More and More Manga: An Updated Primer on Japanese Comics and Graphic Novels

New types of manga have proliferated and students can’t get enough of them. This overview of genres, publishers, formats, etc., will help you keep up to date.

Publishing is like any other business: if the public likes what you sell, give them more! This may explain the skyrocketing sales of manga over the past two years, with bookstore sales up 160% in 2021 alone. never have enough. This up-to-date, in-depth primer, looking at genres, publishers, formats, and more, will help you get up to speed.

“Manga” is simply the Japanese word for “comics”, and in English-speaking countries it means “comics from Japan”. Many people are familiar with the basic demographics of the four manga: shonen (teenagers), shoujo (teenage girls), seinen (young men), and josei (young women). These general terms refer to the types of magazines in which manga were originally serialized, but it may make more sense for American readers to think in terms of genre first.

The slice-of-life manga “Yotsuba &!”, for example, is popular with readers of all ages, but is published in a seinen magazine in Japan. Likewise, shonen novels such as “Your Lie in April” can appeal to all readers. Shonen stories are usually told from a boy’s perspective and a shoujo story from a girl, but there are exceptions in both genres.

The dominant genre is action/adventure stories, with the titles “My Hero Academia”, “Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba” and “Toilet-Bound Hanako-Kun” among the top sellers. Many of the best titles have a supernatural or fantasy element to them.

Romance is another enduring genre, and while harem comedies (in which the male protagonist is surrounded by beautiful women) and high school romance tales have gone nowhere, the variety of stories has expanded. We’re seeing more slice-of-life romances, like “Komi Can’t Communicate” and “Your Lie in April”, as well as romances with fantastic settings, such as “Red-haired Snow White.”

When it comes to LGBTQ+ stories, while there’s always an audience for yaoi (male/male novels written for female readers), high school stories often take a more realistic approach. The shoujo romance “A Tropical Fish Yearns for Snow,” for example, follows two high school girls who become friends but have deeper feelings for each other, while “Our Dreams at Dusk” is about a teenager who finds a welcoming gay community after being outed and bullied at school. Female/female romances are labeled yuri, while male/male romances are often referred to as “boy love”, sometimes abbreviated as BL.

Isekai (literally, “another world”) is a newer genre that has almost taken over the fantasy category. In these, the protagonist either dies or is taken to a new world that usually resembles a video game. In the “reverse isekai” genre, fantastic creatures find their way into our world and have to adapt to everyday life. Most isekai manga are aimed at older teens and adults, but a handful are suitable for younger teens.

Editors

Viz Media, the largest manga publisher in North America, is co-owned by two Japanese publishers, Shueisha and Shogakukan, so it has a direct pipeline to some of the most popular titles. by Shueisha Weekly Shonen Jump is the top-selling manga magazine in Japan, and Viz publishes series from this magazine and other Shueisha magazines digitally on its Shonen Jump site (viz.com/shonen-jump) and in print under its Shonen Jump imprint. Weekly Shonen JumpThe target demographic is teenagers, but it also has a large female readership. A typical Shounen jump story, like “My Hero Academia”, features a lot of action, a hero striving to achieve a goal, and a cast of friends and foes.

Kodansha Comics, the second largest manga publisher in the United States, is owned by Kodansha, the largest publisher in Japan. Kodansha’s imprint, Vertical Comics, publishes bolder, more literary titles, but also kid-friendly stories such as “Chi’s Sweet Home.” Yen Press places great emphasis on light novels and publishes many isekai and yuri series. Nevertheless, its most popular title is “Toilet-Bound Hanako-Kun”, a shonen action manga.

Seven Seas is a fast-growing publisher with several strong titles for tweens and teens, including LGBTQIA+ romances, fantasy, and older classic series. And smaller publishers include Square Enix, Udon, and Denpa, as well as American companies that publish manga such as Dark Horse, Drawn and Quarterly, and Fantagraphics.

Sizes

The standard format for American manga is still the paperback, about five by seven inches, 200 pages, with a color cover and a black-and-white interior. Most publishers retain the right-to-left orientation of the Japanese originals. The background may include notes from the translator, a guide to Japanese honorifics, and a personal message from the creator. Publishers may also use a slightly larger trim size for multivolume omnibuses, mature titles, and books that are special in some way.

Omnibuses offer more manga for the buyer’s money and save shelf space. Viz and Kodansha often reissue older series in omnibus form, bundling two or three of the original volumes together, while Seven Seas frequently uses the format for newly licensed series.

Beyond the omnibus is the prestige edition, often referred to as the “perfect edition”. These special editions are often released in Japan to mark the anniversary of a classic series and are then picked up by American publishers. Perfect editions are larger and thicker than the original volumes and may be hardcover or have a deluxe paperback format. They also include bonus material, like color pages or additional stories.

Spin-offs, anime and light novels

Responding to public demand for manga has resulted in spin-offs and prose novels based on popular properties. “My Hero Academia,” for example, has four spinoffs. Different types of media have also proliferated. A more recent medium is light novels, which offer escapist reading that often has themes similar to manga; fantasy and isekai are the two big genres. Like manga, light novels often have spin-offs, and sometimes there will be several different manga adaptations and even a video game. Yen Press and Seven Seas have their own light novel imprints (Yen On and Airship, respectively).

Research and sampling

All major publishers have websites with upcoming release schedules and book information. Additionally, Viz offers previews of many series and, in the case of the Shonen Jump series, publishes the first three and last three chapters online. The Manga Plus website also offers the first three and last three chapters of many titles and Kodansha also offers previews.

Nowadays, legal digital manga are also widely available; Japanese publishers adopted it in part to combat rampant piracy. Readers can find a wide range of titles on official digital services for free or at a reasonable cost, and publishers usually list digital options on their websites.

With so many choices, there is something for everyone. Now that you have the basics, it’s time to start reading!


Brigid Alverson founded the blog “Good Comics for Kids” (slj.com/goodcomics).

About Marcia G. Hussain

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