cheeks indicates embarrassment or, contrarily, the blush of love.

And how to depict excitement?

Unless one takes a hit to the nose in combat, bleeding from the nose, especially in young male characters, represents exhilaration. You will see many instances of bloody noses in Japanese comic books!

What do those drops of liquid mean?

In general, if there are waterdrops anywhere near the character, you may intuit their meaning just from context.

Still, for reference: a large drop on the head may represent shame, bother or tension. Conversely, if the character is in a fight for life, you will see smaller droplets of sweat dripping from his brow.

How Noise and Sound Effects Are Conveyed

Manga series are quite clever when it comes to providing an all-encompassing experience, specifically how they use representations of sound to convey emotions, sentiments and reactions.

They are also effectively placed so that the reader will ‘hear’ loud noises, such as a sword clanging on a shield or something breaking.

Sometimes, sound effects are left untranslated for a truer representation of the original work.

Even if you know nothing of the Japanese language, the context should provide enough information for you to infer that sound’s meaning.

This may seem obvious but we spill it anyway: the larger the sound’s font, the louder it plays in the story.

You can find a fun example of such in the Studio Ghibli masterpiece My Neighbour Totoro when that mythical character roars... in 128 point font!

What else could be encoded in each manga panel? Find out everything you need to know about reading manga...

If the artwork is fairly simplistic, you are looking at a manga meant for young readers
The intricacy of the artwork can clue you in to that manga's target audience Source: Kana

Final Words on Manga Fandom

Young readers have an embarrassment of choice when it comes to manga books.

If that Kodomo division is where your first assays into rabid manga reading begin, you might wonder why cats feature so prominently.

Doraemon is a sterling example of storylines built around cats.

It is because the Japanese are mad for kawaii, meaning ‘cute’ - and what could be cuter than a wide-eyed kitten?

You will find kawaii nuggets in all manner of manga and anime from the renown Mononoke to the more tragicomic One Punch Man.

Male Adolescence and Manga

As many manga artists know, the years between 10-15 are the ideal time for boys to pick up manga; that is why so many stories target that age group.

And that is why the editors of the weekly Shonen Jump, manga’s #1 anthology, feature so many of those tales!

That age group is also the time when adolescent males become interested in sports; the classic series Captain Tsubasa is a manga series that addresses such interests.

Finally, the adolescent mind is nothing if not geared toward fantasy and magic. For those dreamers, the selections abound!

From Fullmetal Alchemist to My Hero Academia, there are graphic novels for boys and girls to shape their love of Japanese culture, anime and manga!

From Adolescence to Young Adults: Titles for All

Have you heard of Death Note or Attack on Titan? These are just two titles targeted to that reader demographic and they are not to be missed.

At this point, the more mature books from the Shojo category tends to merge with Shonen insofar as attracting readers.

For instance, Nana follows her boyfriend to Tokyo, both for love and to break into the Tokyopop scene (she is a punk princess!). She meets another Nana on the train; they ultimately become friends and roommates. The manga explores their lives and relationship.

Note: the Shojo category is not reserved exclusively for girls!

Manga for Adults

Comic books aren’t just for kids! Even if you are more mature, you can find popular manga to suit your tastes.

Romance? Check! Combat? Check! You will even find manga can be quite thought-provoking and philosophical, such as the classic Haibane Renmei or Kino’s Journey.

As a mature reader, you might observe that no manga character is inherently good or evil, as is so often the case in other comics series. Usually, manga characters embody both aspects and much of the story centres on their personal struggle between the two.

There is no need to worry about your peers finding you strange for suddenly indulging in the fascinating, engaging world of Japanese manga.

After all, these are not your average comic book; they may even inspire you to learn more about Japan and her culture... starting with Japanese language lessons so that you can understand those untranslated words in your favourite stories!

And if you do decide to take that plunge, your Superprof tutors are ready to help you learn it.

Need a Japanese teacher?

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A vagabond traveler whose first love is the written word, I advocate for continuous learning, cycling, and the joy only a beloved pet can bring. There is plenty else I am passionate about, but those three should do it, for now.