As a comic book fan, one thing that constantly surprises me is that there isn’t a lot of crossover between fans of western comics and fans of manga. It seems like people mostly read one or the other, and, in cases, may even look down on the other. It just doesn’t make a lot of sense to me; when I was a teenager I used to go to the comic book store and come home with the newest issues of Sandman, X-Men and Maison Ikkoku. So to do my part to bridge this divide, here are some suggestions for manga you can give to your friends who only read western comics to show them what they’re missing.
One Punch Man by One and Yusuke Murata
Dragon Ball is one of the most popular comics in the history of the world, but you may have watched the anime and found the fight scenes that last for literal hours somewhat off-putting. Saitama, the hero of One Punch Man, wins every fight with just one punch. You’d think that would make him the top superhero, but he still buys vegetables on sale.
One Punch Man’s art style is basically built around a single visual gag. Yusuke Murata delivers an incredibly detailed world with heroes based on western superhero comics but Saitama himself essentially looks like a Charles Schultz drawing of Charlie Brown in a cape. And you would think this would wear thin after a dozen volumes or distract from the larger plot that’s going on in the book, but it absolutely doesn’t. While almost everyone will find something to love in this book, fans of books like Nextwave: Agents of H.A.T.E. or Skullkickers are in for a special treat.
My Hero Academia by Kōhei Horikoshi
My Hero Academia asks and perfectly answers the question “What if X-Men was also Dragon Ball?” In a world where almost everyone has some sort of superpower, Izuku Midoriya wants nothing more than to be like the number one hero All Might. But Midoriya doesn’t have any powers. After he rushes in to save his friend from a supervillain anyway, All Might decides to make him his successor, passing on his powers and legacy so Midoriya can enroll in U.A. High School and learn to be a hero.
This is probably the purest take on superheroes Japan has produced. There are a lot of Japanese takes on superheroes like Kamen Rider and Power Rangers, but few are as true to all the tropes of western comics as My Hero Academia. This is especially evident in All Might, Japan’s top superhero who is decked out in a star-spangled red, white and blue outfit.
While all the heroes are like western superheroes in terms of powers, costumes and code names, the setting is distinctly Japanese. The comic has sports days, tournament arcs and a school festival, all the things you’d find in a typical high school manga. It also has some incredible artwork with really well-paced action scenes full of exciting powers.
Ranma 1/2 by Rumiko Takahashi
One of the first manga series to achieve popularity in the United States, Ranma 1/2 combines the sex-and-relationship-based humor of Rumiko Takahashi’s earlier works with a half-serious take on action comics.
High school students Ranma Saotome and Akane Tendo are the heirs to the Saotome and Tendo schools of Anything-Goes Martial Arts who are engaged to have an arranged marriage by their fathers. This is complicated by a host of potential suitors for both Ranma and Akane, usually accompanied by a challenge for a bizarre Anything-Goes Martial Arts Showdown combined with something like figure-skating, rhythmic gymnastics or cooking. And as if their lives weren’t complicated enough, Ranma fell into a cursed Chinese spring while training and turns into a girl when he’s splashed with cold water.
Ranma has a little bit of everything going for it: comedy, action, romance, gender politics, you name it. What really makes it special is that the fight sequences are so unique. Both martial arts and sports manga have a tendency to keep powering up their characters to ludicrous extremes, but what Ranma mainly does is make more and more offbeat forms of martial arts challenges. It’s called Anything-Goes Martial Arts, and it means exactly that. Early examples include martial arts figure skating, martial arts rhythmic gymnastics and martial arts ramen delivery. Despite the silliness, the action sequences are actually really good too.
Negima! and UQ Holder by Ken Akamatsu
Ken Akamatsu made a name for himself as a writer of romcoms, especially the very popular Love Hina. After Love Hina ended, Akamatsu wanted to write an action-adventure series, but his editors at Kodansha wanted him to do another harem romantic comedy. The result was Negima!, a comic that combines romcom tropes with explosive action sequences and just a splash of Harry Potter. Because Negima! was prematurely cancelled over Akamatsu’s worries about a change to Japanese copyright law that eventually didn’t happen, the story continued in a spin-off called UQ Holder with a (mostly) new group of characters.
