Manga: The Japanese Comic Genre

Manga is a popular art form in Japan that covers various genres. It has also found a home in North America in recent years. And since we’re talking about comics, I thought we’d look at the Japanese version.

Manga can be a little off-putting to those of us who haven’t dipped our toes into the genre, but it has something for everyone.

More comic artists and writers turn to Japan for inspiration, creating a blend in styles permeating the animation and comic book industries in North America.

So let’s take a look at manga, its history, and how to write it.

What is Manga?

The word manga is pretty straightforward, but I love formal definitions, so let’s start with that:

Manga: Japanese comic books and graphic novels are considered collectively as a genre.

Merriam Webster Dictionary

In even more straightforward terms, manga is the Japanese version of a comic book or graphic novel. So what makes it different than the American comic books or anime?

manga billboards

What makes it different?

Let’s start with the difference between manga and anime. According to the New York Public Library (NYPL), anime is the umbrella term for all animation forms created and published in Japan.

To sum this up: anime is animation, and manga is print.

The difference between American and Japanese comic books boils down to a) where the comics are published, b) how they’re read, and c) the art.

Obviously, American comics are published in the US while Japanese comics are published in Japan; though, both forms can be found in bookstores on either side of the Pacific.

Second, American comics are read from left to right, while manga is read from right to left.

This leaves us with the last differential: the art.

The Art

Japanese manga is very distinctive in its depiction of the story and characters. For example, manga characters almost always have large eyes, small mouths, and abnormal hair colors.

Manga characters also usually show exaggerated emotions. When a character cries, tears pour out in buckets; when they laugh, their face seems engulfed by their mouth’s size, and their eyes become slits. An angry character has rosy cheeks and steam roiling around the body.

American comics tend to rely on using more subtle body language cues and facial expressions to convey emotion. The characters also resemble humans more closely in their physical appearance.

manga art

A Brief History of Manga

As we already discussed in my post on the comic genre, Japan has a long comic book history.

Before World War II

The first manga issue came about in the 11th century when Toba Sojo released animal scroll paintings or choju giga that satirized life in the Buddhist priesthood. Sojo also established the tradition of reading manga from right to left, and his style inspired the works of many 18th century comic writers.

According to MR Comics:

The word “manga” was first coined in 1798 by Santō Kyōden’s Shiki no Yukikai (Seasonal Passers-by).

But in 1814, the artist Katsushika Hokusai (famous for ukiyo-e and butt buddies with Santō Kyōden) was the first to use the word “manga” as the name for his sketchbooks titled Hokusai Manga.

The first manga magazineEshinbun Nipponchi, was published in 1874 by Kanagaki Robun and Kawanabe Kyosai. It was influenced by the Japanese magazine The Japan Punch (1862-1887), which was published by Charles Wirgman.

The pre-War manga works are a mixture of elements, especially words and images. The stories reflect pre-War Japan and Japanese nationalists’ social and economic needs, while the artwork largely mimics Chinese graphic art.

World War II & American Influence

After World War II, the US introduced American culture to Japan by bringing over television, film, cartoons, and comic books. It’s also during this time that the modern form of manga takes shape.

While all of the different mediums impacted manga, American comic books had the most significant effect. It, and the restrictions on propaganda or Japanese militarism, inspired Tezuka Osamu to create one of Japan’s most iconic and influential character, Astro Boy.

Osamu is the God of Manga and Godfather of Anime because he invented the distinctive large eyes prominent in both fields.

The other influential artist from this time is Machiko Hasegawa, who focused on female characters’ daily lives – a novel perspective at the time.

Both artists founded the marketing of manga to girls and boys.

The Emergence of Genre

Between 1950 and 1969, manga rapidly acquired a significant readership, leading to the development of two main marketing genres – shōnen, aimed at boys, and shōjo, dedicated to girls.

In shōnen, comics are sub-divided according to age: boys up to 18 years old, young men 18 to 30 years old, known as seinen, and adult, grown men, referred to as seijin manga. These books contain lots of action, adventure, fighting of all kinds, sports, technology, romance, and sometimes sexuality.

Shōjo is similarly divided by age. However, their audiences were female. Shojo contains sub-categories like redisu, redikomi, and josei. Themes like romance, super-heroines, relationships from a female point of view, historical drama, and others are prominent in these tales.

