While this column covers Japanese animation, you have to remember that Japan also has a big comic book industry alongside it. Most TV, film or straight-to-DVD anime are either adaptations of comics known as “manga”, were later adapted into manga themselves, or both the anime and manga were an adaptation of something else entirely, like a novel or game.
Manga arguably both dates back to the mid-19th century has a British origin. While there were some comics in Japan before this period, manga first started to flourish after the country slowly started opening up its borders after a long period of international isolation. One of the first imported comics was a Japanese version of Punch Magazine in 1862 aimed at foreigners living in Yokohama. From these comics, manga as we now know it began to evolve. The major leap came in 1963 with the first TV adaptation of a manga, in the form of Osamu Tezuka’s Astro Boy (No. 1).
This special column deals with the subject of reading manga in English. If you are new to manga you will automatically experience at least one major issue: namely that in English you read left-to-right and then up-and-down, but in Japanese you read up-and-down and then right-to-left. Thus in the eyes of English readers it looks like you are reading a book backwards and the speech bubbles are often column-like in shape. All publishers that release manga in English tend to have a page at the “start” of the book telling you stop reading because you are actually looking at the end first. Some manga also provide more information on how to read the pages and on some Japanese terms and cultural aspects.
If you are hesitant about reading manga because of this, it may be advisable to read something that is drawn in the manga style but in a different language. Korea and China have their own comics, known as “manhwa” and “manhua” respectively, and although they are not held in the same high regard as Japan’s comics there are some neglected gems. Plus there are things like Original English Language manga (OEL manga), which are comics written in English, but drawn in the manga style.
Concerning these, I would recommend the following:
- Aron’s Absurd Armada – a Korean manhwa about a band of pirates lead by the idiotic captain Lord Aron Cornwall. His crew consists of a woman called Ronnie who the crew mistake for a gay man; a transvestite hair stylist and assassin; and a cook whose food is so bad it is used as a weapon. Very funny and entirely in colour unlike most manga, but some have criticised it for being homophobic.
- Planetary Moe – an OEL manga from Mexico, the series is akin to Hetalia: Axis Powers (No. 26) and features anthropomorphic personifications of the planets and stars. The art is brilliant and it often deals with recent astrological discoveries.
- Demon Candy: Parallel – a Canadian OEL manga, this series is best described as Fifty Shades of Grey if it was funnier, cleaner, less sexist, truly reflected what BDSM is about and just better in every single way imaginable. The story is about an 18-year-old guy who is tricked into selling his soul to a succubus. He can only get his soul back by spending a year in Hell, resisting the fetishist advances of those around him.
Moving into actual Japanese manga, there are plenty of choices to make. You can start by picking an anime you are into and reading the manga version of it. Often anime only partially adapt a manga because the original is still being written at the time of production. Therefore if you really want to get the full story, the manga version is often best place to go to.
When it comes to the manga industry, you can learn much from the series Bakuman (No. 9), which is the manga about two guys who create their own manga. The manga version in my opinion is better than the anime adaptation.
Of course there are plenty of manga that have never been adapted into anime, either because an animation studio has not picked them up, they have been subject to live-action adaptations instead, or the creator of the manga has chosen not for their work to be adapted. Here are some personal favourite of never animated manga.
- Yostuba&! – A children’s manga, the story follows an excitable 4-year-old girl (the title character) and her merry take on the world. A heart-warming and amusing story that is entertaining for all, young and old.
- The Drops of God – A manga about wine. Central character Kanzaki Shizuku is the son of a wine critic who has shunned his father’s love of the drink. When his father dies Kanzaki discovers the will is a contest between himself and a professional wine critic, trying to identify 13 different wines. This manga has had an actual impact on real-world wine sales.
- With the Light – A manga aimed at women, the story follows mother Sachiko Azuma who struggles to raise her autistic son Hikaru. Speaking as someone who has an autistic spectrum disorder, the story rings true and deals with many of the issues surrounding the condition.
- The Heart of Thomas – One of the earliest shonen-ai (gay romantic manga). Set in all-boys boarding school in Germany, the story starts with pupil Thomas’s suicide. Juli, a male pupil who loved Thomas, is then shocked by a new arrival who looks just Thomas.
- Lone Wolf and Cub – From the 1970s, this violent samurai based manga is considered a classic. No anime versions were made, but there have been six live action films amongst other adaptations. The lead characters have appeared in other anime however, and even appeared in American cartoon Samurai Jack.
Ian Wolf works as manga critic for MyM Magazine, available in WHSmith, all good newsagents, and digitally.