Manga 101 by Kat Vinson

Kat Vinson, better know as SparksofEmber, is an avid reader, blogger, long-time subscriber to The Scriblerians, and my friend. Her dream is to someday live in Japan (or Taiwan), building relationships, immersing herself in their culture, and living God’s light. Please welcome Kat to the blog as she teaches us about one of her reading passions, Manga.

So, manga… Either you love them – or you just haven’t yet experienced the joy that is contained in them. 😉 Today I am going to share a crash course in graphic novels – because an informed reader is a happy reader, right?

Graphic Novels or Manga
Manga (pronounced Mhan-gah – both plural and singular) is the Japanese word for what we commonly call graphic novels. Similar to anime being the Japanese word for animated cartoon, “purists” can make a career out of distinguishing Japanese manga from Western graphic novels. However, there is more that distinguishes “manga” from Western graphic novels than just the name.

Left-to-right or Right-to-left
Japanese is read right to left and most publishers stay true to the original format. Back before manga were very popular, it was common for publishers to flip the panels to fit Western norms of left-to-right reading. This generated a lot of criticism, especially from the artists (mangaka) as the flow of the artwork was heavily effected, not to mention all the comic characters suddenly becoming left-handed and so on.

Korean manhwa, while not quite as popular as Japanese translations, are written left-to-right. And, of course, Western graphic novels are the same. Learning to read a comic from right to left seems tricky at first but it doesn’t take long to learn to follow the flow of the comic. Nowadays I’ve become so accustomed to reading manga right to left that I’m more likely to confuse myself trying to read an American comic backwards. 😉


Just like regular books are commonly divided by genre, manga (and anime) have genre, too. But instead of fantasy, science fiction and so on, they are categorized by intended audience. The most common genres are:

Shōnen –  Aimed at younger males, usually up to about 15-18 years-old. Shōnen manga traditionally has a young male hero and is focused on action, adventure, and fighting. Examples*: Dragon Ball, Bleach, Naruto, One Piece, Attack on Titan.
Seinen (Say-nen) – Aimed at men in their late teens into adulthood. Seinen manga are more mature and so tend to be more violent and/or psychological in nature. And they may contain “adult” themes. Examples*: Berserk, Ghost in the Shell, Monster, One Punch Man, Battle Royal, Vagabond, Hellsing, Gantz
Shōjo – Aimed at younger girls – the female equivalent of Shōnen. Shōjo manga focus on romance and relationships — though this does not mean they are necessarily without action or adventure. Examples*: Kimi ni Todoke, Boys Over Flowers, Vampire Knight, Ouran High School Host club, Skip Beat, Fruits Basket, Revolutionary Girl Utena, NANA, Sailor Moon, Fushigi Yuugi
Josei (Joh-say) manga – Aimed at women in their late teens into adulthood. In general, these works tend to portray more realistic relationships (as opposed to shōjo’s often idealized ones) and can cover darker subjects. Like Seinen manga, they can have more “adult” content than the shōjo variety. Examples*: Loveless, Kimi no Sei, Paradise Kiss, Honey and Clover, Kimi wa Pet.
Kodomo (aka Kodomomuke) Manga: Comics/anime for little kids. Examples: Doraemon, Hello Kitty, Chibi Maruko-chan
Dōjinshi Manga: Comic publication that’s written by and for amateurs. Think fanfiction and the like.

(*I am not necessarily recommending these titles. They are just well known titles in each genre.)

*Head’s Up!*
Manga featuring “clean” same-sex relationships are referred to as Shōjo-Ai (girl-love) or Shōnen-Ai (boy-love). As such, they usually fall under the Shōjo category umbrella. Same-sex relationships under the Seinen/Josei umbrella are referred to as Yaoi (male) or Yuri (female). Also, if the book is covered in plastic-wrap, it’s a fair bet the inside has “Hentai” (pornographic) contents.

So how do you know if a manga is Shōnen or Seinen, Shōjo or Josei? Some stories might be obvious while some seem innocent until you stumble across a page that shocks your socks off. Which leads me to…

Rating System
I have often heard readers lament that YA fiction does not come with a rating system. Well, manga do (at least in the Western market.) But just because something is rated A (or E), doesn’t mean it might not be a Seinen or Josei manga – just like a G-rated movie doesn’t automatically mean it’s only for grade-schoolers.

