Manga: An Introduction

Continuing with our trend of unique book reviews, I’ve recently decided to throw my hat into the ring and start a weekly manga review column.  For those of you that read my Summer Reading List back in June, you may recall that one of the entries was a title called Black Jack (For those of you who haven’t read said article, please follow this shameless plug and give it a read). I referred to this particular entry as a manga.  It recently occurred to me that some of you might not be familiar with the term or the cultural connection that comes with it.  Bearing that in mind, before I start throwing out recommendations, I think a small introductory lesson is in order.

Osamu Tezuka has earned a number of titles over the years including “The Walt Disney of Japan” and “The God of Manga.”

I suppose the best place to start is with the obvious question, “What is manga?” The simple answer is, manga (the singular and plural forms for the word are the same) are Japanese comics. The origins of manga can be traced back to the late 1800s.  During this time, a handful of magazines began to run collections of rather simply drawn cartoons.  Early magazines of this style weren’t terribly popular and had painfully short runs. The first truly successful manga magazine, Shonen Sekai (The Youth’s World) was released in 1895, and featured works, both illustrated and written, by a handful of children’s literature authors.  In the years to follow, many other magazines of this style would follow, including a more female oriented version of Shonen Sekai known as Shojo Sekai (Girl’s World) in 1905.

The style used in modern manga began to take shape during post WWII years and grew from a combination of strong Japanese aesthetic tradition and influences from various American media like cartoons, movies, and comics. Two notable authors arose during this period.  The first, Osamu Tezuka, creator of popular series like Astro Boy, Kimba the White Lion, and Black Jack, quickly became and has remained one of the most influential figures in Japanese animation (anime) and manga. The second, Machiko Hasegawa, was one of the first female manga artists and is most well-known for her series Sazae-San, the anime adaption of which still holds the record for longest running anime series with a total of 6,500 episodes and is still in production to this day.

Now that the brief history has been taken care of, another important question that needs to be answered is, “What makes manga different from American or European comics?” On an aesthetic level, there are a several key differences.  Unlike Western comics which are read from left to right, manga are read from right to left. Manga also tend to be drawn in black and white instead of color.  This particular nuance likely stems from the fact that new chapters in manga serializations tend to be released on a weekly basis where as new issues of American comic are typically released on a monthly basis. While earlier series like Astro Boy had an almost Disney-esque quality to the art style, most manga tend to use a very different style.  Common elements of manga-style artwork include large eyes, elongated limbs, and hairstyles of varying shapes and sizes.  While the aforementioned are typically common features, they are by no means true for every manga.  Take for example the panels from the following:

FLCL by Hajime Ueda
Berserk by Kentaro Miura
Dragon Ball Z by Akira Toriyama

The first panel from the manga FLCL (pronounced Fooly  Cooly) uses a very raw art style with heavy sketch lines.  The second panel from the manga Berserk uses a realistic style more akin to Western comics.  The third panel from Dragon Ball Z makes use of features like large eyes and even larger hair.

A lingering sentiment for many American comics is that they are primarily for children. Titles like Watchmen and Sandman clearly proved this particular notion wrong and have shown that comics and graphic novels can appeal to readers of all ages and address a number of mature and thought provoking themes. The same can also be said for manga as well. While there are manga for quite literally any audience, there are five primary audience designators:

Kodomo – manga intended for young children (ex: Doraemon, Anpanman, and Dinosaur King)
Shonen – manga intended for teenage boys (ex: Dragon Ball Z, Bleach, and One Piece)
Shojo – manga intended for teenage girls (ex: Sailor Moon, Fruits Basket, and Shugo Chara!)
Seinen – manga intended for older males (ex: Berserk, Black Lagoon, and Akira)
Josei – manga intended for older females (ex: Bunny Drop, Princess Jellyfish, and Paradise Kiss)

Shonen manga tend to be the most commonly printed of the five and also tend to receive the most western exposure.  Josei manga are arguably the least common, but have seen a surprising increase in the past several years.  For all intents and purposes, the titles I’m going to be reviewing will come from the Seinen and Josei categories. While each review will contain and discuss important plot points and themes, I’m going to refrain from revealing any major spoilers for the benefit of potential readers. All the titles I’m recommending have received an official release here in the U.S. either in multiple volumes or collected anthologies.

Now that I’ve covered a brief history and gone over some important terms, next week I’ll have my first review up for your enjoyment.