Right-To-Left, East Meets West: Everything You Need To Know about Manga

We’re back with Bookstr Trivia to talk all things manga! Learn a little bit of history and key terms to better indulge in the medium.

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"Pokemon Adventures" manga cover, "Sailor Moon" manga page, and Hana to Yume magazine cover on a turquoise and dark gray background, with an ocean wave graphic.

Ever wonder about Japanese manga? Is it pronounced “menga” or “monga?” Are they different from anime? Are they the same as “regular” comics? We’re answering these questions and more in another edition of Bookstr Trivia! From their history in America to how they’re categorized, here are all the basics you need to know about the popular Eastern comics.

Defining Manga

Manga (maang-guh) are Japanese comics that were first developed in the Heian Period (794-1185 CE), commonly known as the golden age of Japan. This was a time of great innovation in art and literature, producing the world’s first novel, and of course, what’s considered the first manga. Titled Choju-jinbutsu-giga (The Frolicking Animals and Humans Scroll), this was a set of painted picture scrolls filled with black and white caricatures of anthropomorphic animals. The set is a Japanese National Treasure and can be found in the Kozan-ji Temple in Kyoto, Japan.

Panel of the "Choju-jinbutsu-giga" painted scroll, depicting two frogs and a rabbit chasing after a monkey.
IMAGE VIA GETARCHIVE

These days, manga is serialized in magazines (e.g., Weekly Shonen Jump, Hana to Yume) for different target demographics. Series are released chapter by chapter on a weekly, bi-weekly, monthly, or bi-monthly basis. If a story is popular enough, after a certain number of chapters are published, they then get compiled into tankōbons — a.k.a., manga volumes. If the volumes sell well, the manga often gets adapted into an anime or Japanese animation.

Magazine issues of Weekly Shonen Jump and Hana to Yume, featuring miscellaneous manga characters and Japanese text.
IMAGE VIA BOOKSTR / GABRIELA COLLAZO

Manga vs Western Comics

The obvious difference between manga and comics is their visual presentation. Most manga are illustrated in black and white, and you read them from right-to-left. Comics are mostly in full-color and read from left-to-right. The biggest discrepancy between the two, however, is in how they’re serialized.

Library of Japanese manga and other Asian publications on beige wooden shelves, and three library goers in the background.
IMAGE VIA CANVA

Instead of publishing in a magazine alongside other series, comics typically release as “single issues,” which are usually 25 to 40-page standalone stories that follow a single character or team of heroes. As is the case with superhero comics, several “single issues” written by various creators can run simultaneously without having any relation to one another. Rather than creating one developing story, the same character(s) is reinterpreted by different writers and placed in non-converging storylines. This is how the idea of multiverses came about — to justify the parallel existence of so many versions of, say, Spider-Man or Batman.

Stack of superhero comics, including Spider-Man and Batman.
IMAGE VIA CANVA

On the flip side, a manga series follows a single, overarching narrative and is created by one mangaka (writer and/or illustrator) or mangaka group. There may be spin-offs running alongside the main story, but they form part of the same franchise. In other words, manga tend to be more linear than traditional superhero comics.

The History of Manga in the West

In the mid ‘60s — during the Silver Age of comics — publishers began importing manga to the West. The way they initially went about it, though, was by recreating series from scratch to better market them to American audiences. The original Astro Boy (1965), for example, was completely re-illustrated to look like your average superhero comic. The first manga to be published in English with its artwork intact was Barefoot Gen (1979), a publication that was charity-funded.

Manga cover of "Barefoot Gen" by Keiji Nakazawa, featuring black and white drawings of a crumbling building and a young man crying, with the story title in a centered red block and a red book spine detail.
IMAGE VIA BOOKSHOP.ORG

By the early 2000s, the manga market in the West was much more prevalent, with actual manga publishers (e.g., Tokyopop, Viz Media) already established in America. Regardless, changes were still being made to imported works. The art was preserved but flipped to read from left-to-right instead of manga’s right-to-left model. Moreover, character names and cultural references were Americanized. This resulted in fans taking matters into their own hands by creating what is known as scanlations or scantalation groups — a person or organized groups of people who translate and illegally post scans of manga online.

Panels from the manga "Sailor Moon" by Naoko Takeuchi, featuring black and white caricatures of a little girl in a sailor outfit, a feline villain, and two cats.
IMAGE VIA AMAZON

As both manga and anime have gained more mainstream appeal, the better their official English localizations have become. In fact, American audiences now have the luxury of receiving simultranslations and simuldubs — that is, manga and anime that come out in the U.S. immediately after they do in Japan. Platforms like Manga Plus and the Viz app offer same-day chapter releases of their licensed manga for free. Meanwhile, streaming services like Crunchyroll and HIDIVE, simulcast their anime mere days or weeks after their original air dates.

Home page of the Manga Plus website featuring multiple manga ads, against a black background.
IMAGE VIA BOOKSTR / GABRIELA COLLAZO

Given that not every series gets imported worldwide — nor do they all receive simultranslations — scanlations and even fansubbed anime still persist today. A major reason why people continually seek out scans is because they are entirely free of charge and don’t require monthly subscriptions. Nevertheless, the animanga market in America is, without a doubt, as successful as it’s ever been.

