Make Mine...Manga?

I am, first and foremost, a fan of Marvel and DC superhero comic books. I read a fair amount of non-superhero comic books by many other American publishers too, but I realized the other day that two-thirds of the new (to me) comics I read these days are manga. This wasn’t some intentional change in reading habits by me, but it got me thinking about something I’ve been interested in for many years now: Why do so many young Americans read manga without becoming readers of American comics too? What makes manga more appealing to them?

"I'm All Fired Up!"

Before we dig in further, let me say a few things up front. First, this is not a “manga are better than American comic books” argument. I’m not interested in arguments about what is or is not “objectively better” here, just questions of personal tastes and interests. Both are great and popular with different folks, which is as it should be. Second, I’m not presenting this as a comprehensive, academic treatise. These are just a bunch of observations and opinions based on personal experience and conversations over the years, anecdotal as this is. And I’m not speaking in absolutes, even if it occasionally sounds like it. Understand that these are generalizations, and I’m sure it would not be difficult to find instances of people who are the exact opposite of the people I describe. My intention here is a starting point for discussion, not an end point of conclusion.

For better or worse, I think it’s also fair to acknowledge that the American market is still dominated by Marvel and DC Comics. Certainly not to the extent that it was in previous decades, but I think that is still dominant perception – American comics first means Marvel and DC Comics, and Marvel and DC first mean superheroes. When I ask a junior high or high school age person why they don’t read American comics, the most common response is “I’m just not that into superheroes.”I don't actually believe that per se -- they're all crazy for superhero movies and TV shows -- but I think it has more to do with other factors I'll discuss below. Still, the point is that superheroes are what they think of first with American comics.

Okay, on with the show.

"Did someone say show?"

When I was in art school many years ago, manga had just blown up in the sense that every Barnes & Noble in the country suddenly had a large Manga section, and it seemed like any bookstore of any size also had one. I was actually working at a Barnes & Noble then, and as an American comic book fan I was interested in the fact that more teens-and-younger browsed and bought manga than American comics. I would ask some of them about it, and have continued to do so over the years. And I now have a teenage daughter who is part of a large, extended peer group who are also into manga, so I occasionally poke their brains about it too. Some of their reasons match mine, and some don’t.

The first and most important thing I’ve learned over the years is that to them it’s not a “manga versus American comics” debate. Most of them have also read American comics and still do on occasion. I’ve found very little genuine “hate” for American comic books of any sort, and most of them are fans of cartoons, TV shows, and movies that feature American comic book characters (superhero or otherwise).  

I’ve encountered American comic book fans who quickly point out that manga/anime are “only” popular because to young people it’s “cool” to like something foreign and different. While being foreign no doubt helps manga have an air of "coolness", they’ve been popular here in the U.S. long enough that this is clearly not significantly about mere cultural cachet.

The single biggest draw into the world of manga actually seems to be anime. Because manga are so ubiquitous in Japan, any manga of any degree of popularity inevitably gets an animated series there. (Obviously here I’m focusing on anime that are based on a manga series, but there are also manga series that adapt original anime series too.) Now that anime and manga are established popular media around the world, those anime will soon land with dubbed or subbed versions in the U.S., with translated manga soon to follow (if they’re not already available). There are now anime episodes on every major streaming service, including YouTube. Many more people watch video than are going to read anything, so it’s an excellent gateway.

On top of that, for new and recent anime, very often the animated episodes are significantly behind the manga series, so if you’re hooked and want to find out what happens next (or just want to know more than your peers), you have to read the manga. Once you’re reading manga, reading more manga just follows naturally. That’s really what converted me from someone who had read a couple manga titles here and there to someone who reads manga regularly. I watched “Attack On Titan”, “Magi: Labyrinth of Magic”, “Knights of Sidonia”, “One Punch Man”, and “Fairy Tail”, all of which are or were far behind the manga they’re based on, and once I was hooked on the characters and stories I started buying the manga to get my what-happens-next fix.

"Knights! Knights! Knights! Of Sidonia! Ya! Ya!" I can't get it out of my head

And that brings us to what I believe manga’s greatest advantage in the market is: comprehensible product lines. If you watch the first season of “Attack On Titan” on Netflix and decide to check out the manga, you go to your FLCS or just about any bookstore and go to the manga section. There on the shelf you’ll find however-many current volumes of “Attack On Titan” collections are in print. There might be a few volumes of a companion series (most manga don’t have them, but some do), but a quick flip-through will reveal what’s what and you can buy the volume you want to buy, safe in the knowledge that you can come back later and buy additional volumes at your leisure.

There are a couple things that are important there, I think. The form factor and limitations are important. If someone watches “Teen Titans Go!” on Cartoon Network and goes to the graphic novels section of Barnes & Noble, they have to try to find a "Teen Titans Go" collection amidst a bewildering sea of DC books with different form factors (different thickness, different widths, different graphic design styling…), and they have to find it among a variety of Teen Titans collections from over 40 years of Teen Titans comics, with wildly different styles of writing and content, most of which have nothing to do with the Glen Murakami version of the Titans. It gets even worse when you’re talking about characters like the Avengers, Batman, or Spider-Man. 

