What is Manga? Explain It Like I’m Five

by Chris Von Wilpert, BBusMan • Last updated November 24, 2023

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What is manga?

Manga is a Japanese comic book style that blends stunning artwork with engaging stories. Covering genres like action, romance, and fantasy, it offers something for everyone. To explore new worlds or follow your favorite characters' adventures in print form, simply pick up some manga and enjoy the ride!

Manga fast facts

  • Manga translates to "whimsical pictures," capturing its playful storytelling essence.

  • Manga is Japanese comics, read right to left — anime is their animated, often colorful counterpart.

  • Anime gained American popularity starting with 1960s TV shows like “Astro Boy”.

  • Manga is widely accessible and popular, available for purchase, library borrowing, and online platforms.

  • Manga is great for autism — it offers engaging stories and pictures that really click.

A colorful montage of manga heroes, each character a unique signature of the manga style. Photograph: Hajime Komoto via The Guardian.

What does manga literally mean?

Manga means "whimsical pictures" in Japanese. The word breaks down into two parts: "man," which means whimsical or impromptu, and "ga," which stands for pictures. This name is perfect because manga is all about fun and creative storytelling through drawings.

This term comes from Japan and has a cool history. It's been around for centuries, starting with ancient Japanese art in the 12th century. But the manga we know today, with its cool stories and characters, really got popular after World War II.

Nowadays, manga is a big deal and covers all sorts of stories. Whether it's action, romance, or adventure, manga has something for everyone. It's like a whole universe of stories told in a unique and playful way, just like its name suggests.

What is the difference between manga and anime?

Manga and anime are both super popular in Japan and around the world, but they're not the same thing. Here's the main difference: manga is like a comic book or graphic novel, and anime is like a cartoon or animated show.

Manga is read, just like you would read a comic book. It's made up of a bunch of drawings with speech bubbles and is usually black and white. People in Japan love reading manga, and it comes in all sorts of styles and stories, from superheroes to romance.

Anime, on the other hand, is what you watch. It's animated, which means it's made up of moving pictures. Anime can be based on manga, but it can also have original stories. It's colorful, often has voice actors, and comes with cool sound effects and music. Just like manga, anime has a lot of different types, so there's something for everyone.

So, manga is the book you read, and anime is the show you watch. They often share similar styles and stories, but they're enjoyed in different ways.

What is the difference between manga and comic books?

Manga and comic books are similar because they both tell stories with pictures and words, but there are a few key differences between them.

First up, the style. Manga comes from Japan and has a unique look. The characters often have big eyes, dramatic expressions, and cool action scenes. It's usually in black and white. Comics, like the ones from the U.S., often have a different style with more realistic drawings and are usually printed in color.

Then, there's the way you read them. Manga is read from right to left, which is the opposite of how we usually read in English. This is because it follows the traditional Japanese reading style. Comics, on the other hand, are read from left to right, like most English books.

Lastly, the stories can be different. Manga covers a huge range of genres and is for all ages. It can be about anything from superheroes to everyday life, and there's manga for kids, teens, and adults. American comics are super famous for their superheroes like Spider-Man and Batman, but they also have lots of other types of stories as well.

What is the difference between manhua and manga?

Manhua and manga are similar because they're both Asian comic styles, but they come from different places and have some cool differences.

Manhua is from China. It's like the Chinese version of comics. One big thing about manhua is that it's read from left to right, just like English books. This is because that's how Chinese writing is read. Manhua also reflects Chinese culture, history, and stories, which makes it unique.

Manga, on the other hand, comes from Japan. It's super popular worldwide. Manga is usually read from right to left, which is the traditional Japanese way. The stories and art in manga often have that distinct Japanese feel, with characters that have big eyes and lots of emotion.

Both manhua and manga can be about anything — from fantasy to real life, and they're made for all ages. The art in both can be really detailed and beautiful, but you might notice that the styles are a bit different because of their cultural backgrounds.

Hands browse through a manga volume, surrounded by a scattering of other manga titles. Photograph: Saline County Library.

How did anime get popular in America?

Anime started getting popular in America around the 1960s and 1970s, and it's been growing ever since. Here's a quick rundown of how it happened:

First, some early anime shows made their way to American TV. Shows like "Astro Boy" and "Speed Racer" came out in the 1960s, and they were a hit. They were different from American cartoons, with cool stories and unique styles. This was many Americans' first taste of anime, and people really liked it.

Then, in the 1980s and 1990s, more anime started showing up. This time, it wasn't just for kids. Shows like "Dragon Ball Z" and "Sailor Moon" became super popular, and they brought in fans of all ages. Around this time, people also started getting into Japanese video games, which often had anime-style art. This helped more people discover anime.

