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What is Manga?

Manga, a vibrant cornerstone of Japanese culture, is a captivating art form of storytelling through graphic novels and comics. These richly illustrated narratives span every genre, offering something for every reader. From action-packed adventures to heartwarming dramas, manga's unique style and storytelling have garnered a global following. Ready to explore how manga can redefine your reading experience?
Lorna W.
Lorna W.

Manga loosely refers to a style of cartoons originating in Japan. They usually are published in installments, and depending on their form, can be up to several hundred pages long. Many different genres are available, so they are popular with people of all ages and backgrounds. Known for their in-depth plots and characters, these well-respected works have been drawn for hundreds of years, although the modern version developed starting in the mid-20th century.


Manga style boy and girl.
Manga style boy and girl.

How people define manga is somewhat controversial. Outside of Japan, the term usually means a cartoon or comic from Japan, and even more specifically, drawings by a Japanese mangaka — a cartoon/comic artist. In recent decades, however, people from other countries have started working in this style, and the Japanese traditionally have used the word to refer to any cartoon or comic, regardless of where a person drew it or where he or she lives. Some experts argue that it’s better to categorize these works based on the specific characteristics usually found in the drawings for this reason.

Form and Length

Manga style girl with knives.
Manga style girl with knives.

Manga often is published in magazines, which usually are no more than 40 pages long. Comic books usually are around 150 - 200 pages. Graphic novels, which are different from regular comics and comic books in that they give a complete story with a beginning, middle and end, can be several hundred pages long. With the exceptions of this long form and collections of previously published works, the comics are typically published serially or in installments, because the intent of the publisher is to keep the reader interested and coming back for the next piece of the story.

Manga style running girl.
Manga style running girl.

Regardless of length, manga typically keeps the traditional flow of the Japanese language, meaning it is read from top to bottom and right to left. To an English reader, this seems “backward,” as it requires starting from the back of the work. Some publishers use a practice called flipping to put the story into a format that is more familiar to non-Japanese fans for sales overseas.


Judge Dredd is an example of a graphic novel series.
Judge Dredd is an example of a graphic novel series.

Publishers and general readers usually divide manga into several different groups. Shōujo (“young girl”) is directed at females up to age 18 and usually has some romantic ideas, and shōnen (“boy”) is the male equivalent, typically having a more action- or sports-based concept. Works for young children, especially those who are just getting started reading, are called kodomo (“child”). Publications for women are josei (“woman,” “feminine”), and men read seinen (“man,” “masculine”). Many of the stories for adults are not appropriate for children, showing violence or sex. In fact, an entire subgroup, hentai (“perverted”), revolves around erotic themes.

Also noteworthy is shōujo-ai (“girl love,” sometimes referred to as GL), or Yuri (“Lily”). This type deals with girl-girl relationships. Shōnen-ai (“boy love,” often called BL) is the version for guys, handling male-male relationships. People sometimes call it Yaoi, which is an acronym for yama nashi, ochi nashi, imi nashi (“no climax, no punch-line, no meaning”).

Gegika (“dramatic pictures”) is another category that is popular. Started primarily by Yoshihiro Tatsumi, these works are designed to be bolder and more experimental, not only in art style, but also in general content. People sometimes describe them as having a more realistic and less cartoonish approach to storytelling. Most began as underground publications and are geared toward adults.

The popularity of this art form has resulted in an additional group: doujinshi (“fan art”). Individuals create it to show they really like a story that’s already been published, or because they want to use their own imaginations and artistic abilities to move a story in a direction that’s different or new. Although people often think of these as being amateur, some of them are remarkably good and exceptionally high in quality. Some artists even are able to sell their doujinshi in simply bound books, as posters and even on buttons and magnets. Fan conferences frequently host these vendors in addition to well-known, professional artists.

Art Characteristics

Although each artist has his or her own style, in general, drawings are done in pen and ink and are black and white, with an emphasis on clean lines. Except for highly realistic series, most characters have very large, almond-shaped eyes, and their other body parts often are humorously out of proportion. Hair can be dramatically long, especially on heroes and heroines, but if an artist picks a shorter style, it tends to have a spiky appearance.

In all but the most serious stories, characters also show their emotions quite clearly. In addition to manipulating their characters’ facial expressions, artists frequently include special devices to make feelings more pronounced. One of the most common, for example, is a sweat drop on the forehead, which shows that a character is feeling awkward, worried, embarrassed or tired. Exclamation points over the head generally translate to shock, surprise or being dumbfounded, while steam from the ears demonstrates anger or frustration. It is not unusual for an artist to draw the eyes very differently than usual at these points, such as leaving them completely white, which is typically associated with being stunned in some way.

Mangaka sometimes purposely change the style of a character to emphasize what the character wants or is going through. A hero that normally appears muscled and tall, for example, might appear drawn as an infant or child if he is throwing a tantrum or doesn’t want to do something. The choice of how to alter the character depends a lot on the connotations the artist wants to get across, such as immaturity or infatuation. The shift is usually very brief, sometimes showing up in just one frame.

