Book Review – Manga: Introduction, Challenges, and Best Practices

Manga - IntroductionEditor: Melinda Beasi
Publisher: Dark Horse Comics (Milwaukee, OR)
ISBN: 1616552786 / 9781616552787

U.S. comics companies first began publishing translated versions of Japanese comics (manga) in the late 1980’s. Since then, the manga market has evolved, reached amazing heights (in the spring of 2007, a volume of Fruits Basket rose to the no. 15 spot on the weekly USA Today list of the nation’s top 150 best-selling books), contracted – and, for the last several years, has been on an upswing again. Manga volumes hold five places in the latest ranking of the top twenty graphic novels of all types sold in the U.S., as compiled by Nielsen BookScan and reported by ICv2.com. When, earlier this year, the Young Adult Library Services Association announced its annual Great Graphic Novels for Teens list, manga – Japanese comics –  accounted for 15 titles on the list, out of a total of 112. And, as Danielle Rich demonstrates in The institutionalization of Japanese comics in US public libraries (2000-2010), and Glenn Masuchika and Gail Boldt do in Japanese manga in translation and American graphic novels: A preliminary examination of the collections in 44 academic libraries, both public and academic libraries have very much embraced manga.

Of course, while many librarians are already familiar with manga, many are still not. So, what kinds of sources can they draw on to get a basic understanding of what exactly the term encompasses, what are some of its particular features, and how manga differ from American comics. At the height of the “manga boom” – ten years ago now, the specialized publisher Libraries Unlimited met this information need with Graphic Novels: A Genre Guide to Comic Books, Manga, and More and Understanding Manga and Anime, a pair of fairly comprehensive reference volumes designed specifically for librarians. But, while certainly useful, both are now rather dated. Plus of course, both of them may simply cover more ground than a librarian interested only in manga would need. Another option is to consider any one of the edited essay collections on manga that have appeared in recent years, such as Japanese Visual Culture: Explorations in the World of Manga and Anime, Mangatopia: Essays on Manga and Anme in the Modern World, and Manga: An Anthology of Global and Cultural Perspectives. Again, though, an academic essay that is a close reading of the work of a particular manga artist or a study of particular themes across several manga may not really be of any use to a reference librarian or to one working in collection development. Finally, librarians who work with manga have published quite a few case studies in professional magazines, but as with any case study, these focus on activities that took place in particular, specific environments, and may not necessarily yield themselves to replication in other settings.

So, what may be useful for librarians – in addition to all of these kinds of materials – is a relatively concise introduction to Japanese comics that would also be written specifically for a librarian audience. And, as it turns out, Manga: Introduction, Challenges, and Best Practices, published by Dark Horse Comics, itself a leading English-language publisher of Japanese comics, with financial support provided by the Comics Book Legal Defense Fund, “a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting the First Amendment rights of the comics medium”, and drawing on the expertise of a group of journalists, librarians, and manga industry professionals, is exactly this kind of book.

How exactly to open an “introduction to manga” is itself a challenging question. It’s too easy to assume that at this point, the word really needs no in-depth introduction, but, again, librarians cannot be expected to be familiar with all the different kinds of books that their libraries offer to readers – especially as new librarians enter the profession, and as readers demand particular types of books from their libraries.

Interestingly, the book’s introductory chapter, “What is manga”, does not actually define the term outright until several pages in. Instead, the focus seems to be more on context – manga’s roots in Japanese art, the way “manga” as it exists now has developed throughout the 20th century, external influences, such as Western political cartoons and newspaper comic strips, the close and mutually reinforcing relationship between manga and Japanese animation, and the ways manga has been marketed to readers outside Japan. A significant portion of the chapter, somewhat paradoxically, addresses “what’s not manga” – comics drawn in a “manga style”, but not originally from Japan. To the extent that a definition is provided, it’s rather basic – manga, the chapter’s author states, simply means “long-form stories spanning hundreds or thousands of pages”. Of course, as a definition, it only addresses one aspect of what we commonly understand as manga. In this context, it is definitely worth keeping in mind other ways of defining manga, such as the paratextual approach that emphasizes how it is actually packaged and sold (especially compared to American and European comics), and the argument that manga depends on the use of a unique “Japanese visual language”.

