As I mentioned in my last post, I've been investigating the genre of manga. It's been a slow journey, but quite interesting because manga is a unique format (illustrated, like comic books), and heavily influenced by Japanese culture (because, well, they're translated Japanese books).
Traditional manga books read from right to left, meaning you start on what we would consider the last page, and read the top right panel first and proceed to the top left, then the second right panel, and so on. The panels are sometimes different sizes, so this can vary. Thinking this style wouldn't catch on in the US, they originally reset the books to read the Western way, a very time-consuming and costly process. But it's actually not difficult to adapt to. Manga written by Western (American) authors, and manhwa, which is the Korean equivalent of manga, is written in the Western style, like American comic books.
Manga is actually a Japanese adaptation of American comic books, which I think one of the great things about global culture. Japanese artists adapted American culture, and now their adaptation has caught on with a fierceness with American readers because of how they made it uniquely their own. In Japan, manga is published in thick magazines that feature different series. Episodes from popular series are then bound into books, and series of these books are published and translated for English-speaking audiences. A manga book might contain four episodes, and the beginning might remind readers of the concept or back story of the series, particularly in early episodes. This seems odd in the book, but makes sense when you consider how it was originally serialized.
Popular series are also made into animated television series. Anime series sometimes stay close to the books, but some episodes may differ, most often toward the end of the anime series to give it a conclusion where the books continue the story of the characters. Another impetus for me reading manga was checking out a few anime series on Netflix and online at Hulu.com and FUNimation.com after falling in love with the anime movies of Hiyao Miyazaki. Miyazaki is distributed by Disney in the US, and his movies are brilliantly imaginative, and so different from what I'm used to seeing. My favorites are SPIRITED AWAY and MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO.
Manga is divided into sub genres according to gender and age. As far as what you'll find in the bookstore, it's primarily shojo manga for girls and shonen manga for boys. There's also kodomo manga for children under 10, josei manga for women, seinen manga for men, and hentai or ero manga which features very explicit adult content. I've mostly focused on shojo manga thus far. I tried a few shonen books, but the ones I read focused on fight scenes and/or scantily-clad female characters (very like American superhero comics).
In Japan, manga is read rapidly, and embodies the idea of a 'picture is worth a 1,000 words.' I've not come close to mastering reading a picture along with the words at a quick pace, and don't know all the symbolism. The shape of the eyes will tell you about the character's personality, for instance. Some of these are obvious, and akin to American comics (big eyes = good, squinty eyes = bad). Also, apparently the hair color is significant, but as most manga is black and white, you have to rely on dialogue or cover art--I think this may apply more to anime series than manga.
There are some characters unique to Japanese culture. The one that most frequently appears in shojo manga is the bishonen--basically a really good looking guy who often appear nearly feminine. Another odd one is a teen character who is drawn and behaves like a child relative to the other characters despite being the same age--I don't know if this character type has a name, but I saw it in several series.
There are other odd things that come up that take a bit of adjustment. When characters have extreme emotions, they turn into child-like caricatures of themselves. When they're nervous, a big sweat drop appears on their heads. Most baffling of all, when they are attracted to someone they get explosive nosebleeds. I still don't get that last one, but speaking of, apparently in Japan sharing your blood type is like telling someone your astrological sign, so it's included in the character profiles, and the authors will often note theirs in their bios.
Probably the biggest challenge for me was keeping the characters straight. Not only do they sometimes look similar, there are usually a lot of them and they have unfamiliar Japanese names and nicknames. Then there's the honorifics added to their names, which differ according to the relationship between the character and the speaker. For instance, a male character named Tamaki might be called Tama for short, Tamakisan (like Mr. Tamaki, general term of respect), Tamakikun or Tamakun (term of endearment used by close friends), Sempai by someone younger in school or a club, or Kohai by an upperclassman or senior member of a club. A female character can also have a -san added (like Ms.) or -chan as a term of endearment (the equivalent of -kun for boys). You can see how it can get confusing for a new reader. I think I've got it down, but it took a while (and a helpful glossary of terns from one series).
I also learned a lot from a book called Understanding Manga and Anime by Robin E. Brenner, which is a guide written primarily for librarians that gives a good overview and recommendations of series. If you're a parent, you'll find age ratings on the back cover that are in line with American standards. The Japanese have a different approach to sexuality, but for the most part I've found the shojo series to be very tame by American standards. A more open attitude toward homosexuality and cross-dressing are the most noticeable differences relative to American YA series. For some reason, the girls find it attractive when the heartthrob dresses like a girl--but since the bishonen look a bit feminine, maybe this makes sense.
I think the main appeal of these series is that they are plot driven with strong characters, can be read quickly, usually have cliffhangers, and for shonen manga tend to center on a love triangle. As far as specific series, the ones I liked best so far are as follows:
FRUITS BASKET by Natsuki Takaya - An orphaned girl moves in with a family with a secret--the members change into animals of the Chinese zodiac when hugged by a member of the opposite sex. There's a love triangle between the girl, gorgeous but lonely Yuki who transforms into the rat, and the rebel and family outcast Kyo, who becomes the cat (the animal cast out of the zodiac).
OURAN HIGH SCHOOL HOST CLUB by Bisco Hatori - A tomboy attends an exclusive private school on scholarship, where she is mistaken for a boy and ends up part of a social club full of good looking boys who entertain girls with lavish parties. They call this a reverse harem, a theme in manga where a girl hangs out with a group of goodlooking boys. Another example would be BOYS OVER FLOWERS by Yoko Kamio. I wouldn't recommend starting with OURAN, as I did, because it's a tongue-in-cheek take on common themes of the genre. If you read it without knowing what those themes are, it's a bit baffling and weird, but I grew to like it more and more as I kept reading different series.
MAMMOTTE! LOLLIPOP - An average girl accidentally swallows a magic pearl that is central to a final exam for wizards from another dimension. In order to protect her from others, and pass the exam, two young male wizards (yes, love triangle) have to stay by her side at all times. This series tends to stray a bit into shonen, with each episode having a battle scene where the characters use their unique powers.
GOONG by Park Sohee - This is a manhwa series (i.e. Korean) with beautiful illustrations which reimagines Korean society as having a royal family (like Britain). It focuses on a high school girl who is married to the surly but attractive prince through an arrangement made by their grandfathers and has to navigate palace life. There's a lot of intrigue and politics, and a love triangle involving the prince's cousin--the original heir to the throne before his father died. It's more contemporary and targeted at older teens than the aforementioned series.
DRAMACON by Svetlana Chmakova - also focused at older teens, this is a brief (3-book) series about a young woman who wants to become a manga artist. Each book takes place at a manga/anime convention and it delves into the culture of the genre.
I know I still have more to learn, but I hope this post informs and perhaps even inspires. If you are a manga fan and have any recommendations, I'd love to hear them.