Long associated with Japanese popular culture, manga are now found in translation across the world. In North America, this dynamic form of visual narration is overtaking comics and graphic novels in popularity. Oscar, age 13, recommends his favourite manga for children and teenagers.
Sometimes people use the terms manga, anime, comics and graphic novels loosely. Can you clarify what you mean by manga?
Manga may be printed weekly in short instalments in Japan, like a comic, but the ones that I read have been collected into the Japanese version of a graphic novel, so a book in comic-like form. To count as manga it has to have a specific art style as well as being read from right to left. It’s usually black and white. Anime is completely different because it’s not in print, it’s basically a Japanese cartoon but not meant for as young children as the word cartoon implies. When a manga is turned into an anime it’s very similar to when a book is turned into a film, they miss out parts and possibly add a few things. Usually the anime is not as good as the manga. Games turned into manga are very rare. The main ones are from Nintendo who have turned Pokémon and Zelda into manga series. Nausicaa by Miyazaki is a very moving manga but the film is a lot better. The reason you would choose a manga over a book is for the visuals, but for Studio Ghibli the art is such a big thing and when it’s animated by such good artists it’s much better to watch the anime.
In recent years, manga has become the best selling type of graphic novel/comic in North America. Does that surprise you?
Not really. Comics have gone out of fashion. Probably 50 years ago you would wake up and run to the newsagent and get yourself a Marvel comic every week. Now you can get it on your phone and read it in bed or just watch a film with the same story. But a lot of manga don’t have the anime adaptation, only the big ones do. Those Japanese people who write manga never take a break but the anime people do. So with manga you can read on much further than the anime. One example is Demon Slayer where Season One of the anime ended three years ago but the manga has already finished much further along. So you might watch the first season of the anime, then find out where it is in the manga series, and jump on the manga train.
Manga have little text and clear lines, so I suppose they are visually very suitable for reading on a mobile device?
Not really. Japanese manga and a comic would be very similar on a phone, you would scroll down a really big image. But Korean manhwa – they are like graphic novels in full colour – are made for reading on a phone. Manhwa are updated weekly, so in that sense it’s more like reading comics. There are a lot of history ones, Korean history and time travel, they like their past a lot. If you know Korean you can read them on Naver. Webtoon is the English version of that, they translate the manhwa that have lots of likes but you can upload your own straight from English. Not Even Bones, for example, which was a book first. You can upload your own manga art and if it becomes popular and approved by Webtoon they will turn it into an original. Some stories on Webtoon are very violent but good, like Sweet Home for older teens, which was turned into a Netflix series. They have anime made out of manhwa as well, and BTS – the biggest K-pop band ever – have done a collaboration. These are all free online, or better with an app. Some that aren’t translated on Webtoon get translated by independent sites.
Can you tell me about the different types of Japanese manga, the way they are classified for children, teenagers and young adults?
I usually read shōnen manga, which are targeted mostly at boys age 16 and younger and are often very action-packed. There is normally the main character, the main character’s love interest and the main character’s rival. The characters are usually kids, sometimes with a mentor or parents. Shōjo manga almost always have a girl protagonist, more detailed art, usually a romance-based story, maybe historical with dukes and duchesses, or contemporary but without the demons which are common in shōnen manga. Sailor Moon is probably the most famous action shōjo. Sometimes I read seinen manga, which are quite adult, not at all suitable for younger kids. I don’t read josei manga which are aimed at young adult women. I only started reading manga when I was 10 so I don’t know much about kodomomuke, the manga for young kids.
In shōnen the characters are usually in a group going out on an adventure, even at the age of 10 or 12 they might go off to become ninjas or something. They are child characters so children can relate. It’s about the importance of friendship, you should always persevere, those sort of traditional values. In season two you might learn about the consequences of your actions. The enemies are very similar to Marvel supervillains or cartoon villains, quite predictable but maybe with some twists. In seinen the villains will be quite unpredictable; since those are targeted at adults they have to try a bit harder.
Let’s talk about your first pick of the best manga for kids and teens, Battle Angel Alita.