On the other hand, one important thing this chapter does as an introduction that presents a structure for the rest of the book is the focus it places on manga’s “marketing demographics”. American/Western comics are largely categorized as being either “superhero”, or “everything else” – even if both of these general categories can actually include many different genres. With manga, the standard distinction is not as much by the works’ content, but by the age groups that they are intended to appeal and be sold to – male pre-teens/teenagers (shonen), young girls up to high school age (shojo), “seinen” (high school/college students and older), and “josei” (women). Of course, this distinction is to some degree artificial – there is nothing preventing a reader from picking up a title that is not “meant” for the age group they are in. But, nonetheless, this distinction has persisted for essentially all of the history of Japanese comics after World War II, and so, it remains useful as a way of organizing any commentary on manga – including guides such as this one.

And, indeed, the four chapters each cover one of the four “major categories”, using a standard structure of the category’s history, an overview of individual genres and elements that are often present with each, and profiles of major creators. One of this book’s distinctive features – directly related to its goal of addressing librarians and booksellers – is that the chapters also highlight the “special features” of each that could potentially be problematic – such as erotic, or at least suggestive content in shonen manga, gratuitous violence in seinen, depictions of abuse or trauma in shojo, and outright sexual situations in josei. Two more chapters, on “yuri” manga, and “boys’ love” (same-sex relationships between, respectively, women and men), seem to have been included primarily due to their authors’ interests that to the presence of these types of manga in the U.S. market – they are, unsurprisingly, a lot more cursory than the preceding four, although perhaps still useful, definitely for parents. The same can be said for the very brief section on “untranslated and fan translated” manga.

The book’s concluding – and longest – chapter is the one that sets it apart from other recent publications on Japanese comics. Entitled “Challenges”, it is aimed directly at librarians, and primarily school/public librarians at that. The chapter’s goal is both to highlight some of the potential issues that can lead to a challenge being presented against a particular manga – among them, nudity and sexuality, depictions of religious figures and images, violence, and racial/ethnic themes. To some degree, this chapter reiterates the points that were already raised in the previous ones – but it also serves to guide librarians through the process of responding to a challenge. An appendix lists various resources, both print and electronic, that librarians can turn to for contextualizing manga in particular and comics/graphic novels in general, as well as locating reviews and reaching out to peers for advice. Another short section summarizes three recent criminal cases that have been brought in the U.S. (and one in Canada) and involved Japanese comics, or at least “comics-style” images to some extent – though none had to do with libraries. Because this book is not meant for academic audiences, there is no formal bibliography, just a list of “resources” – both books and journal/magazine/newspaper articles – that the authors either referenced specifically in the individual chapters or just drew on for general background research.

So, overall, the most important thing to keep in mind when considering this book is that it is designed for a specialized audience – and for a specific purpose. It is not particularly in-depth, and so, will not satisfy either a manga fan or a manga scholar. But it does not aim to be exhaustive, and perhaps the best way to think about it is as a go-to resource for someone who will be dealing with manga occasionally – but not all the time, and especially for someone who may be in a position to make acquisitions decisions and maintain/manage a basic manga collection. This book understands its niche among other English-language writing on Japanese comics, and fills that niche quite successfully.

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2 thoughts on “Book Review – Manga: Introduction, Challenges, and Best Practices

  1. I’m not terribly familiar with books like this one for librarians or booksellers. I suspect that since the CBLDF helped with this title, and they are primarily concerned with legal challenges that concern age-appropriateness that categorization by age marketing would be useful for a book like this. But are guide books for librarians normally organized this way?

    • Mostly Manga: A Genre Guide (Libraries Unlimited, 2012) also seems to be – shounen, shoujo, seinen, josei, and then actual genres within each. But looks like most others (whether Graphic Novels: A Genre Guide, which I mention, or something like Historical Fiction: A Genre Guide) are not organized by age group, though the individual titles they list usually have some kind of entry for what ages they are appropriate for.

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