Sep 30, 2011

How To Read Manga

How to Read Manga
(An analysis of manga as the highest expression of sequential art and its position in modern pop culture)

This blog post is based on a discussion panel hosted by Jake Tarbucks, supplemented with my own research

Manga, translated literally, means “crazy pictures”, and is a format, not a genre. Manga crosses all genres, including westerns, sci-fi and romance, and can look like anything; there have been manga versions of popular western comic books, such as Star Trek and Superman.

According to the book The World of Japanese Comics by Frederik L. Schodt, the word manga can mean anime, caricature, cartoon, comic strip, comic book, or animation. It was created by the Japanese woodblock print artist Hokusai in 1814, who was trying to describe something like whimsical sketches. However the word manga did not become the popular word into the beginning of the 20th century.

A publishing company used to be required in order to produce and print a manga book, with trucks having to deliver them to stores. It is now possible, because of the Internet, to produce manga directly online, bypassing all of the brick-and-mortar steps that used to be required. The Japanese publishers have figured this out; they realized all they need is an editor, copywriter, and translator.

The result is that sooner or later, people will begin getting their manga directly from Japanese publishing websites, as opposed to bookstores. This makes it easier to produce manga in different languages, directed to different countries and cultures.
(image credit:

“Why do you waste your time reading those comic books?” 

How many of you have had to justify your passion for manga or comic books to family, teachers, or friends? There should be no shame in choosing this format for entertainment, and consuming our media.

Consumers of manga have traditionally been looked down upon, and the format treated like a sub-genre of comic books. There has not been a lot of respect given to manga, despite the fact that it has a very strong following, and readers are very devoted to the format, much like football fans are very devoted to their favorite teams. 

Manga, anime, cartoons, and comics have all been traditionally looked down upon as low culture; indeed the word "comics" implies a format incapable of any kind of high expression.

The most common graphic novel that is used to rebut these claims is the graphic novel Maus by Art Spiegelman, a graphic novel published in 1986, with the sequel published in 1991, that tells the story of Spiegelman's father and his experiences surviving the Holocaust. This graphic novel was the only one to win a Pulitzer Prize in 1992, which helped to gain some legitimacy for the format of the graphic novel.

 (click on the image to purchase)

One of the biggest problems in gaining legitimacy for the format is the very word comics. Most of what we read in comics and manga are not comical or humorous. The word "comic" is associated with standup comedians, slapstick comedy, and lowbrow humor.

But "comics", as a form of storytelling, goes back a very long way, all the way back to cave man days.
The earliest art ever created were sequential images created before written words were used. These images were arranged in sequence in order to tell sometimes very deep and meaningful stories, about religion and culture.

As language was developed, and manuscripts in ancient books were written, illustration continued to be a very important part of communication.

(image credit:

Sequential art is at the very root of art and history and literature.

Examples of this include key drawings by Neanderthal cave men and illustrations found in Incan and Mayan cultures. These illustrations told the story of heroes, battles, and gods, and they were told in sequence in order to tell very deep meaningful stories. These were in effect comic books, but for them, they were the highest form of literature and storytelling.


Above left: One of the most common Mayan art themes painted on Maya vases is the royal audience. The ahau, seated characteristically with legs folded, receives visitors. (image credit

Above Right:The Nativity; Harley 2876 courtesy of the British Library (image credit:



High Art Versus Low Art

Sometime around the 1600-1700s, a division was created between high art and low art. Prior to this, art was for everyone. But during this time, two classes of art became prevalent: the cheap art for the masses that cost little to produce, and the expensive art that was mainly designed to be consumed by the upper crust of society.

High art was supposed to be the epitome of artistic achievement, created with a fine materials, using meticulous techniques, expressing very refined and noble sentiments.

The appreciation of high art depended on educated taste, intelligence, and social standing. High art was supposed to be respected by everyone, but only the rich and educated were supposed to be able to understand and fully appreciate it. If it was too popular, it must be bad.

Low art was aimed at the common masses, not the elite of society, and was produced with cheap materials such as newsprint, using cheap methods.

If it was popular, it must not be very good, because the masses were not educated like the upper crust of society were, or so the logic went.

The Rise of Pop Culture

At the beginning of the 20th century, there were artists who rebelled against this separation of art, declaring that all art is equally good.

The best example of this was the artist Andy Warhol, who deliberately chose to mass-produce silk screened prints of such generic items as Campbell's soup cans, to make the statement that low art, or pop culture, was just as valid as high art such as paintings of the Mona Lisa. 

Another example is the artist Roy Lichtenstein (right), who deliberately copied the look of comic book panels using oil on canvas to simulate the crude quality and offset printing process used to make comic books, to make the point that pop art was just as valid as so-called high art.

The comic strips created by underground cartoonist Robert Crumb (below) have also been hung in museums and galleries. Ironically, some of these pop-culture pieces are now hanging on the walls of museums, and are valued at millions of dollars.