There’s an old doctor in a futuristic cyberpunk world who goes to a scrapyard with all the junk from the rich people world in the sky, Zalem. Part of the junk is the torso and head of a cyborg. The doctor’s daughter died, so he feels a bit linked to this cyborg girl body that died. He revives her into a complete cyborg. She starts exploring the world and has flashbacks to her life before and slowly realises that she was a Martian cyborg who was made specifically to destroy Zalem in a war. She also finds a love interest who teaches her a lot about the current world and what the doctor who found her is hiding, which is that he is a bounty hunter who kills criminals for money. She becomes a bounty hunter and also discovers that her boyfriend is in heavy debt and tries to help him get out of it by killing the loan sharks but that doesn’t go so well.
“A manga is like the in-between point between a book and a film”
The sketch-like drawing goes very well with the cyberpunk style and is completely different from the other manga I’ve picked. In a weird form of censorship it’s barely got any blood because it’s machine parts that get blown apart, so although it’s a seinen manga it doesn’t feel so adult. At five volumes it’s a good length. The film is very good although it’s difficult to fit five volumes into one two-hour long film without messing it up, so it’s a bit wonky. I think the manga is good for kids age 12 and up, a similar level to The Hunger Games.
Your next manga pick for kids and teens is The Promised Neverland.
This manga is about children in an orphanage. Outside the orphanage are gardens and fields and then a very big wall. The children think they are in a happy place but the reality is that past the wall is a society of demons who eat children’s brains. The cleverer the child, the more developed the brain and the tastier it is for the demons. Sometimes a kid is supposedly going out for adoption, but they are actually sold to the demons. The “mother” at the orphanage is a farmer of children. Eventually the three main characters, who are children in the orphanage, discover what’s going on. The art has a weirdly childish feeling which sort of adds to the horror. I like the mind games in this series, there are so many layers and betrayal, it’s really cool. I would say this manga is for children age 11 and up.
Edmond Dantes was at the peak of his life when suddenly three people caused him great harm and he had to spend 14 years in a dark, damp prison with no contact apart from one other prisoner. This prisoner was his saviour in the end because he told him about a treasure, where it was hidden, and helped him escape. The treasure allowed him to become the Count of Monte Cristo. As the Count he used manipulation, political strength, trickery and being clever. He managed to cause his three arch nemeses a grief as bad as his own. And then he lived happily ever after with a beautiful Greek slave.
Is the revenge a good idea?
Part of the way through, the Count realises that he has been doing it slightly wrong because innocents have been harmed. So he repents for that. Before that he’s quite arrogant, like he’s truly God’s emissary, but then he sees a bratty child die (I didn’t like the child but he was totally innocent) so then the Count decided to be a bit nicer, a bit more humble. Throughout the manga it had religious undertones, doing God’s work, he even dressed up as an abbot which was just for disguise purposes but also used religious vocabulary.
This is part of a series that turns classics of literature into manga. Do you like the concept?
Yes but it can fail. I’ve read some Shakespeare plays as manga which I didn’t like at all. Japanese manga are often revenge tales so this one felt right, it works very well as a manga. Sometimes it’s better to choose a book, which allows you to use your imagination more, and sometimes it’s better to choose an anime for the art. A manga is like the in-between point between a book and a film. For a big book like The Count of Monte Cristo the manga is a good idea because it’s so much easier to read than hundreds of pages of small writing. This manga has a shōjo art style which suits the old novel, because there is more focus on the art in shōjo than in other types of manga. It has a grander and more refined art style than my other picks.
Your next pick is Pokémon Red. This manga is for younger kids, isn’t it?
Pokémon is fun for any age. It’s about children who leave their homes and parents at the age of 10 and force their animal slaves to fight with each other until they faint from exhaustion. The morals behind Pokémon are questionable, but I think the idea is that you form bonds with the animals that you capture and everyone is happy. It’s refreshing to have something that seems innocent fun. It has some interesting plot twists and sad parts, and it’s always got the comic relief of Team Rocket who are the main baddies. They always show up and get beaten very quickly, they’re always funny.
Why Pokémon Red, what’s the difference with other Pokémon manga?
It was the original one, it’s one of the Pokémon with the most depth and you can see that a lot of work has been put into it despite being based off a game originally. The art is ok but you wouldn’t choose the Pokémon manga for the art, you would choose it for fun and relaxation. And there’s always more Pokémon to read.