What’s cool about these series, but especially Negima!, is that they combine action and romcom comics in a unique way. While Ranma 1/2 is also an action romcom, it tends to play the action sequences as comedy bits, usually not taking them seriously. Akamatsu plays both the action and the harem romantic comedy parts of his books relatively straight. This produces some really great action scenes that don’t feel the need to be funny or fan-servicey even though the book isn’t short on humor or service in other parts.
Lone Wolf and Cub by Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima
Unlike the other series on this list, Lone Wolf and Cub doesn’t feel much like a western comic at all. In fact, every chapter feels more like a samurai movie than anything else. Lone Wolf and Cub is very important to the history of Western comics though, because it was a huge inspiration for a young Frank Miller, the revolutionary writer/artist who would go on to have legendary runs on Daredevil and Batman. Miller loved the this book so much that he imported it from Japan despite not being able to read it.
When Ogami Ittō’s entire family, aside from his infant son Daigorō, is murdered by a political rival, he sets off with his son in a baby cart and they become the assassins Lone Wolf and Cub, seeking a bloody vengeance across feudal Japan. The artwork is beautiful, the story works on an almost primal level, and the book is essentially a masterclass in the use of visual storytelling and on using the form of comics to set a mood.
Dragon Ball by Akira Toriyama
If you’re reading this article there’s a good chance you watched the Dragon Ball Z anime, probably after school on Cartoon Network. It’s achieved a sort of cultural relevance in North America that few other anime series have; everyone from internet celebrities to sports stars publicly celebrate their love of Akira Toriyama’s creation which to this day is still one of the most popular manga and anime series in the world.
What most people in the west don’t know, however, is that the manga is so much better than the anime. While the anime series has a reputation for fight scenes that take hours to finish, on the page those action sequences unfold at a much quicker pace without losing any of the kineticism of the animation. Also, Dragon Ball Z picks up in the middle of the story and it’s so much fun to watch Goku and Bulma grow up and see their fights with the Red Ribbon Army and Piccolo. Viz published the English editions split under the titles Dragon Ball and Dragon Ball Z to match the anime, but it was originally published as a single comic under the title Dragon Ball.
20th Century Boys by Naoki Urasawa
If you’re a fan of comics by Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore, you’ll probably enjoy Naoki Urasawa’s 20th Century Boys. A mystery/thriller centered on the identity of a cult leader known as Friend, 20th Century Boys unravels over the course of 50 years.
When Kenji Endō and his friends were kids, they wrote a Book of Prophecies that foretold the end of the world. 30 years later, the prophecies begin to come true.
20th Century Boys is one of the most intricately plotted and enthralling comics I’ve ever read. The mystery unravels at a pace that never feels slow or rushed, with each chapter fleshing out the world and the characters in some way. And one of the cool things about it is that you’ll actually learn a lot about classic manga while you read it, as the cast’s childhood love of Shonen Sunday features heavily in the plot.
Cardcaptor Sakura by CLAMP
Girls’ comics, or shojo manga, have their own aesthetic and tropes and visually feel very different from their boys’ comics, or shonen manga, counterparts. They draw from different stylistic influences and have their own visual language. Despite that, the influence of Dragon Ball was inescapable even in the pages of shojo manga, long the home of romance and drama comics that were light on action. In response to the popularity of Dragon Ball (and later One Piece) with Japanese girls, the shojo manga magazine Nakayoshi started publishing comics with more action, starting with Sailor Moon and Magic Knight Rayearth.
CLAMP, the all-woman manga studio, decided to follow up their hit Magic Knight Rayearth with something that was closer to a more traditional shojo manga. While the plot focuses on Sakura Kinomoto’s quest to capture the 19 magical Clow Cards and it doesn’t skimp on the action, it also centers romantic plots and gives as much weight to exploring love as it does to fighting monsters. This means that in a lot of ways, the series is a bridge between action-heavy comics and the romance-focused traditional shojo comics.