Turning Japanese: A Starter Guide to (Fantasy) Manga

In the United States, the "reign" of comics has come and gone. Even though these days comics are infiltrating pop culture and movies, reading them is still considered a very niche hobby/passion, one that is sometimes stereotyped or made fun of as "geeky". Imagine if that WASN'T the case; imagine that at bookstores it was completely normal for at least half the shelfspace to be taken up by graphic novels. Imagine going on the train and not being shocked by seeing an older lady or a business man reading comics. Imagine comics infiltrating advertising campaigns, from billboards to commercials. Basically, imagine comics had the same power in America as manga does in Japan.

Being in my twenties and growing up as a total social reject girl-nerd, I was the perfect target audience for manga when it started to become popular in the United States. As a lifelong comics reader, I never questioned the validity of manga and read it quite religiously through my teen years. However, I've come to find that manga doesn't seem as accessible to some people. At this point in time there is a definite overload of titles available… and I would guess that only about 40% of it is any good. There are plenty of fluffy "shoujo" titles (manga for girls), and strange, predictable series with boring plotlines. But amidst the shelves at your local Border's Books, if you're willing to elbow your way through piles of mall goths, there are many manga gems to be read. And manga has its own unique brand of art and storytelling, so it's not as if you're being "disloyal" to American comics.

Manga first became popular in Japan around World War II, mainly popularized by Astro Boy. Now it is an accepted part of life – I studied abroad in Japan and I could get manga ANYWHERE, from a cafe to a gas station. Manga-ka (that is, manga artists) are basically on the same tier as celebrities, and they are managed by studios that employ people just for inking, lettering, etc. It's a very efficient market, and one that has made the Japanese publishing industry about 3.6 billion dollars before 2007.

BECAUSE there is such a broad market for manga, there is something to be found for EVERYONE. From children's stories to "soap opera" types of manga to adults only (hentai), manga covers a broad spectrum of every sort of entertainment… for every taste. So in the coming weeks I will introduce you readers to "starter" manga for different genres.

As a young lady, I was completely obsessed with anything whimsical and fanciful. I was raised in Alaska AND homeschooled, so I had a lot of time to kill. I would spend my time reading fantasy novels, dreaming of unicorns and dragons and things of that sort. So obviously I'm a big fan of "fantasy" manga. The Japanese interpret fantasy a bit differently than we do in Western culture, but "fantasy" manga still has very distinct, fanciful themes. Following are some of the more prominent fantasy titles within the manga world.

Fullmetal Alchemist by Hiromu Arakawa

Chances are, if you watch Cartoon Network on any sort of frequent basis, you have seen the name Fullmetal Alchemist show up once or twice. It's definitely one of the more popular anime within the United States right now, and it is thick within "otaku" culture (otakus are people who self identify as people who are very into Japanese things, like anime & manga, the fashion, the culture, etc. It has taken over in the teenage populace, and chances are if you see someone sporting cat ears and interjecting broken Japanese into their sentences, you have encountered an "otaku"). However, as with most anime, it was based off of a manga… which is arguably better. The art and character design is unique, with obvious American comic influences. While the snappy dialogue and perfectly executed character development makes FMA worth reading alone, the plot line itself is so unique that it deserves bonus points just for that.

Fullmetal Alchemist is set in a different Earth that is in some ways not too different from our own, but in others almost entirely different. Alchemy, a craft that mixes science and magic, is a very real and feasible ability in this world. The tales focus on two young brothers who have an uncanny ability to use alchemy, and they make the mistake of trying to use their skills to bring their mother back to life, a giant "no no" within the craft. Their dabblings create more harm than good, trapping one of the brothers inside of a metal suit (he has no human body), and taking some of the limbs of the other brother, Edward. They then embark on adventures once the government gets wind of their talents. With everything completely well written and entertaining to the nth degree, and if you want to embark on a good, solid, entertaining manga with steampunk elements, Fullmetal Alchemist is something you NEED to pick up.