Manga Demographics

Given that manga are originally published through magazines, they are categorized by demographic: shoujo (girls), shonen (boys), josei (women), seinen (men), kodomomuke (children). Each manga demographic encompasses your typical story genres: action, romance, horror, etc. What demographic a manga falls into is mainly determined by the magazine from which the series originates — i.e., a manga published in Shonen Jump is categorized as a shonen manga. Let’s further break down the different types of manga:

Shoujo (Shōjo)

Examples of shoujo manga: Sailor Moon, Banana Fish, Yona of the Dawn

Three lined up volume covers of shoujo manga, including: "Sailor Moon" by Naoko Takeuchi, "Banana Fish" by Akimi Yoshida, and "Yona of the Dawn" by Mizuho Kusanagi.
IMAGE VIA BOOKSTR / GABRIELA COLLAZO

Shoujo is the target demographic of teen and tween girls. Though many think of it as synonymous to romance, shoujo harnesses a whole range of genres, such as: action, fantasy, comedy, horror, etc. Stories cater toward the female gaze and tend to have a female protagonist, but even that isn’t always the case (Ex.: Banana Fish).

Shoujo also tends to strongly focus on characters’ emotions and introspection. As far as visuals go, some recognizable art features include detailed sparkly eyes and backgrounds with floral motifs.

Shonen (Shōnen)

Examples of shonen manga: One Piece, Spy x Family, Komi Can’t Communicate.

Three lined up volume covers of shonen manga, including: "One Piece" by Eiichiro Oda, "Spy x Family" by Tatsuya Endo, and "Komi Can't Communicate" by Tomohito Oda.
IMAGE VIA BOOKSTR / GABRIELA COLLAZO

Inversely, the shonen demo is the male equivalent of shoujo. These are often thought of as action-adventure series, but, like shoujo, shonen is not limited to one genre. In fact, a number of recent popular shonen titles have been romances (Ex.: Komi Can’t Communicate). Likewise, though they typically feature male protagonists, there are plenty of exceptions (i.e., Komi).

Notable themes in shonen include friendship and coming-of-age.

Josei (Ladies’ Comics)

Examples of josei manga: Chihayafuru, Paradise Kiss, Something’s Wrong With Us.

Three lined up volume covers of josei manga, including: "Chihayafuru" by Yuki Suetsugi, "Paradise Kiss" by Ai Yazawa, and "Something's Wrong With Us" by Natsumi Ando.
IMAGE VIA BOOKSTR / GABRIELA COLLAZO

Josei, or ladies’ comics, are manga that cater to 18+ women. These tend to lean toward more mature themes than shoujo, and can be more graphic in nature. That is not to say that all josei is explicit or that shoujo is exempt from mature content. A perfect example of this is the work by Ai Yazawa, who’s mainly labeled a josei mangaka, even though her shoujo tends to delve into some of the same adult topics found in her josei. That said, josei stories as a whole tend to have a more realistic feel and outcome than most shoujo.

Seinen

Examples of seinen manga: Akira, Berserk, Kaguya-sama: Love is War.

Three lined up volume covers of seinen manga, including: "Akira" by Katsuhiro Otomo, "Berserk" by Kentaro Miura, and "Kaguya-sama: Love is War" by Aka Akasaka.
IMAGE VIA BOOKSTR / GABRIELA COLLAZO

This is the male equivalent of josei. Like its female counterpart, seinen leans into grittier situations than shonen stories. Seinen protagonists tend to have a more realistic worldview and can face heavier consequences, as opposed to the more hopeful tone that shonen manga usually strikes. Again, there are exceptions to this. One example is Kaguya-sama: Love is War, which does integrate some mature, psychological themes, but is overall a lighthearted rom-com.

A staple example of seinen is the cyberpunk manga Akira, whose anime adaptation film is partly responsible for the anime boom in America.

Kodomomuke

Examples of kodomomuke manga: Pokémon Adventures, Chi’s Sweet Home, Doraemon.

Three lined up volume covers of kodomomuke manga, including: "Pokémon Adventures" by Hidenori Kusaka and Mato, "The Complete Chi's Sweet Home - Part 1" by Konami Kanata, and "Doraemon" by Fujiko F. Fujio.
IMAGE VIA BOOKSTR / GABRIELA COLLAZO

Finally, we have manga aimed at children. Similar to Western children’s books, kodomomuke takes a moralistic, upbeat approach to its storytelling. The cover art is colorful and fun, while the characters (which often include animals), are wide-eyed and silly.

The most recognizable title in this category is probably none other than Pokémon. The juggernaut franchise does house several media, including shonen manga spin-offs, but its first manga installment, Pokémon Adventures, falls under the kodomomuke demographic.

Regardless of what demo you belong to, there’s a manga for everyone across the board. If you’re a parent, educator, or librarian, it’s simply important to note when a specific story is suitable for younger readers. Not everything marketed toward a certain demographic fully reflects that audience. Like with any book or pop culture content, it’s all on a case-by-case basis.

On that note, you can check out some personal favorites from yours truly right here!


Now that you’re rich in manga trivia, click here to get tips on how to actually get started on picking up manga and anime.

Then, hop on over to our Illustrious Comics, Manga, and Graphic Novels bookshelf on Bookshop.org to find all the manga mentioned in this article and more!

FEATURED IMAGE VIA BOOKSTR / GABRIELA COLLAZO