What's up with manga? A comics fan's deep dive
"Bakuman" is written by Tsugumi Ohba and drawn by Takeshi Obata.
March 29th, 2012
02:17 PM ET

What's up with manga? A comics fan's deep dive

Editor's note: Christian Sager is the creator of "Think of the Children" and "Border Crossings." He has also written essays about the comics industry, punk subculture and national identity.

Why do readers of American comics often ignore Japanese manga? Vice-versa, what is so different about American comics that turns off manga readers? The stories in both styles are told in the same medium but for some reason their audiences rarely overlap.

As a reader of American comics I can offer one possible answer: If I wanted to try something new like manga, I would have no idea where to begin. The manga shelves at the book store are intimidatingly packed. How can I know I’m starting with the right manga for me?

My CNN Geek Out! colleague Colette Bennett is a manga expert. I asked her to compare and contrast these two different comics styles in order to find the starting points where curious readers could jump into something outside of their comfort zone.

In preparation for this discussion, I dived in headfirst and read more than 1,000 pages of manga to get a better sense for its stylistic differences. Then, Bennett and I discussed production, pacing, storytelling diversity, themes, regulation of sex and violence, and the economic struggles of both industries.

First of all, it's important to know that manga and Western comics are produced quite differently. A great way for a Western comic book fan to learn about the manga industry is through “Bakuman,” a manga which provides extraordinary insight, as it’s a story about teenagers struggling to become manga creators.

Japanese culture has a lot to do with manga’s style. For instance, the pace of storytelling in manga is often much slower, with less action than in American comic books. “At heart, the Japanese are not in a hurry to tell a story," Bennett said.  "And while it may take patience to read it for an audience such as ours, usually the investment results in a gratifying payoff.”

While reading manga, I noticed there were many full-page spreads highlighting emotional reactions, instead of the traditional action spreads I’m used to. I also noticed a pattern of non sequitur panel transitions that sometimes made it difficult to follow what was happening. Panel layout in general was quite different from Western comics.

For instance, establishing shots, which I’m used to seeing at the start of a page to inform the reader of the current setting, were often placed at the bottom of a page in manga. Again, time orientation and cultural difference make the reading slightly unusual. This, however, can make for a fresh experience if you’ve been reading Western comics most of your life.

Of the manga I read, Naoki Urasawa’s “Pluto” struck me as having the most in common with Western storytelling. A lot of the story’s action happened off-panel, but its conflict and resolution built up at a pace I was accustomed to. While other manga had volatile characters yelling and emoting at each other in zany, slapstick scenes, “Pluto” was more subdued, without any of those tropes.

Thematically, both manga and Western comics seem comfortable exploring dark topics and concepts. Although American comics are primarily known for the superhero genre, they’re capable of telling a broad variety of stories. Manga is equally diverse, but I was surprised at some of the sex scenes, violence and scatology in the material I read.

“Velveteen & Mandala” was particularly jarring with really graphic rape scenes that seemed to have no context in the story. Osamu Tezuka’s “The Book of Human Insects” (which I loved) is over 40 years old and had some fairly risqué scenes for the era it was produced in. Even in “Chi’s Sweet Home,” which seemed like a children’s comic to me, I was surprised at how comfortable the creator was with scatological visuals. It would be easy for Americans to dismiss manga as being riddled with “tentacle porn,” but according to Bennett there are culturally specific reasons for this kind of material.

“Since Japan’s primary religious affiliations are Shinto and Buddhism and neither contains anything that connects sex to shame, the Japanese are much more comfortable exploring sexuality in general than Americans are,” Bennett said.

Given American comics’ long history with regulation, I asked Bennett about manga censorship in Japan. She said Japanese censorship laws were very strict for decades, but recently these laws have relaxed on all but one thing: the display of genitals and pubic hair. Regardless of this restriction, manga that might be considered lewd in America still has an audience in Japan, the fifth top-seller of pornographic materials in the world.

In North America however, when you compare sales of manga and other comics, manga is definitely selling less. Some speculate that the American economy’s recession combined with the closure of Borders bookstores contributed to this drop. According to Bennett however, in Japan, everyone reads manga.

“It’s not unusual to see an older man or woman on the subway reading manga in Japan,” she said. Because there are a wide variety of manga types out there, there is content for all Japanese, regardless of their age or gender.

That’s not the only diverse aspect of manga. Despite being created primarily in Japan (an ethnically monolithic country,) manga stories often feature protagonists from multiple ethnicities. For instance, in “Bakuman” one of the leads is blond. In “Chi’s Sweet Home” the entire family is Caucasian. Yet these characters are clearly supposed to be native to Japan. Bennett assumes this trend is because of “the Japanese fascination with anything that falls outside the norm of their own look.”

