'So What Is This Mango, Anyway?' Understanding Manga, Comics and Graphic Novels

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Graphic novels, comics and manga can play an important part in encouraging reading for pleasure amongst students of any age and also have a role in teaching in many subject areas. I'm going to offer a small snapshot of the least well known of these, manga, below, but want to start with a few general points about the comic strip medium.

Graphic novels, comics and manga are often seen as texts specifically for younger male reluctant readers, but such an assumption underestimates this enormously flexible medium as it can be used to create complex works of fiction or non-fiction for adults and young adults, male and female, as well as humorous stories for the very young.

The comic strip has been used to create a range of work that encompasses the superb Alice in Sunderland by British creator Bryan Talbot--which explores memory, history and the nature of narrative, drawing on poetry, plays, novels and other comics from around the world--as well as the slapstick humour of The Beano, with it's crossgenerational appeal and playful approach to language and image. It also includes television spinoffs--most notably, perhaps, The Simpsons and

Futurama which offer clever, witty takes on family, relationships and media--and genres that have generated spin-offs in other media, like superhero comics, themselves capable of addressing a huge range of ages and abilities. Further, they may be 'text light', containing few words so offering a comparatively quick read, or 'text heavy', offering challenges to the skilled reader. In all cases, the grammar of the form itself, with speech balloons, panels and, of course, the skills needed to read the images as well as the words (something explored in depth in Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art) mean that texts in comic strip form can offer engaging, and demanding reading experiences.

Consequently, it is possible to build a manga and graphic novel collection in a school library which challenges the good reader whilst supporting those less enthusiastic. This is the key strength of the medium in a school or library setting. Books can be acquired simply to broaden current leisure reading material but certain titles can be used to support specific areas within the curriculum.


Comics and graphic novels have been approached with caution by both libraries and schools in the past as their content has often been seen as controversial (there are many works created in the medium for adults but the common cultural assumption in Britain is that comics are designed solely for children, so making material for adults seem shocking to some). Most recently this response was provoked by manga, of which material for younger readers comprises around 57% of the market, as Paul Gravett states in Manga: Sixty Years of Japanese Comics. Manga publishing is focused on specific markets differentiated by age and gender, and I'm going to touch on titles for teenage boys and girls below.


Manga is growing in popularity, particularly amongst young adult readers in Britain who tend to read material aimed at their age group. It offers a useful opportunity in the classroom to talk about cultural difference and globalisation amongst many other issues. There are initiatives tapping into the enthusiasm of younger readers for Japanese culture, one of the first being Manga Mania which was run by The Reading Agency. This passion is also shown in Neo magazine, the main source of information about the adoption of Japanese culture in Britain--http://www.neomag.co.uk/--and so a useful primer for staff.

There is a key difference between manga and graphic novels in that the readership has a different gender balance. Whilst American titles tend to have readerships which are predominantly male, Japanese comics draw readers of both sexes, typically around 60% female. …


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