Let’s talk about your final pick of the best manga for kids and teens, Demon Slayer. It is phenomenally popular in North America as well as in Japan.
In America the Demon Slayer anime is so popular that it has become synonymous with anime. In Japan the film has broken a lot of records. The manga came first and the anime is quite true to the manga. The anime has a paint-like feel to it, very blocky. The manga has a darker feel to the art style. It’s about Tanjirō who had his family massacred by a demon while he was out, except one of his little sisters, Nezuko, who got turned into a demon. Tanjirō tries to convince himself that his sister is fine, he is in denial. Then a demon slayer comes to kill his sister but he convinces the demon slayer that his sister is human. The demon slayer gives Tanjirō a pep-talk, and Tanjirō decides to become a demon slayer and kill the demon who massacred his family, who happens to be the leader of the demons. The demons are very clever, like killer humans. There are a few special demons that act more human-like than others. Tanjirō finds a master to train him in water breathing, which is a technique to kill demons. He enhances his sword with the power of water, passes the test and sets out on a quest to kill all the demons.
The relationships between the characters are deep, not just between the brother and sister but also among the demons, and with the demon slayers who go with Tanjirō. It’s a revenge story with a pretty basic plot, but the characters have a very in-depth feel to them. It’s quite violent and dark but not gory. I think this manga is for children age 11 and up unless they are very sensitive.
Is it important to read manga in the correct order?
It depends. It’s usually quite predictable what happens so it’s not too important, but if they are long series with arcs it might get confusing, and if the story is good why would you want to skip it? But you can check a fan page and find out if an arc isn’t as good as the earlier part of the series, and they often have recap chapters towards the end of an arc. With shōjo manga the arcs are often shorter. With seinen it’s more important to read the books in order because the story is more developed.
Is it fair to say that there is a lot of violence and gender stereotyping in manga? Should parents be worried?
The criticism is fair, I suppose. Almost all seinen manga are absurdly violent, which is not the same for josei manga. But it’s really easy to ignore it and just focus on the story. About the stereotypes, for me it’s an added layer of comedy, I just think it’s stupid if there are stereotypical characters and dialogues. I prefer the ones with demons. There are a lot of manga and anime that only serve to fuel the author’s fantasies, so you have to make sure you don’t pick those. There are sites that have manga and anime sample chapters and episodes and a lot of reviews, so that helps to filter out bad ones. In shōnen it’s very similar to a Marvel film, it’s violent but not blood-spattered. And there are different types of girl. When Naruto says “let me protect you”, Sakura beats him up and says she doesn’t need his help. When I read One Piece I didn’t care if the dad left his responsibilities at home to join pirates, it’s only for the character development and story later in the series. I don’t actually think he sets an example to be followed in real life. But you shouldn’t have young children reading seinen manga, because many of them are a bit extreme in lots of ways. So parents should realise that just because it looks like comics doesn’t mean it’s for a child at all.
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One of my favourite manga is Tokyo Ghoul but I didn’t recommend it as one of my five best manga for children and teenagers because it’s a seinen. It’s a manga for people in their mid to end teens and adults, because it’s horribly gory. Like The Promised Neverland, Tokyo Ghoul has layers and layers and there’s always action and a lot of character development. I like the constant keeping on your toes. But I wouldn’t read this manga if I worried about my mental health because it can be a bit depressing and the characters go through huge depression. If you feel down then Pokémon is great. For mid to end teens Attack on Titan is another good manga. Jujutsu Kaisen and Naruto are popular manga for readers in their early teens, and Assassination Classroom and One-Punch Man as well. One-Punch Man is a parody of overpowered superheroes, it’s really funny. Dr. Stone is for kids around 8-12, it’s a more educational manga series. Dragon Ball Super has lots of fighting, it’s like Naruto but more child friendly. I never paid too much attention to the love arc when I read it. Like Pokémon, Dragon Ball has lots of iterations. Bleach, Naruto and One Piece are often called the big three of manga or anime, they set a lot of culture for later ones. They have more sexist parts because they were early ones, but you don’t focus on that when reading. The fighting is the most important part.
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