Essential Books About Manga

Manga: Sixty Years of Japanese Comics cover

I’m covering here reference works, not how-to books, of which there are more than enough. I’ve previously reviewed two how-to books: Manga Secrets is straight-forward and includes the basics, while Even a Monkey Can Draw Manga is satiric. You’ll learn from it, but you’ll learn more what NOT to do. And you’ll laugh while doing it.

Anyway, on to the books about manga.

Manga! Manga!

Manga! Manga! cover

Frederik L. Schodt provided the first and still one of the best English-language books covering (as the subtitle says) “The World of Japanese Comics”. Originally published in 1983, Manga! Manga! not only describes the history of the medium but includes translated excerpts of key works. (It’s still the easiest way to see a significant chunk of The Rose of Versailles, a significant shojo work, in English.)

It’s an astounding overview, introducing manga and Japanese culture to Americans with extensive detail and plenty of illustrations and sidebar notes. Wide-ranging, it covers historical development, cultural context, and the business side of the industry. Individual chapters focus on girls’ comics, comics for businessmen, and the intersection of fantasy, violence, and regulation. The foreword is by Osamu Tezuka, author of Astro Boy and Phoenix, among many others. An excerpt of the latter is included, along with the war comic Ghost Warrior and a section of Barefoot Gen. A foundational must-read.

Dreamland Japan

Dreamland Japan cover

Schodt’s followup, Dreamland Japan, is described by its author as “a sort of ‘Whitman’s Sampler’ of commentary and criticism,” collecting articles and columns from various sources. Items are grouped into chapters on the topics of issues facing manga, particular magazines, artists and their works, a focus on Tezuka, and manga in English.

This book is a second-level work, something to be read for elaboration once you’ve gotten the basics elsewhere. Individual chapters are well-labeled, thus easy to sample, and they dip into specific topics in detail. It’s also a good picture of the state of the industry circa 1996, when it was published. I found it most fascinating to read about which American publishers were releasing manga, and which titles. The forecast at that time was bleak, with success in the U.S. by no means assured because the $10 digest-sized unflipped collection hadn’t yet been developed.

Manga: Sixty Years of Japanese Comics

Manga: Sixty Years of Japanese Comics cover

This beautiful softcover coffee-table-style overview by Paul Gravett is copiously illustrated in color.

Gravett aims to set straight some misconceptions about manga and fight prejudice, but he also wants to show the full scope of the medium. He covers the basics in a breezy style, emphasizing the importance of the editor early on. After a short chapter on history, sections are devoted to

  • the work and life of Tezuka
  • gekiga, dramatic manga aimed at an older audience
  • the sports, mecha, humor, fantasy, and oddities of boys’ manga
  • girls’ manga, including the rise of female creators and the shonen ai (boys’ love) genre (the word yaoi is never used)
  • the violence and sexuality of seinen (young men’s) manga
  • redikomi, sexy ladies’ comics (although the samples included in this chapter also cover businessmen’s manga)
  • underground art and dojinshi (fanzines)
  • world manga, cross-country collaborations and inspirations

In a way, this book can be seen as covering many of the same areas as Manga! Manga! but presented for a much more visual, fast-paced generation who are already familiar with the concept. It’s an attractive buffet, great for sampling.

Manga: The Complete Guide

Manga: The Complete Guide cover

I can’t even conceive of how much work went into this book. Jason Thompson and others reviewed and rated (both age ratings and on a quality scale of 1-4 stars) about a thousand manga titles. Manga: The Complete Guide claims to list “every manga that has ever been translated for American audiences” in alphabetical order by title. I can believe it.

It’s great fun to dive into. The manga you know, it’s amusing to see how they’re summed up and whether you agree with the rating. And there are plenty of listings of manga you don’t know for suggestions of more titles to try. Or laugh at, in the case of some of the older, one-star titles. (I was astounded at how many books now-defunct publishers had brought over that I’d never heard of.) It’s easy to spend hours browsing it… I know, I did. I kept telling myself to come back to it later, but it’s so easy to read just one more entry, like eating one more potato chip.

Yaoi and adult manga each have their own separate sections (but the best-known examples, like Dance Till Tomorrow and Fake appear in the main section). Aside from many many short reviews, the book also includes essays summarizing particular genres (such as magical girl, horror, or sports). At the end of each, they list titles in those genres as a cross-reference. I appreciated the attention to detail, such as clarifying the order of unnumbered volumes in some series or specifying changes in U.S. reprints. The only quibble I have is that I don’t see a need to capitalize “Boys’ Love”.

Appendixes cover the subject of ratings, language basics, a glossary, and a cross-reference of artists. Thompson was interviewed about the book at the Comics Reporter.

The Comics Journal #269

The Comics Journal #269 cover

This issue of the long-running comic magazine focuses on shojo manga in an attempt to put the lie to the idea that “girls don’t read comics”. Dirk Deppey’s opening editorial, “She’s Got Her Own Thing Now”, is an excellent summary of the backwards attitudes sometimes demonstrated towards manga by the existing American comics industry. It’s a passionate portrayal of a tipping point in history.

The feature interview is with Moto Hagio (a key shojo artist who created A, A’ and many untranslated masterpieces), accompanied by a gallery of her work. Articles cover scanlations, shojo manga for all ages, yaoi, artists inspired by manga, and reviews of a wide variety of well-known female-oriented titles (including Hot Gimmick, Fruits Basket, Paradise Kiss, and many more), as well as other, non-manga-related topics. I contributed an overview of the six books by Erica Sakurazawa published by Tokyopop. Overall, an excellent overview of and introduction to shojo manga, which revolutionized the American comic market.


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