A for all ages (or E for everyone)
T for teen
T+ (or OT) are for older teens
M for mature

At least one publisher also adds a Content Indicator to supplement the rating.
L – language
S – sexual situations
V – violence
N – nudity

The problem with mere ratings is it’s not always obvious exactly why certain books are rated the way they are. The content indicator helps but there is only one publisher who uses them and even they don’t explain everything. So a wise reader (or parent of said reader) needs to research or be prepared for surprises. You could end up buying Loveless because it sounds like a good mystery, it’s only rated T and there’s a boy with cute cat ears on the cover only to discover that the cat ears indicate his virginity and it’s a Shōnen-Ai (almost Yaoi) story about the relationship between a 12 year-old and a college-age man!
So What’s So Great About Manga?
All of this might be scaring you off of manga and I truly hope that’s not the case. For one, the pictures in manga and other graphic novels can be great for capturing the imagination of reluctant readers. Mangaka have also perfected conveying emotions and depth through art and dialogue. Screentones, backgrounds and illustrative speech bubbles can set the mood for a scene. Iconography lets you inside a character’s mind as much as their thoughts do. (A sweatdrop on a forehead indicating embarrassment or confusion, “cross-popping” veins indicating anger or frustration, etc.) And sometimes, the illustrations are just beautiful. One of my favorite aspects of manga are how they can be a window into Japanese culture, especially as many volumes have footnotes and cultural references at the end.
But what’s best about manga is how they can be just as powerful and moving as any novel. Full Moon wo Sagashite has an underlying theme of choosing life over suicide. Fruits Basket has strong themes about friendship, accepting differences, and forgiveness. Rurouni Kenshin revolves around atonement for past actions. Whatever your preferred genre, theme, and even art-style, there’s manga that will speak to you. If you haven’t explored that world yet, I hope you will soon.



16 thoughts on “Manga 101 by Kat Vinson

  1. Loved the post, I’ve been a long reader of manga 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Kat – If we were going to start reading manga, could you give us a couple of titles we could start with? Maybe something our local library would have? I’d like to check one out.


    • I mostly read shojo so I can’t advise much in the shonen/seinen camp. Rurouni Kenshin by Nobuhiro Watsuki is good shonen though the art is a little busy (and a bit violent). There are others I know are extremely popular but I haven’t read so couldn’t really advise one way or the other.

      Fruits Basket by Natsuki Takaya is one of the most popular shojo manga series in the US (& one of my top faves). The artwork is nice and fairly uncluttered and the story is very well done. However it’s a longer series so not sure if your library would have it all. I adore Ouran High School Host Club but it’s a bit on the wacky side and the artwork can be busy.

      It really depends what kind of story you are looking for…

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ve never really gotten into Manga as I’ve not really enjoyed the artwork. Japanese fiction always starts out in a way that seems odd to me. Watching anime has been a little more accessible for me. It always takes me almost half a season to get beyond how Japanese stories seem to start.


  4. I was completely uninformed about manga but all that has changed now. The right-to-left would take some getting used to!


  5. Kat, thanks for the crash course! My niece lives and works in Japan and loves anime and manga. Now I’m better equipped to discuss them with her.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ooh – what a great experience for her! (I’m jealous!) Truthfully, I rarely watch anime anymore – I prefer live-action tv dramas now. It’s amazing how much of the language you pick up just by watching, too. 🙂


  6. Kat, I’m so happy you have explained this to us! I’m still overwhelmed at the number of different categories, but the artwork is truly amazing. I’m not enthused with the exaggeration in facial expressions for the most part but the artistry is what I enjoy. There is structure, good composition, and drama! When I go into the schools to teach art, I always have to include a Manga lesson.


    • The categories can be overwhelming and it doesn’t help that they’re all mixed in together on the shelves at US bookstores. Arina Tanemura & Matsuri Hino are two of my favorite artists – their work can be so intricately beautiful -though their stories can be…unique…


  7. I have never tried manga, nor graphic novels. I think that’s because I read fast, and stopping to look at the pictures slows me down. However, I can see how reluctant readers would be lured into the world of literature with this style. I will probably check out a couple from the local library, just to see.


    • My daughter has severe dyslexia and finding books that interest her enough to want to persevere through has been tricky – until she got interested in Sailor Moon. We’ve been having to buy a new volume every week. This past week we missed buying the next book so she picked up Fruits Basket off my manga bookcase and is working on that now. We’re just so happy to have found something she wants to read!

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Pingback: Manga 101 by Kat Vinson – Sparks of Ember

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