In 1969, a famous group of female manga artists, known as the Year 24 Group, created numerous comics and featured many famous names like Moto Hagio, Riyoko Ikeda, Yumiko Ōshima, Keiko Takemiya, and Ryoko Yamagishi.

Year 24 Group manga cover

Manga Outside of Japan

Manga captured Europe’s attention in the 1970s, but it isn’t until the 1980s that it reaches the US.

One of the earliest publications was Barefoot Gen by Keiji Nakazawa, which tells a story about Hiroshima’s atomic bombing. After more popular animated works such as AkiraDragon Ball Z, and Sailor Moon started leaving their marks in the early 1990s, marking manga’s entry in the US.

Many Japanese publishers also started to pursue the US markets in the 1990s actively. The movie Ghost in the Shell (1995) helped manga reach a broader audience. Subsequently, more publishers brought in more manga offerings for their audiences.

Manga Now

Manga is now gaining popularity in numerous countries around the world, according to WideWalls. Japanese comics and anime are an intricate part of the country’s publishing hub. Japan has also become a tourist phenomenon for fans of the genre.

The general acceptance of “geek culture” in the media is also contributing to the growth of anime and manga worldwide.

How to Write Manga

Manga follows a similar development process to comic books (we’ll talk about this soon) and graphic novels. I am stealing most of these tips from author Sean Michael Wilson, and you can find out more by reading this article.

How to write manga infographic

(There are also many great YouTube video tutorials out there for how to write manga.)

You Need an Idea

I feel like I’m repeating myself, but this is the most critical step for any story regardless of the medium. You don’t have a tale to tell unless you have an idea to start from, so keep that notebook or note-taking app handy because you never know when inspiration will strike.

You need an idea for your manga

Figure Out Your Plot

Once you have a good idea, write a synopsis of what happens, where and to whom. Your summary can be short or long and detailed – it’s up to you.

However, I will caution you to make this a bit more detailed because you will need to tell your artist, letterer, and colorist what to draw for your characters, plot, and setting. So the more you know, the more likely your artist will give you what you want.

Break Down the Page

After you have established your plot, you’ll want to start breaking your pages up. It means that you need to decide how many pages your story might need and what will happen on that page. It helps you get a feeling for the whole architecture of the story.

And if you know how to draw, you may want to do some rough thumbnail sketches to send to your artist to help them visualize things.

top view photo of boy drawing on white paper

Develop Your Script

Your script will look different from another writer’s but here are some essential elements it should contain:

  • Description Lines. These are the guidelines you’ll give your artist. It’ll contain the text, place, people, feeling, action, etc. The artist then decides about the specific panels and art of those pages. The same happens for the colorist and letterer.
  • Dialogue. Here’s where you get to decide what is said in each panel, by whom, and how the speech bubbles will look.
  • Caption and Narration. These are the words in the rectangular boxes. Often these come from an unseen narrator, giving guidance across scenes or other elements of information.

Once you’ve got these done, it’s time to hand it over to your artist.

Send Your Work to an Artist (If Needed)

If you can draw, skip this step and start sketching out your story in its full glory. And don’t forget to pay attention to how the panels flow across the page (from right to left, of course).

And if you can’t draw, it’s time to hand over your work to the experts. Most artists will send the rough art and the finished inked art to you for feedback as part of the editing process. This is where most of the art and dialogue changes occur because you’ll see how everything on the page interacts with each other.

shallow focus photo of paint brushes

Manga provides writers and artists alike with the opportunity to change how we portray the world around us. Like all written works of art, we need to further its development and learn from its success.

And if you want to dip your toe into the world of manga, now’s the time to do it. Many beginner’s guides talk you through the genres and remind you how to read them.

What’s your favorite manga? Have you written any manga?

Stay safe, everyone.

Until next time.



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Danielle Adams

Danielle Adams

Danielle Adams is a writer and editor for a local marketing agency. She has formerly worked as a writer for the Investing News Network and as an editor for Whetstone, a bi-annually published literary magazine. Aside from writing, Danielle has an unabiding love for all marine life and the outdoors. She loves taking long hikes with her husband and cooking delicious meals in the kitchen.


