A Beginner"s Guide to Manga by Amanda Pagan, Stavros Niarchos Foundation Library (SNFL)December 27, 2018

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. 

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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. 
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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. .

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Where should I start? 

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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.


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1. Shonen: Manga targeted at tween and teen boys.

Common themes: Action, Adventure, Friendship, Coming of Age

Shonen manga often feature lots of action and comedy, and some sort of coming-of-age camaraderie between characters. The manga magazine Weekly Shōnen Jump and its American counterpart, Shonen Jump, have routinely published some of the most popular shonen manga series of the last 30 years including Akira Toriyama"s Dragon Ball, Masashi Kishimoto"s Naruto, and Shonen Jump"s most recent mega-hit, Kohei Horikoshi"s My Hero Academia.

Their English-language imprints will usually bear the Shonen Jump logo. Covers for shonen series usually feature male protagonists in some sort of action pose. 


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2. Shojo: Manga targeted at tween and teen girls.


The focus here is less on action and more on drama, emotion, and, almost always, idealized romance. Like shonen manga, shojo manga usually feature the coming-of-age story of a young protagonist. You can usually identify shojo covers by their use of pretty pinks, flowers, or other cutesy images.This is not to say that shojo manga consists only of cute, fun stories. Their narratives vary as much as any other genre. For instance, Ai Yazawa"s Nana is technically classified as a shojo series because it was published in a shojo magazine, although the story follows two young women as they navigate their way through personal relationships, sexual relationships, and drug use on their way to fulfill their dreams. This is completely different from, say, CLAMP"s Cardcaptor Sakura, which follows a ten-year-old girl with magical powers who has to save her city from monsters. 
Naoko Takeuchi"s Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon, a.k.a. Sailor Moon, is probably the most famous example of a shojo series. It follows Usagi Tsukino, a normal 14-year-old girl who finds out she is the reincarnated form of the legendary Sailor Moon, a defender of love and justice from the now-destroyed Moon Kingdom. With her fellow Sailor Senshi (Sailor Scouts), she must defend the Earth from the forces of evil in the name of the Moon. 
For more Shojo recommendations, check out our list of Shojo Beat favorites, our favorite manga love stories, or our 

Award-Winning Manga 2: Shojo Category!

 


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3. Seinen: Manga targeted at adult men (18+).

Common themes: Action, Violence, Sex, Adult themes

Just like shonen manga, seinen manga features action and violence, but with a more serious or darker tone, as well as adult content such as sexual situations, graphic violence, or foul language. If a series does not fit into any other category such as Shonen or Shojo, then it will be put under seinen.

Whereas shonen series often feature characters with an idealized, naive, or innocent view of the world, seinen series usually follow protagonists who must face a reality where the hero does not always save the day. Seinen covers are often dark and gritty, and feature male protagonists. 

Katsuhiro Otomo"s Akira is probably one of the most recognizable seinen thanks in part to its epic anime adaptation that paved the way for Japanese animation"s popularity in the west. Kentarō Miura"s Berserk has been in publication since its debut in 1989. Whereas Akira is set in a post-apocalyptic future, Berserk takes place in a high fantasy world based loosely on European mythology, illustrating the wide variety of genre manga available. 


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4. Josei: Manga targeted at adult women (18+).

Common themes: Romance, Sex, Drama

Josei manga often features more mature narratives exploring romantic and personal relationships, told in greater depth than their shojo counterparts—but this is not always true. For the most part, josei manga are similar to American adult romance novels in that they include sexually explicit scenes that can range from tame to borderline pornographic.

Unlike shojo manga, which almost always follows a female protagonist, josei manga often feature male and female protagonists. Female protagonists are almost always pursuing heterosexual relationships, while the male protagonists are, more often than not, involved in homoerotic or homosexual relationships—again, this is often, but not always, the case. Also, unlike shonen, shojo, or seinen manga, josei manga cannot always be quickly identified solely from its cover. 

Yun Kouga"s Loveless is probably one of the most well-known josei manga series. It follows 12-year-old Ritsuka, a character who must rely on a mysterious and older man named Soubi to find answers regarding his older brother"s mysterious and brutal murder. 


5. Kodomomuke: Manga targeted at young children.

These series will often be cutesy, moralistic, and fun. Both the Pokemon manga and anime are probably the most well-known examples of a Kodomomuke series. 

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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.


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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.

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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!
Beginner"s Guide to Manga 2: Genres and SubgenresBeginner"s Guide to IsekaiBeginner"s Guide to LGBTQ+ Manga