I’ve been reading manga since I was about 10 years old. Back then, we relied on crowdsourced translations that weren’t readily available. Then Barnes & Noble began to beef up their manga offering with the latest tankobon (volume) of titles that usually coincided with a popular anime at the time – something we can thank Toonami for. So if you are jumping in today, there is more access to both manga and anime translations through official channels than ever before!
That said, even for regular comic book readers, manga can be intimidating for a number of reasons. With long-established titles like Naruto, Bleach, One Piece, and Dragon Ball being the most recognizable in the US while also numbering in the hundreds when it comes to chapters. It can feel overwhelming. Throw in the fact that you have to read right to left, and some titles remaining in the original Japanese, I can see why some are hesitant to pick up their first manga.
But, fear not! I have a few tips to help you jump into the manga world that will hopefully help you feel less overwhelmed. Like American comic books, manga is so much more than just the titles currently reaching anime fame – while those are great too, their chapter count can be extremely long.
How Manga Works
Manga consists, generally, in chapter form first. These chapters function a lot like American comic single issues and are usually published in a weekly or monthly publication like the iconic Shonen Jump or Shojo Beat, both of which are imprints of Viz Media as well which allows for distribution in English, or are independently distributed via webtoons platforms. While some chapters publish regularly, others may have gaps of time where they’re not updated. Then, chapters are collected into volumes, called tankobon. These volumes can have three or more chapters, all dependent on how the arcs are structured and how to best tell the story. Normally, volumes are around 200 pages, similar to trade paperbacks of your favorite comics.
A lot of older manga have a single creator (that does both illustration and writing), unlike American comic books which can have three or more people on a single issue. The status of a mangaka, a manga creator, usually means its a one-man, or woman, show. This is also the case for smaller Shonen titles while those with larger publishers have been changing like My Hero Academia or Boruto to include larger teams/ That said, knowing that it’s one person doing the work is an easy way to help you be understanding when chapters take a little bit longer to get released especially when published outside some of the large compilations.
Start With Something Familiar
An easy way to jump into manga is to start with familiar territory. While this may be difficult for some larger titles like One Piece (I mean there are 900 episodes of the anime so is one is a monster in all forms) it’s easier with shows that have one to a few seasons. You can make the choice to start from chapter one or you can do what a lot of us do and watch the series to its current stop point and then jump into the manga pool from where the last arc ended.
This may seem weird, but normally anime adapts manga well enough for you to understand what is happening when you switch mediums. This will lower the number of chapters you need to read to catch up. For example, Beastars is a Netflix Original anime from studio Orange that has 12 episodes at around 25-minutes apiece. This one season collects chapters 1-50 of the manga, currently being released in the US by Viz Media. When I fell in love with the anime, I immediately looked up what chapter to pick up from. Additionally, there are also JRPGs that have manga adaptations which can serve as a jumping in point for gamers with titles like Persona 5 and even Splatoon.
Start with a Demographic
Where American comics are sectioned into all-ages, teen, and mature, manga demographics are broken down by age and gender. I know, I know, it seems like a weird gender binary thing, but nowadays, mangaka use the tropes established in these demographics to push boundaries of storytelling and in some cases like My Hero Academia, reconstruct what we think about the existing category. There are four simple ones to start with: shonen, shojo, josei, and seinen.
Shonen is probably the most famous of the bunch, aimed towards a young teen male audience between the ages of 12 and 18, this is where Dragon Ball, Bleach, Naruto, and My Hero Academia fit in. In these stories, you’ll follow a usually young male protagonist as he harnesses his power, trains goes on quests, and features high action. Shonen can be sports anime like Haikyu, adventure anime like One Piece, and more. Now, this is a generalization, and the category encompasses things like Food Wars, Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure, and even titles like Spy X Family.
Meanwhile, Shojo is aimed at young women approximately 7–18 years old and gave birth to one of manga and anime’s most well-known genres: magical girl. Often focused on slice of life stories, romance, and magic, Shojo has exploded to include as much fantasy as romance and offers up stories that center women and girls as the protagonist.
This is where the iconic Sailor Moon fits in and it also features comedic love stories like Toradora! and My Little Monster. But if you’re into just romance, shojo also offers titles like Vampire Knight that fuses romance with fantasy and bits of horror. If you think this is too cutesy for you, do a deep dive into how Revolutionary Girl Utena broke gender norms and conceptions of sexuality in the 90s to get a full look at how shojo can do much more than just high school romance.
The final two big categories are seinen and josei, which take the components of shonen and shojo respectively and adjust the age ranges to include more mature audiences. Seinen manga is generally targeted at 18–30-year-old male audiences and includes stories that range from highly stylized avant-garde titles to pornographic. But in it all, seinen focuses more on character development instead of action like its younger counterpart and usually ramps up things like violence and sexuality. Unlike shonen, the protagonist can be either woman or man and include titles like Battle Royale, Berserk, Gantz, and Ghost in the Shell.
Josei, is the equivalent to seinen and targets women between 18 and 45 years old. The largest difference between josei and its younger counterpart is the art. While shojo often uses an art style with large sparkling eyes, josei aims to show women in a more natural style, typically aiming to reflect more everyday women in Japan. Additionally, Josei romances showcase more realistic romances instead of idealized ones that are the focus of shojo. These stories include explicit intimacy and also show the uglier sides of romance like abuse, cheating, and so on. You’re OTP won’t kiss until the last chapter of a shojo but they will kiss in the first of josei, is the simplistic clarification between the two.
Grab a Shonen Jump Subscription
With manga well into chapter 100, it can be difficult to find a place to jump in especially when price points for physical manga volumes range between six to 10 dollars. the easiest way to catch up, try out new titles, and not worry about price is to pick up the Shonen Jump subscription from Viz Media. There are over 10,000 chapters available from the subscription and at only $2 a month, it’s a steal.
The subscription will also allow you to see how manga tackles different genres like sci-fi, fantasy, history, horror and more. Additionally, while you can move towards the staples like My Hero Academia you can also branch out into lesser-known titles like Spy X Family, and find out what there is to read.
While there isn’t a shojo equivalent, to Shonen Jump, you can get a ComiXology Unlimited subscription with our affiliate link, which offers up a smaller amount of manga titles but skews to more seinen and josei tastes, as well having a wealth of classic manga titles.
Whether you’re new to manga but love anime, or just new to Japanese pop culture in general, I hope you feel more comfortable finding a starting point. With so many stories out there, it’s a shame to not read them, and let’s be honest, American comic books are really intimidating, you’ve made that jump, you can make the one to Shonen.
Kate is co-founder, EIC, and CCO of BWT. She’s also a Certified Rotten Tomatoes Critic, host, and creator of our flagship podcast, But Why Tho? and Did You Have To?. She also manages all PR relationships for comics, manga, film, TV, and anime. She has an MA in Cultural Anthropology and Religious Studies focusing on how pop culture impacts society.