I also think that buying collections that don’t feel “time sensitive” is a better buying experience for most people than the monthly (or more frequent) magazine-style publishing that still drives most American comic books. There’s not really an issue of “being current” in the same way that American comic book have traditionally been obsessed with. (And yes, I’m aware manga are first published in weekly anthologies in Japan for the most part, but that’s not how the manga market works in America.) While I still like the rhythm of the monthly American comic book, I do enjoy these aspects of manga too. 

I think the next biggest factor is that manga series are generally consistent and comprehensible in a way Marvel and DC Comics are not. Marvel and DC still publish towards a small base market of dedicated fans who are expected to care about continuity and to purchase multiple titles in the line featuring a variety of characters. A One Punch Man fan is only expected to buy and care about One Punch Man.

A consequence of Marvel and DC’s publishing reality is the dominance of “big events” in their publishing schedules. These crossovers include one or more limited series dedicated to the event itself as well as dozens of issues of individual ongoing series for different teams and characters (frequently disrupting whatever ongoing story arcs those series had going before the event). These events usually revolve around continuity-driven concerns: long-established characters are killed or otherwise changed in a major way, or brought back from the dead, or reality is altered in some grand fashion such that past “history” is dramatically changed. These draws are appealing to (enough) dedicated Marvel and DC fans, as evidenced by the spike in sales the companies receive from these events, but are far less appealing to, say, a “casual” Iron Man fan who just wants to read good Iron Man stories that don’t have anything to do with anything else.  

These event-driven changes are a significant reason why Marvel and DC collections on sale in your average bookstore are so daunting to “outsiders”. If you pull a Flash book off the shelf, is it corny, Silver Age Barry Allen Flash? Grim and serious Wally West Flash? Light-hearted and jokey Bart Allen Flash? New 52 Barry Allen Flash? Will the tone be a light-hearted PG Flash story, a dark, NC-17 “Elseworlds” tale? All these and more are possible.

Manga series may get drawn-out and repetitive sometimes...

"You got a problem with that?"

…but they all end eventually, and most are the work of a single writer/artist team, or an individual writer-artist and his team of assistants. They don’t have to worry about crossovers or publisher-mandated events, and so can focus on telling coherent, focused stories set in their individual story worlds.

There are, obviously, American comic book series that do this too, and I wish they had their own bookstore section separate from manga and Marvel/DC superhero comics. I also wish they followed the manga model of more uniform form-factors for their collections.

Something else that I really like about manga is that is that while they rely on a lot of common tropes, there’s frequently an originality to their world building that I don’t find as common in American works. In American comics if it’s a superhero universe, it almost always takes place in a “world outside your window” version of the “real world” we’re familiar with. If it’s fantasy, it’s probably going to be Tolkien/Dungeons & Dragons-inspired fantasy. If it’s space opera/space fantasy, you can expect a lot of “Star Wars” with maybe some “Star Trek” and cyberpunk thrown in. There’s also usually, but obviously not always, a heavy concern with being “realistic” outside of the obvious fantastic elements. Again, these are generalizations, and I know there are many exceptions.

In manga and anime, they seem much more comfortable building a world around whatever crazy idea pops into their head without much concern for how realistic anything is. The internal consistency of fantastic elements is clearly a concern, but not so much that they won’t throw an interesting twist in if it makes for a good story and they think they can vaguely make it work.

The story worlds themselves are sometimes not our world but some similar, anachronistic, parallel reality. For instance, “One Punch Man” is a superhero comic set in a modern world, but clearly not ours as the cities all have names like “A-City” and “Z-City”. “Pokemon” similarly has different continents and city names from our world, and both series have many small social and technological differences between there worlds and our real world.

Even some historical dramas take this approach to world building. While no doubt not for everyone, for me personally it makes the works feel more original, “freer”, and more creative, less familiar.

I know that some fans of traditional American comic books complain about the art in manga books.

Although there are certain visual tropes common among most manga artists, there is actually a great deal of stylistic difference among manga artists. No one will confuse Osamu Tezuka tight, clean, Disney-influenced technqiue with Tsutomu Nihei’s tense, jittery, space-conscious work.

"WEEE! I'm so cute and adorbable! I love you, everyone!"

"That's nice. I'm'a fuckin' kill you now."

 Given how varied American comic book art has become, I wouldn’t expect mere stylistic differences to be a big issue, but if you don’t like it you don’t like it, which is fine. But one thing I think needs to be acknowledged is that Japan’s manga artists are extremely well-trained and superb draftsmen and draftswomen. You may not like manga’s visual dictionary, but its artists are superb at applying it, and their linework and perspective and other basics are always going to be well done.

I think manga artwork is a factor in its popularity in that it sets the medium apart as something distinct, and it is generally reliable in a way that American comics these days usually are not. From issue of Avengers to the next, you may have an artist whose work has a clean, old school style followed by someone very cartoony followed by someone scratchy and expressionistic.

Okay, I'm over 2,100 words now, so I'm gonna wrap this up. I'll be interested to hear what y'all think down in the comments. 

Chris Maka is a veteran video game and mobile app developer who also happens to be an illustrator himself (he has an online portfolio and additional artwork up on his DeviantArt page). He also tweets and instagrams occasionally. Chris is one of the Fifth World's founders and editors, and if you want to communicate at him directly, you can email him at

Make Mine...Manga? Make Mine...Manga? Reviewed by Chris Maka on Wednesday, October 11, 2017 Rating: 5
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