Adding to the relatable reluctance to embrace manga, I will admit that reading a book from right to left (for the authentic Japanese experience) does take a bit of getting used to. I’m as stubborn as they come when it comes to learning, but was shocked to find I actually did warm up to it! So much so that now, I don’t even realize I’m doing it and can alternate between eastern and western comics without a second thought. And I truly believe it was worth the trouble, because it opened up a whole world of amazing comics that rank among the best reading I’ve ever experienced. Few things (outside a solid Joss Whedon script) perfectly balance comedy and drama like a well-made manga does. I’m far from an expert, and still have only dipped my toe in the water…but thought it might be helpful to those still on the fence, if I shared some of the Japanese comics that I found went down the easiest.
Cowa! by Akira Toriyama (VIZ)
Rated: ALL AGES
If you like: Adventure Time, funny monsters, Halloween
A young half-vampire half-werekoala named Paifu and his many friends, including a ghost named José Rodriguez, are searching for a medicine to cure the monsters in their hometown of an epidemic of monster flu. This clever and charming manga has a cute cast of monsters who act like kids, some goofy gags, and a few cartoony fight scenes tossed in to keep things lively. Humor comes from lots of unexpected places and characters, like the grumpy, retired wrestler who helps the monsters on their quest.
Yotsuba&! by Kiyohiko Azuma (Yen Press)
Rated: ALL AGES
If you like: Smile, Ramona Quimby, realistic kid stories, the silly optimism of SpongeBob SquarePants
Yotsuba&! depicts the everyday adventures of a quirky, energetic young girl named Yotsuba as she learns about the world around her, guided by her father, neighbors, and friends. The series has no continuing plot—the focus of the stories is Yotsuba’s daily voyage of discovery. She is shown finding enjoyment in nearly everything, and her constant enthusiasm is infectious. Azuma is a master of crazy expressive faces and humorous body language. The series is really all about appreciating the small moments of life and Azuma really captures this in ways that are times sweet and other times jaw-dropping hilarious. A scene where the young Yotsuba goes to a petting zoo and accidentally punches a goat has to be seen to be believed. The art has a nice contrast between the cartooniness of the main character and the traced photographic realism of the backgrounds.
Princess Knight by Osamu Tezuka (Vertical)
RATED: AGES 13+
If you like: The Princess Bride, Some Like it Hot, Mulan, Enchanted, The Legend of Zelda
The Godfather of Manga, Osamu Tezuka manages to spin a story that feels totally old-fashioned and completely progressive at the same time! Princess Knight hilariously mixes gender-bending Disney Princesses, Game of Thrones style medieval politics, and a battle of the gods to rival Clash of the Titans. It all begins with a mishap in heaven that results in the heir to the kingdom being born with both a boy and girl heart. Is it a prince? A princess? That all depends on the specific point of view in this madcap story that has more swashbuckling twists and turns than you can possibly swing a sword at. We follow the perils of Sapphire, a master swordsman who is also the most graceful and elegant woman in all the land! From corrupt monarchs, pirates, witches, shape shifters, and even the devil himself, you’ll never guess what’s just down the road on this crazy adventure. And that includes various love triangles and secret identities. There are moments in Princess Knight that are possibly the most outrageously unbelievable things I have seen in any story EVER, and I found myself smiling all the way through, stopping only to laugh at or root for specific characters’ derring-do. There is so much great cartooning on display that even the artist himself takes a moment to comment on how much effort he’s putting into it! Princess Knight is probably too quirky to appeal to everyone, but for those with a fondness for screwball comedies, there is infinite fun to be had within.
Fullmetal Alchemist by Hiromu Arakawa (VIZ)
Rated: AGES 13+
If you like: Steampunk, edgy fantasy, Hellboy
A violent mix of monsters, might, and magic that is all about consequences. When two brothers try to use alchemy (a cross between science and magic) to bring back their dead mother, they are forced to pay a horrible price. Edward, the older brother, loses his arm and leg, replacing it with metal prosthetics; Alphonse, the younger brother, loses his whole body, his spirit just managing to survive by being bonded with an empty suit of armor. The two begin a long journey to learn more about the powers that destroyed their bodies, becoming master alchemists and working for the government along the way. This book perfectly captures the essence of great shonen (boys) manga. Unique worldbuilding, intense action scenes that rival any blockbuster movie, hilarious comedy (often in the same scenes as the action), outrageous characters, and complex issues of ethics, mortality and the beyond. Things get super dark, but there’s always lightness and even cuteness throughout.
