“Manga had a spectacular year in 2020 despite the global COVID pandemic. Readers have been diving into manga as a big form of COVID era entertainment, and there’s growth across the board, even in the channels most affected by COVID shutdowns. Now more than ever, understanding this key category is critical.”
There are a few generally accepted definitions of manga, from its literal translation of “whimsical or impromptu pictures” to the more common “Japanese comics.” There’s also the looser description many non-manga fans use, as Benn Ray, co-owner of Atomic Books, recently noted: “Most of the people looking for manga erroneously refer to it [as] ‘the anime.'”
If you’re not an avid manga reader and don’t know the difference between it and anime, or shonen and shoujo, understanding the ins and outs of the medium can be daunting, even if you’re familiar with Western comics’ classic superheroes and/or the many award-winning graphic novels of recent years. While you may have heard of some of the most popular manga series like Attack on Titan, Berserk, Demon Slayer, My Hero Academia, and Naruto, if you’re responsible for building a diverse, representative collection of manga, you’re going to have to expand your knowledge beyond that.
This brief primer will help librarians and educators get a better understanding of what manga is, its unique categories, and some key titles to consider for your collection and/or readers’ advisory recommendations.
A Short History of Manga
“The story is revealed by unrolling the scroll from right to left… One story may require several scrolls or volumes.”
Wendy Strauch-Nelson, Emaki: Japanese Picture Scrolls, Art Education
The path for modern manga began nearly 1,000 years ago with emakimono, a horizontal, illustrated narrative form created during the 11th to 16th centuries in Japan. Like manga, these scrolls read from right to left, and the earliest examples have been interpreted as a satirical view of the Japanese priests of the era.
The era of what we’d consider modern manga begins in January of 1947 when 19-year-old Osamu Tezuka published his adaptation of Robert Lewis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. New Treasure Island would sell over 400,000 copies in the first year, effectively launching the modern manga publishing industry. Tezuka would eventually become the ‘godfather of manga’ and is often credited as a key contributor to Japan’s incredibly high literacy rate.
“Every one of those Waldenbooks was a billboard to kids. Where do kids go? They don’t go downtown, they go to the mall.” Milton Griepp
In the early 2000s manga found its footing in North America when Waldenbooks began dedicating major shelf space to the medium, and teens couldn’t get enough. Sales peaked in 2007 and began a steady decline for several years, partly driven by Borders (which owned Waldenbooks) going out of business in 2011. Over the next several years, manga sales picked up again as anime’s popularity surged, finding new audiences on streaming services like Netflix and Crunchyroll.
The most popular manga in 2020 was Demon Slayer, with total sales of the 23-volume series exceeding 82 million copies!
How do you capture this energy in your school or library? How do you pick the right manga for your physical and digital collections to best represent its diverse range of genres while satisfying demand? This will mostly depend on what your readers are interested in, but also on how much you know about manga to make informed recommendations beyond the most popular titles.
Manga is a medium that covers every genre you can think of, for readers of all ages and interests. The most popular manga are initially published in Japan where cultural differences can make finding “age-appropriate” titles more challenging, so understanding manga’s specific categories, and how “Amerimanga” may differ, is a critical first step to building a strong collection.
The two most popular categories primarily serve middle grade and young adult readers.
- Shōnen refers to titles intended for tween and teenage boys. Many other subjects and genres can be covered in a Shōnen title, but the focus of these titles typically is on action and/or humorous plots featuring male protagonists. Shōnen also includes the popular “Mecha” and “Harem” sub-genres.
- Shōujo refers to titles intended for tween and teenage girls. Many other subjects and genres can be covered in a Shōujo title, but the focus of these titles typically is on relationships and emotional interactions, typically featuring female protagonists. Shōujo also includes the popular “Magical Girl” sub-genre.
The most popular Shōnen examples include Attack on Titan, Naruto, and One Piece, while Stan Sakai’s Usagi Yojimbo is a classic in the category. The most popular Shōujo examples include Boys Over Flowers, Fruits Basket, and Glass Mask. Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra are excellent Shōnen-adjacent recommendations which have found a growing audience thanks to Nickelodeon’s anime series debuting on Netflix during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, while Disney has put a Shōujo spin on some of their most famous characters in series like Descendants, Fairies, and Kilala Princess.
- Kodomomuke translates as “intended for children” and indicates manga for children younger than the typical Shōnen and Shōujo audience, generally 3-to-10-years-old. They are usually more gender-neutral than traditional Shōnen and Shōujo manga.
The most popular Kodomomuke examples include Doraemon, Dragonball, and Pokemon, as well as Tezuka’s classic Astro Boy. Perhaps not surprisingly, this is another category where Disney has found success with manga adaptations of several of its popular characters, including Stitch.
Because manga isn’t “just for kids” in Japan, there are distinct categories for older readers and more mature interests, too.
- Seinen refers to titles intended for adult men, 18 or older. Like Shōnen, it covers a variety of subjects and genres, but with a stronger focus on realism and sophisticated storytelling.
The most popular Seinen examples include Berserk, Crayon Shinchan, Golgo 13, and Oishinbo. Kazuo Koike & Goseki Kojima’s Lone Wolf and Cub and Hiroaki Samura’s Blade of the Immortal are also considered hugely influential classics in the category.
- Josei refers to titles intended for adult women, 18 or older. Like Shōujo, it covers a variety of subjects and genres, but with a stronger focus on mature, realistic, and at times, troubling relationships.
The most popular Josei examples include Chihayafuru, Nodame Cantabile, and Usagi Drop. Bizenghast is a notable example of a series that fits the category despite originally being published first in the United States, in English, sometimes referred to as “Amerimanga” and making it manga-adjacent for some readers.
- Yaoi/Yuri is a term for manga which typically features mature (and occasionally graphic) romantic relationships between two male (Yaoi) or two female (Yuri) protagonists. These titles are traditionally created by women for women, though certainly not exclusively.
And finally, there’s a broad range of non-traditional and manga-adjacent titles to be aware of including but not limited to “Amerimanga.”
- Doujinshi typically refers to self-published manga titles from creators who originate from all over the world, or titles with a manga influence that don’t neatly fall into traditional manga categories. Some contain fan art that is a parody or derivative of traditional manga, sometimes with content very far removed from the source material.
“For fans, by fans,” Doujinshi can be a controversial category for manga purists. Some of the most popular examples include Boundry of Emptiness, The Full Room, and The Tyrant Falls in Love, while a more liberal definition might also include the majority of manga-adjacent and -inspired titles from publishers as varied as Antarctic Press and Tokyopop.
Building a Diverse Manga Collection
Manga is an incredibly diverse medium and there are a lot of opportunities to get lost in the weeds as you begin, or refine, your collection development strategy to incorporate it. Worse, you might deprive your readers of serendipitous discovery by only focusing on the most popular titles they already know about. Beyond the bestsellers in every category is a deep backlist to discover and enjoy, but building a truly diverse collection can put a strain on even the most ambitious budgets.
Engage your readers to find out what they’re already reading AND watching. Familiarize yourself with a range of great resources that specialize in manga for reviews and insights, including Good Comics for Kids, Manga Bookshelf, Manga Librarian, and No Flying No Tights.
And when balancing your budget between physical and digital collections, take advantage of Comics Plus’ unlimited simultaneous access to expand and diversify your manga collection with more than 1,500 titles—without breaking your budget!
Our panel of experienced educators and librarians—Mike Barltrop, Jillian Ehlers, Michael Gianfrancesco, Ashley R. Hawkins—shared their insights on everything you need to know about manga.
NOTE: A version of this article was also published at Comic Plus.