That could be one reason why many manga storylines are focused on providing the reader with a sort of behind-the-scenes look at unique careers or lifestyles that are especially rare in Japan.

“The Drops of God” is a comic all about wine tasting. Likewise, “Bakuman” tells the story of kids striving to be manga creators. Both fabricate competitive plots that make these insider stories compelling while revealing what these worlds are like. This plot formula reminds me of American reality television shows that focus on unusual skill-oriented contests, like fashion, cooking, special effects design or even drag queens.

Bennett explained this trend in manga is popular because “many people pursue run-of-the-mill careers in Japan and there is such tremendous expectation to secure a “good” job.”

“Having a unique career is simultaneously a fantasy and also something frowned upon,” she said, “especially if it is not financially productive.” Even though Japan as a society may have some of the strictest constructs in the world, manga explores these themes because as Bennett said, “people still yearn to dream.”

Despite the diverse ethnicity and career plots in manga, there still seems to be a preoccupation with manliness and masculinity. In several different books I read, characters either doubted their masculinity or constantly pronounced their confidence in being strong men.

Masculinity is a key topic in Japan, Bennett said, although it frequently goes unspoken - more of an assumption. “The anime community uses a slang word, “Gar”, to describe a character in an anime or manga as radiating a powerful, almost godly sense of masculinity,” she said, citing the character Kamina in the series “Gurren Lagann” is a classic example of this.

After a full submerging into the world of manga I have three gateway recommendations for Western comics fans looking to try out something different: “Pluto,” “7 Billion Needles,” and “Bakuman.” I now know where to begin and what kind of manga I enjoy.

I’m looking forward to reading even more. Do you have any good suggestions for beginners to Manga?

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Filed under: Comic Longbox • Otaku
soundoff (27 Responses)
  1. Otaku

    You should also check out Code Geass: Lelouch of the Rebellion. It is the best. The anime which it is based on was rated number 1 in 2008-2009.

    August 6, 2013 at 3:53 pm |
  2. Comic and Manga Fan

    Manga is not hard to get into. It's simply a matter of picking and choosing, or going online and finding something appropriate.
    Comics are way harder to get into, because there are nearly a hundred years of publications to find.
    For example, if I wanted to get into Spider-Man, I'd have to find a good run of a writer to begin with, or just go find the Masterworks and read from there.

    With Manga, a single author does the art and story, and it always begins with Chapter 1, to something.
    There is no guarentee manga will continue, as opposed to comics, where authors with burned out ideas keep writing and publishing a comic month after month.

    In the Marvel Universe, you need to keep up to date with several comics to have any kind of idea of what is going on.
    For example, during the Secret Invasion arc, you needed to read New Avengers, Mighty Avengers, The Initiative, Deadpool, Captain Britian, Black Panther, etc, Plus you had a limited series itself called "Secret Invasion" which you needed to read the former to understand.

    Furthermore, to understand Secret Invasion, you need to understand Kree Skrull War, Secret War, Civil War, Annihilation... That's over a hundred comics, by the way.
    With Marvel, you can't just pick up a comic book like Fantastic Four and hope to understand what's going on without reading another book. In other words, it's not stand alone.
    Yes, you can enjoy it, but you can never comprehend and be satisfied with it.

    I'm inclined to say DC Comics are different, but I've recently read Power Girl from 2009, and it needs some knowledge of Final Crisis to understand fully. Thankfully, DC rebooted in 2011, but you still need to understand Flashpoint for this.

    Manga are completely different. I can just go find the first volume of Naruto now, read it, and love it, and wait for the next volume. There are no tie in manga to read and understand. Everything is explained in a single book.
    I'm satisfied.

    Since 2006, I've collected over a thousand comics from Marvel, and around 300-400 from DC, and there are still more to go!
    I love comics, but the story isn't going to end, and there's no point in reading burned out ideas.
    I'm sticking to manga, because I know even if it takes 20 years, I'm going to see an end of it.

    This doesn't mean I'm not reading comics in general, I still read independant comics and non-superhero comics.