Berserk by Kentaro Miura

When my comic book fanatic friends ask me what they should read to get into manga, Berserk is usually at the top of my list. It is an older manga, published in 1989, but it has held up through the years as one of the most intense and unique manga I have ever read. It is ultra violent & super graphic, with sparse dialogue and sweeping, bloody action sequences. Rife with disgusting demons and nods to various mythology, it is an entertaining read from cover to cover. Berserk is centered around an unlikely antihero, Guts, who is cursed and forever plagued by demons and brings death and destruction to every environment and person who interacts with him, except for his elf like companion, Puck.

One of the more unique things about Berserk is that it is a very dark, gritty manga, with no happy ending in sight. There are very few moments that have "lessons" or hidden meaning: basically the entire thing is set in a shadowy fantasy world where you either defend yourself or die. Guts is not a good guy OR a bad guy, he is merely himself, fighting his way through life with vengeance in his heart and a giant sword. He is a mercenary, and the entire series would probably be entirely depressing if it weren't for the comic relief of Puck, who follows him about merely because Guts "is interesting".

Add to the fact that it is published and translated Dark Horse, who do absolute wonders with their manga (they focus a lot more on translating it well instead of getting it out as fast as possible, like publishers like Tokyopop do), and you are missing out if you don't pick up the expansive epic that is Berserk.



Magic Knight Rayearth by CLAMP

You don't have to look far in the world of anime or manga before you come across the world of Magical Girls. Perpetuated by anime/manga like Sailor Moon, it is literally a genre within itself. Usually touting high school girls who are suddenly pulled into otherworlds and have great outfits and interesting powers, and who save the world with TRUTH AND LOVE AND FASHION XOXOXOX, Magic Knight Rayearth definitely falls into these manga cliches. HOWEVER, it is written and illustrated with such cleverness and fantastic artwork that it is accessible even if you are NOT a teenage Asian girl.

CLAMP is a group of female "manga-ka", and after many popular series like Cardcaptor Sakura, Wish, X, Chobits, they are well respected within the world of manga and anime. Everything they touch is basically pure gold, and Magic Knight Rayearth is really no exception to this. It was actually Tokyopop's first translated manga, and therefore sort of began the manga movement within the United States to broad audiences.

Although it is light hearted and definitely geared more towards a female audience (with pretty outfits, love stories, and cute creatures), Magic Knight Rayearth is one of those classic series that are worth looking into. The characters are relatable and interesting, and the storyline has an epic arc that ends beautifully. CLAMP's art style is incredibly whimsical and beautiful with long, lithe androgynous humans and gorgeous environments. The story itself is engaging:t three high school girls are pulled into a fantasy world and have to save it with their "Magic Knight" powers. If you're looking for something more light hearted but also entertaining, check out Magic Knight Rayearth.


Claymore by Norihiro Yagi

Claymore is another one of those completely unique stories. Just when you think nothing original exists in the world then you pick up a manga like this. Set in a dark fantasy world, the premise of the entire series is that we are not the only humanoid species existing on Earth. Instead, vaguely demonoid creatures exist alongside the humans. And although these demonoid creatures look humanoid they mostly feed on the internal organs of regular people. They are called the Yoma, and are the sworn enemies of the humans. Enter the "Claymore", half human/half Yoma super warriors who are mercenaries against the Yoma. They spend their days hunting and killing Yoma who are threatening humans.

The main protaginist of the series is a Claymore named Clare, who is a quiet and unlikely heroine. She is not some big and strong superhero: as far as Claymores go she is of the lowest ranking. She is joined on her adventures by a young boy named Raki, who follows her around after his parents are murdered by Yoma and he is exiled from his village.

The entire series has deep mythos and unique art. I haven't read through all of it yet, but what I have read I have absolutely enjoyed every page of.



Fantasy is a huge, expansive genre within the world of manga. I could go on for miles, but for now I will leave it at this.


Molly McIsaac points her camera at everything, rides unicorns, and enjoys fictional characters with green hair. You can stalk her to your heart's content on Twitter, where she talks about her various misadventures.


  1. Avatar photo Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

    I remember checking out the Berserk anime in high school. SO bleak. The dynamic is so interesting though. A friendship gone horribly, horribly wrong. I found it really pretty scary, actually. I might classify it as horror. 