In short, the people who know the least about art are the ones who make this high art-low art distinction. Like any format, there is bad literature and good literature, but the format of comics and manga is not what defines that.

Our brain is wired to interpret and see the human face. It is a form of survival, it helps us to recognize whether a predator or another person is a friend or foe, based on their facial expressions. Is this person going to attack me, or embrace me?


Facial expressions and body language are what our brains interpret to help insure our survival. This is why people see faces in clouds, and why inanimate objects seem to have "faces". 

How many times have you read about someone seeing the face of Jesus or the Madonna on a slice of toast?

We see ourselves in comic books, which is why we do not need extremely lifelike illustrations in order for us to identify with the characters.

A perfect example is Charlie Brown, which has a bare minimum of facial features, but is a character that almost everyone identifies with. The simpler the illustration, the more symbolic it is, and the more meaning that we give it.

The three things which determine facial expression are the eyebrows the eyes and the mouth, because they move. The nose, chin, shape of the head...they do not move, and you cannot tell a person's expression by them.

People often assign emotions to a face where no such emotion exists, because our brain is wired to do just that.

Manga has an extreme level of detail in the backgrounds, but manga faces tend to be extremely simple. The faces have been stripped down to the bare features on purpose. This allows the reader to fill in the blanks on their own. Our brains take in a little bit of information, and fill in the rest.

(image credit: Love-An-Cafe)

Which is why when you see only the upper half of a character in a comic strip panel, you know he has legs even though you can't see them. If you cannot see the characters' other arm, you know it's there, because your brain is telling you it's there. People who have brain damage are unable to make this distinction. When we read comics and manga, we are creating a three-dimensional image in our minds that moves with the story, because our brains are filling in the rest.

Where are Charlie Brown, Lucy and Linus standing? On a city street? In a house? In a desert?

They are standing outside. How can you tell? Those scratch marks in the background. What are those? They could be anything.

Our brains tell us the scratch marks represent grass, and our brain fills in the rest. We see an empty lot, or a field.

Manga: Built For Speed

Manga is meant to be read very quickly; readers do not spend a lot of time on each page, Manga artist design their pages to be scanned rather than read, and they use a lot of imagery and symbols that our brains can interpret very quickly in order to create a three-dimensional story. 

The average manga reader takes roughly 20 minutes to finish a 320 page comic magazine. This breaks down to 16 pages a minute, or just under 4 seconds spent on each page. This is possible because of the structure of the Japanese narrative.

Unlike American comic books, Japanese comics make extensive use of purely visual effects and symbolism. American comic strips have been shrinking in the newspapers for years and consist of only three or four panels; American comic books are 20 pages per issue. The typical Japanese comic book artist has over 30 pages to use as they please per week. One manga story will often consist of 10 volumes, or over 2000 pages.

Manga character design

Manga artists deliberately make their characters symbolic, so that you instantly know who a character is, or what kind of character you're looking at. In manga, the character must be instantly recognizable. For example a shojo heroine has instantly recognizable features, such as big bright eyes, a demure face, a particular type of body and posture, and hardly any nose. The word shojo refers to a young woman approximately 7 to 18 years old.

If you saw an actual human being with a tiny to almost nonexistent nose, they would look like a freak. But in the world of manga it looks perfectly acceptable.

One of the most recognizable characteristics of manga is the large, childlike eyes of many of the characters.

The large eyes in manga and animation have become a fixture since the 1960s, when Osamu Tezuka began drawing them in this way. Tezuka, considered by many to be the godfather of anime, is responsible for such famous anime works as Astro Boy, Kimba the White Lion, and Black Jack. Osamu Tezuka's prolific output, pioneering techniques, and innovative redefinitions of genres earned him such titles as "the father of manga", "the god of comics"and kamisama of manga . Learn more about him HERE.

However, Tezuka did not invent the big eyed style, he was merely mimicking the Betty Boop and Disney cartoons that were popular at the time.

In his autobiography he writes, “I felt that existing comics were limiting...most were drawn... as if seated in an audience viewing a stage, where the actors emerge from the wings and interact. This made it impossible to create dramatic or psychological effects, so I began to use cinematic techniques... French and German movies that I had seen as a schoolboy became a model. I experimented with close-ups and different angles, and instead of using only one frame for an action scene or the climax (as was customary), I made a point of depicting a movement or facial expression with many frames, even many pages... The result was a super long comic that ran two 500, 600, even 1000 pages.”

Why Such Big Eyes?

Research has shown that large, childlike eyes increase the attractiveness of a character, and manga artists use childlike eyes to increase the appeal of their protagonists. In manga eyes you see the eye reflection that exaggerated, regardless of the surrounding lighting.