10 Responses

      1. There’s manga’s that depict stories of manga creators in Japan, and all the blood, sweat and tears that go into the work to get published. I can’t remember where I read it, and what the numbers were, but only 10% or so of new manga efforts in Japan turn a profit.

      2. Huh. Weird. I’m surprised to hear that. My sources were saying that the manga sector of Japan’s publishing industry is thriving despite piracy.

      3. Oh. Well, good! If those creators can get their work published, then that’s great. It seems wherever I read that was outdated.
        Personally, I started reading manga because it was more character oriented than American comics.
        The characters seemed to be doing things by their own effort and growth, and weren’t using powers as a crutch, or costumes as a crutch.

      4. It may have been or not. It depends on where we got our information. XD Or we could be both completely wrong somehow. Lol.

        In what ways have American comics used superpowers as a crutch? I’m genuinely curious. I agree some superheroes do this. *cough, cough* Daredevil *cough cough* But I wouldn’t say that American superheroes don’t experience growth.

      5. Superman- superpowers.
        Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, Spiderman, Cyclops, Fantastic Four. The first thing that was presented was the powers. The comics were offered as a display of powers. “Look at what the powers can do,” so to speak.
        And then there were the flashy costumes. It’s like you can’t have the good deeds without the image of the costumes.
        I read Marvel comics through high school. I love a good adventure, and I was looking there to find it.
        I first picked up a manga later. Maybe Dragonball. Little Son Goku had his superhuman strength, but he was going on a journey. The panels didn’t seem to be there just to display his powers.
        Also, it was from a Japanese point of view, and I wanted to see what story would come from it ❤📖. I might have been influenced by first seeing the anime.
        Then I think there was Great Teacher Onizuka. Great manga! He was an idiot gifted with trouble and a heart in the right place. That work showed great growth for characters .
        And, I know Marvel comics in the 80s and 90s tried to show growth, but the content of the characters would change with every new writer. The characters seemed to be a thing to pass around.
        Manga characters were brainstormed and written by their creators, and kept by those original creators. The growth of the character resulted from the growth of the person as a creator. That’s how it appeared to me. 😉

      6. I agree that the superpowers are presented first as a thing that these characters use to their own ends, but I don’t think it entirely replaced character growth. Lol. The costumes were a thing that was needed as propaganda for political means and morale first through WWII and then the Cold War. But yes, the costumes got out of control pretty quickly.

        I know that Wonder Woman wasn’t intended to be the sex icon that she later became. She was, in part, modeled after Margaret Sanger, and was supposed to provide a less violent counterpoint to Superman and Captain America.

        And I agree, Marvel did become more character-centric in the 1980s and 1990s. And I agree with you that the constant shifting of artists and storytellers made for an inconsistent narrative arch, and I can see why manga would appeal to those who wanted consistency. It’s great that the manga creators would stick with their characters until the end of the series.

        The other thing I think that we need to keep in mind about American comics is that they are an extension of the country’s belief in it’s own power and prowess. To many within the US, some of the feats of its fellow citizens would seem bizarre and “magical.” Hence, we have a focus on these beyond reach powers.

        On the other hand, Japan and the ninja/samauri lore is more focused on obtaining enlightenment through dedication to personal growth and mastery over the body. It’s only those who do have that enlightenment that get the powers to conquer their challenges. It’s also based on the knowledge that they didn’t need the powers to overcome their foes.

      7. I had completely overlooked the ” belief in the country’s power and prowess”. It’s like, the comic creators (from yesteryear) wanted to say, “this is what our country wants to be when it grows up”. The more impressive they could make the powers that fight for us, the more impressive a picture they could paint for the country.

      8. Exactly! 🙂 America had something more to prove than Japan does. Japan is more established and comfortable with steady growth, while the US wants to grow up in leaps and bounds, which isn’t a bad thing. It just means that the US has more room to grow in certain areas, like its comic book literature. 😛

        That’s why I think US comic book artists and writers are looking to manga for inspiration.

        The industry has finally come to a point where it wants to take things more seriously now that it has a reason to “grow up.” For example, comic book creators are starting to target female audiences (with mixed results) and to develop more character-centric plots. Both of which are things that manga has already integrated into its makeup.

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