Story Characteristics

In general, manga is known as having complex, in-depth, emotional plots that attract readers through their drama. Some people assert that this is what separates it from other cartoons and comics and makes it appealing to all age groups. Even so, depending on the genre, certain clichés do show up. In shōnen, for example, a girlfriend usually suddenly appears in some way, starting the main story movement. One of the most popular stories where this happens is Oh My Goddess!, where the main character calls out for pizza and instead gets a goddess hotline.


Mangaka typically study with someone already in the field before branching out on their own, usually through an apprenticeship. Many study formally at a general art or manga school. In a few rare cases, individuals get their start by winning contests, or because their doujinshi catches the eye of a professional artist or publisher.

Relationship to Anime

Manga is closely related to anime, or Japanese animation. Some series are adaptations of popular anime television shows or movies, and vice versa. In these cases, the adaptation does not always remain true to the original storyline, so even though the concept and artistic style in both versions might be roughly the same, a person might develop a preference for one form or the other. With the same title sometimes referring to both still and moving cartoons, fans often have to be clear about which one they mean, especially when leaving reviews or selling products.


In the United States, cartoons and comics usually are thought of as something for children, so outside of a devoted fan base, they often don't garner much respect as art or literature. The exception is the graphic novel, which people tend to take a bit more seriously. In Japan, however, they are highly popular with males and females of all ages and walks of life. The amount of money spent on manga each year numbers in the billions. Kodomo in particular is welcomed for the role it is playing in helping kids become literate.


Manga is thought to have started centuries ago with Chojugiga ("The Animal Scrolls"), drawn by Kakuyu (1053 - 1140), but it didn’t really begin to develop as a full narrative form until the work of Hokusai Katsushika (1760 - 1849). The real boom started after the end of World War II.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is manga and how does it differ from Western comics?

Manga is a style of comic book or graphic novel originating from Japan, characterized by its unique artwork, themes, and storytelling techniques. Unlike Western comics, which often focus on superhero narratives, manga encompasses a vast array of genres and is aimed at diverse audiences, including children, teenagers, and adults. Manga is typically read from right to left, which is the reverse order of English-language books and comics. The visual storytelling in manga is highly expressive, often using exaggerated facial expressions and symbols to convey emotions and actions.

How did manga originate and evolve into its current form?

Manga has its roots in Japanese art and literature, with early examples dating back to the 12th century. However, the modern form of manga emerged in the post-World War II era, influenced by American comic strips and animation. Osamu Tezuka, known as the "God of Manga," played a pivotal role in shaping the medium with his cinematic style and sophisticated themes. Over the decades, manga has evolved to include a wide range of genres and has become an integral part of Japanese culture and a significant influence on global pop culture.

What are some popular genres within manga, and who are they targeted at?

Manga genres are diverse, catering to various demographics. Shonen manga, aimed at young boys, often features action-packed stories with male protagonists, like "Naruto" or "Dragon Ball." Shojo manga targets young girls and focuses on romance and relationships, exemplified by titles such as "Sailor Moon." Seinen manga is for adult men and includes more sophisticated themes, while Josei manga, for adult women, often portrays realistic romance and everyday life. Other genres include horror, fantasy, and science fiction, each offering unique storytelling styles and content.

Where can I read manga, and are there legal ways to access it online?

Manga can be read in physical book format, purchased from bookstores or borrowed from libraries. For digital access, there are several legal online platforms where you can read manga, such as Crunchyroll, ComiXology, and VIZ Media's Shonen Jump app. These platforms often offer a mix of free and subscription-based content, providing a vast library of manga titles that are translated into English and other languages. It's important to use legal sources to support the creators and the industry.

How has manga influenced other forms of media and entertainment?

Manga has had a profound impact on global entertainment, inspiring countless adaptations in the form of anime (Japanese animated series or movies), live-action films, and video games. The distinctive art style of manga has also influenced Western comic artists and animators. Moreover, manga storytelling techniques and character archetypes have been integrated into various media, contributing to the growing popularity of Japanese pop culture worldwide. The international success of franchises like "Pokémon" and "Attack on Titan" underscores manga's significant cultural influence.

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Discussion Comments


Manga is the most amazing thing in the world. Mangas are usually better than animes because they have a closer to them while animes do not. Manga is really interesting and you'll get addicted right away.


I love to read them even though i do enjoy the anime.


@bbpuff - I actually prefer to read a Manga before watching the Anime. In a lot of cases, you can find Manga all over the place now - even in top name bookstores, which is great. There are even books on how to draw Manga.


Manga! Who doesn't like reading a good comic book every now and then? The truth is that most Manga comes in book or novel form rather than the comic version because the stories tend to be more in-depth than regular comics. Surprise, surprise - in addition to that, a lot of Anime series can also be found in Manga form.

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    • Manga style boy and girl.
      Manga style boy and girl.
    • Manga style girl with knives.
      Manga style girl with knives.
    • Manga style running girl.
      Manga style running girl.
    • Judge Dredd is an example of a graphic novel series.
      By: brett jordan
      Judge Dredd is an example of a graphic novel series.