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What is Manga?

By Lorna W.
Updated May 23, 2024
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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.


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 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.

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.


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.

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Discussion Comments

By desichan0314 — On Jun 07, 2012

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.

By anon272867 — On Jun 04, 2012

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

By ellaesans — On Jul 15, 2010

@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.

By bbpuff — On Jul 15, 2010

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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