Buddha by Osamu Tezuka (Viz)
Rated: AGES 13+
If you like: Historical epics, Lord of the Rings, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure
Anachronistic storytelling of the highest order. Relates the legends surrounding Siddhartha Gautama, the founder of Buddhism, as pure entertainment with modern dialog, elements of high fantasy, action, adventure, and the kind of slapstick rarely found outside of Looney Tunes. Managing to be both whimsical and profound, this manga beautifully illustrates concepts of philosophy without ever taking itself too seriously. Which is an amazing feat for a story whose ongoing theme is that of human suffering! Along the way we encounter a boy with the power to posses animals, heroic feats, and large scale battle scenes, all told with the pacing and skill of a master storyteller in his prime. A fascinating mix of the real and the surreal, Tezuka’s Buddha features some of the best cartooning ever put to paper. He makes it look easy, even when he’s drawing hundreds of people or animals in a single panel!
Love Roma by Minoru Toyoda (Del Rey)
Rated: AGES 16+
If you like: The films of Wes Anderson, Superbad, whimsical romantic comedies
Page 1, panel 1: the bold Hoshino asks out beautiful but timid Negeshi in front of the whole cafeteria. Negeshi is flush with embarrassment but also curious about this weird boy who so openly wears his heart on his sleeve. The entire school is captivated by their potential romance, breaking into thunderous applause when Negeshi agrees to let Hoshino walk her home. Hoshino, emboldened by the crowd, with clenched fist declares, “Thank you very much, everybody! I’ll try my best!” Thus begins the quirkily awkward and endearingly comedic take on first love. I really gravitate to the simple, flat, wide-eyed character designs and offbeat approach to the dialog. Author Minoru Toyoda is a master at deadpan deliveries, alternating between broad and subtle character-based humor. The more you get to know the cast (there are hilarious friends who get into the mix) the more you laugh, and want to clap for them!
BECK: Mongolian Chop Squad by Harold Sakuishi (TokyoPop)
Rated: AGES 16+
If you like: Freaks and Geeks, Scott Pilgrim, the films of Judd Apatow and Cameron Crowe
Vividly captures the sweaty awkwardness of being a teenage boy going through adolescence. The way you idealize the girls you crush on and stand in awe of older, cooler dudes who can play guitar. 14-year old Koyuki is a super average guy, just trying to keep his head down and survive high school without getting his butt kicked too many times. His life takes a drastic change when ends up in the good graces of Ryuske, a 16-year old guy with long hair who was once in a band with the guitarist of a hugely popular American hardcore band called Dying Breed. Koyuki knows nothing about rock music, but it just happens to be the favorite band of Izumi, the cute girl he’s recently fixated on. Many of the trappings of YA literature—angst, bullies, tests, moving between social circles, discovering the music that changes your life—are all there, told with unique visual pacing and a distinctive artistic voice by Harold Sakuishi. Characters are drawn in varying detail, often alternating between gorgeous pinups you’d find in a swimsuit catalog and grotesque caricature you’d find in Mad Magazine. There’s a lot of youthful idealism to the “let’s start a band” story, but BECK also shines a light on the unglamorous side of practicing and performing. Definitely no overnight success in this book! But every victory is so much more satisfying because you know how hard the characters worked for it.