    June 20, 2013 at 8:09 am |
  3. jlgies

    Two author suggestions:

    Mohiro Kitoh. Look for anything by him, if you enjoy dark, character-driven stories that examine human nature and complex moral questions--told through the prism of the supernatural.
    His stories are often about children and teens who find themselves in a bizarre, fantastical situation that exposes their true natures and pits deep human instincts against one another. Loss of innocence is a strong theme throughout. While many authors in all media have dealt with these subjects, Kitoh does so in a compelling and suspenseful way, and is an absolute master of characterization. He creates likeable and believable characters that can really draw a reader in, making the twists and tragedies that much more gripping and thought-provoking. Also, what makes his approach unique, even among manga artists, is his pacing and staging. His stories unfold at a very deliberate, measured rate, allowing the reader to really soak in the world of the story and get a feel for it as a place. Humanism also colors his stories-loving attention to the beauty of the mundane, with the small details of everyday life rendered with breezy affection.
    Of his long stories, "Bokurano" is the only one that has enjoyed real success upon being licensed in the US, so it's easiest to find right now. But thirteen years ago, his earlier opus, "NaruTaru" (NOT to be confused with "Naruto") was translated and serialized for a while until the magazine that was publishing it was regrettably canceled when they were about two thirds through the story. The rest can be found online in various scanlation sites. It's all worth seeking out.
    His stories are dark and sometimes very disturbing, but VERY thought-provoking and meaty, and his characters are complex and acutely observed.

    Also look up the stories of Osamu Tezuka, more and more of whose works are being translated into English in recent years. Tezuka's enormous output of diverse stories throught a 46-year career (which profoundly influenced two generations of artists and was the foundation on which the modern manga and anime industries were built) encompasses just about every genre you can think of. His art is cartoony and "cute," but the subject matter is complex and often profound. You can start learning about his work at the website TezukainEnglish.

    May 25, 2013 at 4:29 am |
  4. Allykatty1

    I'm surprised no one has mentioned "Fullmetal Alchemist" by Hiromu Arakawa yet. Absolutely incredible, brilliant epic in a Western setting that translates over very well culturally. There have been two different anime adaptations, but I still really can't recommend the manga itself highly enough. It's technically shonen, but appeals to so many types and sub-genres. I'm actually writing a long right article right now about exactly that: its cross-cultural appeal.

    On a side note, I also happen to be reading Bakuman at the moment. Good choice on your starter list!

    May 31, 2012 at 7:34 am |
  5. miruke

    You should really read Death Note. Death Note is basically supernatural crime thriller that features intelligent, complex characters grappling with life and death ethical dilemmas in unexpected ways.

    April 20, 2012 at 1:18 am |
  6. Servicio tecnico de lavavajillas

    Great goods from you, man. I have understand your stuff prior to and you are simply too fantastic. I really like what you have received right here, certainly like what you're stating and the way by which you say it. You're making it enjoyable and you continue to care for to keep it wise. I can't wait to read far more from you. This is really a great website.

    April 11, 2012 at 9:09 am |
  7. Philip Hades

    I'm old. I get that. My favorite manga from back in the day were probably Appleseed, Lone Wolf & Cub and Xenon: Heavy Metal Warrior. But I definitely got into Mai the Psychic Girl, Justy, Kamui.

    Then there was also that flash in the pan Akira....

    April 2, 2012 at 6:30 pm |
  8. writerman

    My personal favorites have been as follows:

    Mahou Negima Sensei
    Naruto

    There are websites that will help if you have a certain preferance to a certain kind of manga.

    April 2, 2012 at 3:45 pm |
  9. alisa

    漫画って、(良くも悪くも)こんな風に思われてるんですね。

    できれば、ギャグ漫画についての意見も聞いてみたかったです。

    April 1, 2012 at 12:40 am |
    • Jurasic

      Random stuff. So far I got a lot of classic gag style stuff, and for some reoasn, quite a few doctor strips. The strips will all be different sizes and styles. I gotta admit, I'm already sick of coloring them though. So they might just fall into black and white after a month or so. I dunno, I'm just going to do whatever is fun at the time.

      May 24, 2012 at 1:06 pm |
  10. someone

    I liked manga and anime as a teen (never was a big comic reader though). the problem with manga is that essentially it's all the same. same faces, same looking characters with the same set of personalities. i remember watching an anime "APH Hetalia" which was marketed as a historical parody with anthropomorphic countries, but it turned out to be the same tired cast of shy angry guy, outgoing perv, crazy bipolar guy, etc. the plot was also nothing to draw you in, invented scenes and anime cliches that had nothing to do with actual history. this i found quite astonishing, you'd think there would be plenty to write about on such a subject. so yeah. anime and mange is fun for the first few series, then you realize there is nothing new or original about any of them

    March 31, 2012 at 4:21 pm |
    • Prakash

      Thanks so much for scanslating No. 6! I am in love with this story!Also, I'd just like to say that your triaalntsons are flawless, the pages are gorgeously clean and the typesetting is perfect! You guys are pro! Thanks again!VA:F [1.9.10_1130](from 0 votes)

      November 14, 2012 at 1:44 am |
  11. Robert

    What comic book readers don't read manga? My only issue with manga is that they are so prolific that you get the same themes and types of characters over and over again. Remember the movie "Scream" and all of the horror movie rules? Same thing. Still, there are more than enough good manga out there for anyone to read.