The lighting of characters who are dead or who have died is darker, and does not have a reflection. People with large eyes in manga are considered more trustworthy, where as the narrower, stereotypical “beady eyes” are associated with distrustful and dishonest characters, such as burglars.

At some point the spiky hairdo became the symbol of the good guy, whereas the evil characters tend to have more elaborate clothing, and narrower eyes. These are clues which help instantly identify the type of character in a manga novel. Manga also has a a large assortment of symbols and iconic imagery to depict various emotions that do not happen in real life, but serve to illustrate various emotional reactions in characters. To read a lot more about manga iconography, click HERE.

Below is a list of all of various anime and manga genres. as you can see, manga has genres targeting both genders, in all age groups.

Manga Genres

Okatu - Fans of anime in the United States. In Japan it is a derogatory term for anime-obsessed fans with no life and usually no job.

Manga - Japanese comic books, or comic books drawn in that style (wikipedia link)

Doujinshi - Anime and manga made by fans (wikipedia link)

Mecha - Anime focused on giant fighting robots

Bishounen - literally "beautiful youth", stories involving androgynous men geared to female readers. "Bishi" is a slang term for this genre. One of the appeals of this genre is the breakdown of traditionally strong male roles (athlete, warrior, martial arts expert, etc).

Shonen - Literally "a few years"; manga that targets the 10-18 year old reader. A popular genre, it is generally about action/fighting, but often contains a sense of humor and strong growing friendship-bonds between the characters.

Shonen-ai - Stories about beautiful, effeminate boys in love with other beautiful, effeminate boys, usually targeted to female readers. Shonen-ai does not contain sexually explicit love scenes, but has implied love scenes as part of the storylines.

Shojo - Literally "young girl", manga targeted to the 10-18 year old female reader

Shojo-ai - Shojo-ai is the American term, Yuri is the Japanese term, and refers to romance love stories between girls, targeted to female readers, with one girl having more masculine qualities than the other. Yuri can focus either on the sexual, the spiritual, or the emotional aspects of the relationship, the latter two sometimes being called shōjo-ai by western fans of manga.

Fanservice - Unnecessary elements to a storyline, usually sexual in nature, to please a core group of fans of a series

Ecchi - Anime or manga that has borderline pornographic or sexual content (skimpy clothing, partial or full nudity). Derived from a Japanese word meaning "erotic", "lewd", "sexy", or "lascivious"

Seinen - A word meaning "young man", manga targeted at older males, usually between 18-30 years old.  It has a wide variety of art styles and more variation in subject matter, ranging from the avant-garde to the pornographic. Seinen manga is distinguished from shounen, or boy's manga by having a stronger emphasis on realism and also by having a more well developed storyline.

Josei - The female equivalent of Seinen 

Yaoi - Also known as boys' love, this is manga of a homosexual nature, created by women for female readers, with more sexual overtones to the storylines. (wikipedia link)

Hentai - Sexually explicit anime pornography. The word hentai has a negative connotation to the Japanese and is commonly used to mean sexually perverted.

Shotacon - A slang word that refers to romantic or sexual attraction to young boys, or a person who has such an attraction. It refers to a genre of manga and anime wherein pre-pubescent or pubescent male characters are depicted in a suggestive or erotic manner, leading critics to charge that this genre encourages the sexual abuse of children.  Understandably, shotacon is very controversial. Given the extreme sensitivity of this type of material, possession of it can lead to arrest and conviction.

Unique Sub-Genres of Anime

Magical Girl - girls with superhuman powers who fight evil and protect the world

Meccha Anime - vehicles, pilots and/or machine operators as the principle themes

Gag Anime - Anima that has no plot, but a series of jokes, strange situations and over-the-top reactions by characters. Some of the gags can seem downright surreal and alien to western readers

Harem Anime - stories involving a protagonist of either gender surrounded by multiple characters of the opposite gender, and the situations that arise from it (a male surrounded by women, a woman surrounded by men). This genre is usually risque and has sexual themes

Is Anime Appropriate For Children?

The short answer is yes, but be careful of the following:
  • Nudity (either sexual or just characters unclothed)
  • Sexual humor or situations
  • Permanent character deaths - in some storylines, a main character may be killed off, sometimes brutally, without warning and early in the storyline. These characters are not revived to make a happy ending. Such plot points could be upsetting
  • Dark or gray areas of morality - Unlike western stories, where main characters are generally either good or evil, some anime have characters that do good deeds but also have less-than-honorable motives as well. A character may help people for a fee, for example, but allow a town of innocent people to get slaughtered because his fee was not paid

How To Tell If Anime Is Appropriate
  • Watch it. Most anime can be found on-line
  • Check the back of the DVD case for the age-based rating
  • Read reviews of the anime in question
  • Ask around, ant anime-based conventions, clubs, on-line forums, comic book stores 

1 comment:

:) said...

It's Otaku and you don't have to live in the United states to be a Otaku