BEST FOR OLDER TEENS OR ADULTS
Death Note by Tsugumi Ohba & Takeshi Obata (Viz)
Rated: Older Teen
If you like: Sherlock Holmes, Dexter, Batman, Christopher Nolan movies (The Dark Knight, The Prestige, Inception)
This dark tale of cat and mouse rivalry between good and evil at times reaches the same levels of suspense found in classic Hitchcock and Agatha Christie. A brilliant but bored teenager named Light inherits the power of a grim reaper, when he discovers a little black book with the power to kill any person whose name is written within. The teen, who happens to be the police commissioner’s son, carefully uses the power of the Death Note for noble purposes, killing criminals from afar. But all these mysterious deaths attract the attention not only of his father and the world’s police but also a master detective known only as L, whose intellect and eccentricities evoke an OCD-ridden Sherlock Holmes. Light manages to keep his identity as the powerful mass murderer hidden and stay one step ahead of those on his trail, thanks to his own cleverness and the help of Ryuk, the invisible death spirit who originally possessed the Death Note. The stakes continue to rise as more peoples’ lives become intertwined, unintended casualties pile up, and L and Light come increasingly too close for comfort. The plot twists and one-upmanship can be riveting and often had me at the edge of my seat. It’s extremely plot- and dialog-driven, but the artwork is fantastic throughout. The design of Ryuk the death spirit is classic, and the film noir approach to black and white is a perfect fit for the story. Consistent with almost all the manga I’ve read, there is surprising humor amongst the darkness, especially in Ryuk’s interaction with the human world and his insatiable hunger for apples.
Paradise Kiss by Ai Yazawa (Vertical)
Rated: Older Teen
If you like: Project Runway, YA novels
Yukari, a brainy and beautiful high school senior, is dragged kicking and screaming into the world of haute couture fashion. She becomes the model for Paradise Kiss, a group of eccentric students at Yazagaku fashion school who are developing their own clothing line. Surrounded by eccentric personalities both positive and negative, Yukari begins to reevaluate the world and her place in it. Paradise Kiss has many signature elements of josei (manga specifically marketed to women): high emotions, unrequited love, page turning melodrama, sparkles, textured patterns, all used to great effect. The books celebrate the passion and drive these young designers put into their work, carefully fleshing out all the characters far beyond expectations or stereotypes. There’s a lot of authentic heart and humor throughout, making for a truly memorable experience. Author/Artist Ai Yazawa has such a delicate pen line, and her figures look like they walked out of a fashion designer’s sketchbook.
Barefoot Gen by Keiji Nakazawa (Last Gasp)
Rated: Older Teen
If you like: Maus, historical drama, Schindler’s List
A brutal depiction of the final days of World War II and the aftermath of the bombing of Hiroshima. This series pulls no punches in showing the endless complexities of war and how it trickles down to effect the common people in its path. Nakazawa equally criticizes all sides, with all their varying levels of faults and contradictions. At times it can feel a bit too “on the nose” with it’s anti-war sentiments, but it also a does an outstanding job of showcasing a wide range of viewpoints and perspectives. And all the history is almost always told through the lens of how events effected common people and what it must have been like to be those people. The series follows the life of Gen, who is first introduced as a second grade boy who comes from a poor family struggling during war time rationing. Because his father repeatedly speaks out against the war, Gen and his family suffer much harassment from local officials and even their closest neighbors. You can’t help but root for this scrappy family who are far from perfect (they hit each other more than the Three Stooges) but stand up for their principals in a society that is too willing to follow government orders even at the experience of their own wellbeing. So when the bomb falls, and most of the family and neighbors die, they are more than statistics, they are your friends. Gen has to watch his house and family burn in flames and is left to wander a wasteland of nuclear fallout. Nakazawa graphically depicts people with melted faces and inhabits the lives of the sick, the wounded, and the disfigured. Good people who are forced to do horrible acts, and encounter cruelty that is unrelenting. There are enough small victories and tender moments to not completely diminish hope, but it is often a long road getting there. It’s powerful stuff heightened by the knowledge that the author witnessed much of it first hand. As a cartoonist, Nakazawa takes inspiration from the works of Osamu Tezuka but manages to still bring his own distinctive oddball energy to the pages. It’s a bit slapstick at times, but more often very grounded in the humor that comes from personal experience. Even knowing what to expect or having read it before, the series still finds ways to transcend all expectations. Many have said that Barefoot Gen should be mandatory reading (especially in the high school classroom, and I totally agree.
*Obviously this is just a starter list. Certainly not the only books I would recommend, but a small handful that I hope might appeal to the non initiated.
What titles would you recommend to those unfamiliar with manga? Feel free to add to my list below!