    March 30, 2012 at 10:43 pm |
  12. Robot

    Manga is dangerous for today's youth.
    Look up: Trey Sesler murders.

    March 30, 2012 at 5:11 pm |
  13. MysteriaKiito

    My favorites are mostly girly but I have a few that can appeal to both genders:

    Princess Tutu
    Kaleido Star
    Fruits Basket
    Ranma 1/2
    Trigun
    Highschool of the Dead

    March 30, 2012 at 4:23 pm |
  14. Drowlord

    Manga can be painfully slow, and I've never seen manga that wasn't in black and white. Because of the black-and-white problem, they can be pretty confusing (visual misunderstandings, different characters have less with which to distinguish them). However, the stories are generally pretty cool. And they're long - like 80 pages long. American comics are ridiculously expensive, and frustrating because they're so short and strung out. A typical American comic book is like 17 pages long, comes out once a month, and costs $3. Honestly, I can't understand why people buy them. I gave up on both a while back.

    March 30, 2012 at 4:15 pm |
  15. JonfromLI

    Most underrated Manga: Gunslinger Girl

    March 30, 2012 at 2:55 pm |
    • Amer

      Thanks. every time I look at that panel all I see is that line I forgot to erase over his eye. Oh well that's what hapnpes when you draw with a pen, and hate photoshop.

      May 24, 2012 at 4:20 pm |
  16. Flora

    I enjoy both manga & Western comics (the indie, non-hero ones). I really think it should be based on genre you most enjoy – someone who likes to read "Courtney Crumerin", for example, would probably like "Goth" or "Tarot Cafe", but absolutely LOATHE "Ultra Cute".

    Manga for the fans of:
    Superhero comics – "Ultraman", "Gundam SEED", "Shadow Girl", "Zodiac Warriors"
    Goth comics – "Goth", "Vampire Knight", "Tarot Cafe", "Alchino"
    Sci-fi comics – "Chobits", "Ghost in the Shell"
    Supernatural comics – "Orion", "Vampire Knight", "D.Gray-man", "Negima"
    Humor comics – "Detroit Metal City", "Ranma 1/2"
    Romance comics (for girls) – "The Wallflower", "Ouran High School Host Club", "FIVE"
    Romance comics (for boys) – "Negima", "Computer Ai"
    Comic strips – "Azumanga Diaoh," "Yotusba&!"
    Action comics – "Naruto", "Bleach", "Arachnid", "Blade of the Immortal", "Lady Snow Blood"
    Historical comics – "Blade of the Immortal", "Lady Snow Blood"

    March 30, 2012 at 12:45 pm |
  17. Eh?

    There are so many genres in manga, so to offer suggestions without knowing what you enjoy is difficult. That being said, I'll try to recommend a few from different genres.

    Shounen (tame) – Bleach, Naruto, Dragonball, Magico,
    Shounen (NSFW) – Kokou no Hito, Wolfguy Ookami no Monshou
    Shoujo (tame) – Sailor Moon, Cardcaptor Sakura, Sakura-hime (The Legend of Princes Sakura), Rose of Versailles
    Shoujo (mature) – Barajou no Kiss, Devil & Her Love Song, Skip Beat!, Shinobi Life
    Slice of Life/Romance/Comedy – Oresama Teacher, Ranma, Kimagure Orange Road, Switch Girl
    Psychological Mystery- Liar Game, Ikigami, Death Note

    March 30, 2012 at 12:26 pm |
  18. redpaki

    I think that Bleach and Naruto (both ongoing) are good, basic shojo manga. I also like Blade of the Immortal – quite violent but the art work is wonderful. I also recommend Fullmetal Alchemist (completed) as a good fantasy manga.

    March 30, 2012 at 11:21 am |
    • Rob Vollmar

      Not to pick nits, but Bleach and Naruto are both textbook shonen (boys) manga. Good though!