The big boom came with the internet. Suddenly, people could find all sorts of anime online. Websites, forums, and later streaming services made it easy to watch. Anime conventions started popping up, where fans could meet and share their love for anime. Today, anime is a big part of pop culture in America, with tons of fans and a huge range of shows and movies to enjoy.

Is there a legal way to read manga?

Yes, you can buy manga in book stores or online. Physical manga volumes are like any other book — you buy them and add them to your collection. You can find manga at big bookstores, comic shops, and online stores. They come in cool printed volumes, sometimes even in box sets for a whole series.

If you're into digital reading, there are lots of online platforms where you can buy or subscribe to read manga. Websites and apps like Crunchyroll Manga, VIZ Media, and Shonen Jump offer tons of manga. You can read chapters online or on your phone or tablet. These platforms often have the latest chapters available, sometimes even on the same day they come out in Japan!

Libraries are another awesome option. Many libraries have manga collections, and you can borrow them just like any other book. Some libraries also offer digital borrowing systems, where you can read manga online for free with your library membership.

Can I read manga for free?

Yes, there are many ways you can read manga for free. Libraries are a great place to start. Many libraries have manga in their collections. You can borrow these for free just like any other book. Plus, some libraries offer digital lending services, where you can read manga online through their websites or apps. All you need is a library card, and you're good to go.

Online, there are some legal websites and apps that offer free manga. For example, Shueisha, a manga reading app,  allows you to read some chapters for free. They often provide the latest chapters of popular series shortly after they're released in Japan. Remember, it's important to use legal sites, as they support the creators.

You can also keep an eye out for special promotions and free trials. Some manga subscription services offer free trials, so you can read as much as you want for a limited time. And occasionally, publishers might run promotions where they make certain volumes or series available for free for a short period.

A global map of Lolicon legality (i.e. hentai with underage girls). Red zones are where it’s legal to possess Lolicon. Green zones are where it’s illegal. Laws can differ by state. Photograph: Reddit

What happens if you read manga?

Manga is a great way to enjoy stories. Just like books and movies, manga has all sorts of genres — from action and adventure to romance and mystery. The stories can be really captivating, taking you to different worlds, introducing you to interesting characters, and sometimes even teaching you about different cultures, especially Japanese culture.

There's also the artistic side of manga. The drawings in manga are often really detailed and beautiful. Reading manga lets you appreciate this art form. You get to see how artists express emotions, action, and settings through their unique styles. For those who love drawing, it can be really inspiring.

Manga can also be a fun way to improve your reading skills. For younger readers or those learning English (or Japanese), manga can be more engaging than traditional books. The combination of images and text makes it easier to understand and follow the story.

Can kids read manga?

Absolutely, kids can read manga! There's a whole bunch of manga that's perfect for kids, wth some manga series specifically made for younger readers. These manga often have fun, adventurous stories with age-appropriate content. They can be about friendship, school life, magical worlds, or even learning new things. The characters and stories are designed to be relatable and enjoyable for kids.

Another cool thing about manga for kids is the art. It's often colorful and lively, with characters that are cute and expressive. This makes it fun and engaging for kids to read. The artwork can help younger readers understand the story, even if they're still working on their reading skills.

Reading manga can also be great for kids' imagination and reading skills. Manga combines pictures and words, which can make reading more interesting for kids. It can help them develop a love for reading and storytelling. Plus, there are manga available in both English and other languages, so it can be a fun way for kids to practice reading in different languages.

Black and white manga panels showing a story in progress, the detailed drawings pulling readers of all ages into the scene. Photograph: Noctis Art.

Is manga good for autism?

Manga can be particularly beneficial for individuals with autism, thanks to its unique format that combines visual and textual storytelling. Many people with autism are visual learners, finding it easier to process and understand information presented in a visual format. Manga’s vibrant illustrations alongside text provide context and emotional cues, making it more accessible and engaging for those who might struggle with traditional books.

The diverse range of genres and stories in manga also caters well to the varied interests of people with autism, who often have specific and focused passions. From high-energy action and adventure to detailed fantasy worlds, there’s a manga out there for almost every interest. This can make reading a more enjoyable and fulfilling activity, tailored to their personal preferences.

Manga also offers a social aspect, which can be beneficial for people with autism looking to connect with others. The widespread popularity of manga has led to a robust community of fans and online groups. Engaging with these communities over a shared interest in manga can provide a comfortable way for individuals with autism to socialize and express themselves, creating opportunities for interaction and friendship based on a common passion.

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