At my library, comics are a super-popular component of the YA section, accounting for the majority of circulation, and manga are a very popular type of comics.  Manga fans are very dedicated and will often get huge stacks of comics to read out all at once. If you don’t have manga at your library yet, you should definitely pick some up–at least a sampling of titles so you can gauge if your local interest is the same as it is here.

“Manga” is the Japanese word for “comics”, and is typically used in the US to refer specifically to Japanese comics. “Anime” is the equivalent for “animation.”  Most manga and anime have a distinctive look, and sometimes you’ll also see the terms applied to Western media done in a similar style, such as Avatar: The Last Airbender. This modern look was developed by manga pioneer Osamu Tezuka (creator of Tetsuwan Atom (aka Astro Boy)  and many others), who was himself inspired by early Disney cartoons.  

Prior to the late 80s, manga was mostly unknown in the US except among hardcore fans. What little was officially released was generally available only in butchered translations and presented with the artwork (which reads right-to-left in the original) mirrored to read left-to-right.  Anime series were sometimes dubbed for US TV, but typically in heavily altered forms and with many viewers not aware of their origins.

This changed in the 90s with the release of several new series in the US such as Dragon Ball, Sailor Moon, and Pokemon, and the explosive growth of the internet, which allowed fan culture to blossom.   Several trends started around this time which became the foundation for the modern period of manga in the West:

Dragon Ball creator Akira Toriyama insisted on his artwork being released ‘unflipped’, in the original right-to-left format, for publication in English, and because he was Akira Toriyama, and they weren’t going to not release massive worldwide sensation Dragon Ball, he got it. Within a few years, almost all manga were released in this format–usually with a notice on the last page which says “STOP! You’re reading in the wrong direction!”

-Less material started getting censored, for a couple of reasons. One is that the fans now knew it was going on, thanks to the Internet, and absolutely loathed it. The other is that, as the Western market became larger, manga creators started tailoring their work with an eye to a piece of the translation pie, and self-censored things they knew wouldn’t fly.  

-Openness and cross-cultural influence went both ways, and as “manga style” got big in the US, manga and anime started to show more influence from US art styles and ideas as well. (See the current series My Hero Academia, which features American-style costumed superheroes.)

Just about as soon as manga became mainstream in the US in the mid-90s, a stereotypical image of ultra-violence and hyper-sexualization began to emerge. The typical depiction of in the media became a middle-school girl in her underwear being chased around by tentacle monsters or possibly beheading someone.  It was a pretty big generalization, but it didn’t come out of nowhere, either–that kind of stuff does exist (and lots of it). How can you know what’s in the manga you’re purchasing?

-Most manga will have an age rating on the back. Almost everything released in the US gets wedged into Teen and Older Teen.  

-Fanservice and objectification is often rampant even in some otherwise very good series–Food Wars is a prime example for managing to work multiple scenes of women’s clothes flying off into a story that’s mostly about competitive cooking.  

-Racial diversity is still not something you’re going to see a lot of, largely due to how racially homogeneous Japan is–it’s just not something people think of in the same way.  LGBTQ characters are still mostly used as punchlines, with popular series One Punch Man and One Piece striking some particularly low notes here, and same-sex couples are mostly nonexistent outside of highly objectified depictions in comics aimed at straight people. 

Manga series can run long–really long.  Kochi Kame, an epic comedy about a wacky police officer, ran for forty years and filled 200 volumes with 1,960 chapters. Nothing that’s been translated and published in the US comes close to that, but you’ll still find several long-running series, such as the pirate saga One Piece (87 volumes and counting, and by many measures the most popular comic on Earth), the supernatural actionfest Bleach (74 volumes) and the magician’s-guild fantasy Fairy Tail (recently ended at 63 volumes, with countless spinoffs.)   I’ve found that, like with many series, circulation for any manga series tends to start high and drop off as you go, and because there are so many of them, the effect can be very pronounced. 

Existing alongside manga, but not manga themselves, are light novels. These are text rather than graphic novels, but they look like manga on the outside, so it’s easy to confuse one for the other. The content is usually pretty similar too, with plots and story beats that read like someone transcribed a manga into novel form (and a lot of popular manga started out as light novels, or vice versa.)  If you get light novels you’ll probably need a way to distinguish them, or they’ll get mixed in with the manga all the time.

Most manga published in the US is aimed at teens and up, but all-ages series do exist. Chi’s Sweet Home is an adorable story told from the perspective of a kitten, Pokemon has a number of manga adaptations, and there are several licensed Disney manga, such as Kilala Princess and a two-volume adaptation of Big Hero 6, because Disney doesn’t leave money on the table anywhere in the world.  Other all-ages manga are out there, too. Be aware that some manga can have more provocative content and still be considered “all ages.” 

I hope you’ve found this information helpful.  For suggestions about which manga to buy, you can always ask your local manga fans–maybe they know a great series that isn’t anywhere in the library system.  You can also check publisher’s websites for hot new releases (VIZ comics, Seven Seas, and Kodansha USA are three of the big ones.) And please feel free to contact me any time if you want to chat about manga or other comics.

-Submitted by Steph Cherrywell, Antigo Public Library