      March 30, 2012 at 11:30 am |
  19. Rob Vollmar (@robvollmar)

    If you want to appreciate the breadth of manga's rich history, I would definitely say to try out more Tezuka. I would consider Book of Human Insects to be a poor "cross-section" by which to understand his impact. If you would only read one more, I'd make the 4th volume of the Phoenix series published by Viz.

    Also, Lone Wolf and Cub is in my Top 5 for "Global Achievements in Narrative Art in the 20th century," a list that includes Tezuka, Charles Schulz, Winsor McCay and Jack Kirby. It's that good. It's better than 99% of the comics produced anywhere in the world...

    Some shoujo manga would also provide some balance here. The upcoming Heart of Thomas from Moto Hagio (Fantagraphics) would make an interesting introduction to the genre but it's from the 1970s when shoujo were more radical than today. A typical but otherwise readable contemporary shoujo I enjoyed was Tail of the Moon from Viz's Shojo Beat line.

    Great article! Thanks for writing!

    March 29, 2012 at 9:53 pm |
  20. Bastian Avser

    VIOLENT WORLD PSYCHIATRY-PSYCHOLOGY REVEALED(mindless mkultra crimes performed by police and psychiatrists/psychologists)

    USE OF MKULTRA + HUNGER GAMES TODAY....STATE OF THE ART EXPLANATION ON MIND CONTROL TECHNIQUES(violent world of government psychiatry/psychology and police revealed..... learn exactly per how is done and by whom... use of psychology/psychiatry for mass population or ethnic cleansing as well as crimes to which we witness daily on behalf of Zionism/communism/liberalism). SELF ELECTED GOVERNMENTS GOING AS FAR AS USING PEDOPHILIA TO RESOLVE THEIR MINDLESS CRIMINAL POLITICAL ISSUES AGAINST TARGETED VICTIMS WHILE BLAIMING IT ALL ON CHURCH !!!

    https://dailymotion.com/video/xpqc0u

    COMING NEXT....LEARN TRUTH ABOUT DAVID DUKE OR OBAMA OR RATHER US GOVERNMENT – 70 YEARS OLD NEWS(including Eastern European Ethnic cleansing for the sake of Slavic super state or Soviet Union number two). WHY TO TALK ABOUT MIND CONTROL WHEN WE ARE DEALING WITH ETHNIC CLEANSING.

    https://dailymotion.com/video/xpmelt

    https://dailymotion.com/video/xpkfh7

    All related to WHITES ARE NOT WELCOME IN AMERICA ANY LONGER !!! http://www.youtube.com/user/BostjanAvsec or rather http://www.dailymotion.com/video/xleq3o OBAMA'S HEALTH CARE RECORDED LIVE IN 2009 !!! EXILING WHITES(US citizens) WITH EXTREME PREJUDICE AND IMPORTING NON WHITES IMMIGRATION REQUIREMENTS FREE !!! WHY TO ACCEPT LIABILITIES FOR CRIMES COMMITTED WHEN WE CAN SIMPLY ASSASSINATE OUR VICTIMS(YOU) THANKS TO HUMAN RIGHTS ORGANIZATIONS AND FREE PRESS/MEDIA(most severe CENSORSHIP OF GENOCIDE in entire history of human kind) !! NOT HUMAN RIGHTS COURTS, BUT ORGANIZERS OF GENOCIDE AGAINST WHITES AND SPONSORS OF BOGUS "MULTICULTURALISM" CLAIMS AT EXPENSE OF WHITES !!!

    REMINDER...MY YOUTUBE ACCOUNT WAS HIJACKED(March 07th, 2012) BY US GOVERNMENT WHILE PRIMARY E-MAIL AS WELL AS BLOGS WERE ALL SHUT DOWN FOR THE SAKE OF CENSORSHIP REGARDING GENOCIDE AGAINST ME PERSONALLY THAT INVOLVED ABDUCTIONS / MK-ULTRA BRAINWASHING / FORCED BRAIN ELECTRODE – CHIP IMPLANTS / HUMAN EXPERIMENTATION / BLACKLISTING / FORCEFUL UNEMPLOYMENT AND ASSASSINATIONS AGAINST WHITE(under "NAZI" lie) CIVILIAN POPULATION TODAY IN 2011/2012 ACROSS THE EUROPE AND NORTHERN AMERICA !!!

    March 29, 2012 at 2:35 pm |
    • archchuzzlewit

      Get back on your meds.

      March 30, 2012 at 10:49 am |
    • Flora

      Who are you & why do you keep posting the same dang comment all over CNN?!?!?!

      March 30, 2012 at 12:28 pm |
    • FM

      Take your meds and then take a nap.

      April 2, 2012 at 9:36 pm |