  2. Berserk could definately put under horror at times the only manga I read and the only one i recommend.

  3. I never could get into manga. I think a huge part of it is that they are all black & white, which I just don’t care for. I mean going by the animes that are based on magna the stories certainly aren’t the problem. I just need color.

  4. The hardest part for me about Manga is the lack of color. Especially in action sequences, I have trouble keeping characters seperate if I can’t go by hair color or outfit.  On the other hand when I was in high school and devouring Wish and Fruits Basket and Chobits I didn’t have too much trouble. Clearly I’ve been ruined by Western comics.

  5. Awww manga, you have brought some wonderful stories into my life!

     Great Article Molly. I’ve yet to read Fullmetal Alchemist, Naruto and all the smaller series, plus my american comic habits get in the way. one day maybe. though reading this article made me think of Sailor Moon, then made me think of the song, which then got stuck in my head. so thanks for that too.

  6. No "happy ending in sight" for Berserk? Pun intended? <_<

  7. Great article.  I"m not usually into the fantasy manga, but an ex sold me on Full Metal Alchemist, and I enjoyed it.  Loved Beserk, too.  I’ll skip Magic Knight, but you’ve convinced me to check out Claymore.  Thanks!

    (this comment typed while not wearing pants…much to the distress of everyone in the store trying to buy comics)

  8. I don’t read manga for the most part, but I’ve read berserk because a friend made me watched the anime  years ago and i remembered liking it.  Its the only the manga I’ve ever read.  Also one of the greatest things I’ve ever read in general, Japanese, American or any nationality.

  9. Oh dear god, these are manga reccomendations I got from my buddy, but shot him down because the first one he said was Death Note!

  10. Oh the memories of being a sad teenager with tons of manga.

    I read three of those titles, onlyone I haven’t heard of was Magic KnightRayearth. Maybe i’ll check it out.

  11. Thanks for the tips, Molly!  I just recently volunteered to let some of my manga-loving friends load me down with books, and ‘Fullmetal Alchemist’ was one of the first to really blow my mind.  So inventive and fun.  I was also interested to learn that while this is a "boys’" manga, the writer/artist is a woman.

  12. Great reccomendations, espceially Fullmetal Alchemist. By far one of the best manga’s ever written in my opinion, it’s definitly worth everyones time to check out.

  13. Good picks Molly. I absolutely love Berserk which is both my favorite manga and anime. I recently watched Claymore on Bluray and I’ve been meaning to pick up the manga becasue I heard it differs a lot from the anime.  Good call on Darkhorse as well. Most of the manga volumes I’ve picked up from them have very good translations in them.  I can’t wait to see what genre is next.

    @Paul: I’d classifiy Berserk as fantasy/horror. It is full of both elements.

  14. I didn’t finish reading Full Metal Alchemist, but I heard it just ended this month. So At least I can catch up and finish it. it’s a must read. I think I own most of my mangas in the fantasy genre.

    One Piece is definitely a must read too because of the creator put so many unique characteristics for each Straw Hats member and their past and them against a mysetrious world government.

    Can’t wait to see what type of mangas u would recommend crime solving, teen drama, robots/tech, or sports.

    J/w which genres would you put Ranma, Air Gears, and Rurouni Kenshin in? 

  15. @excalipoor:

    Unlike it’s fantastical counterpart, Inuyasha, Ruroni Kenshin is definetly historical fiction, a piece on history if you will. It’s someone’s entertaining spin off of feudal japan so it’s seen as more realistic than say contemporary action/adventure manga noted below.

    Tenju Tenge, Air Gear, Yu Yu Hakusho, Bleach, and S-CRY-ED! are usually grouped together in the general category of action/adventure (although Yu Yu Hakusho and Bleach could be subgrouped into supernatural). Alot of these tales involve teenagers, usually one character representing a clique similar to those common in highschool (ie: the jock). In consideration of this some readers consider it Teenaged Action Drama.

  16. While I’m no longer capable of watching all the Full Metal Alchemist episodes I have on DVD simply because I can’t stay awake, I have always enjoyed the FMA volumes I’ve read so far. Good story, and beautiful art work.

  17. For me, the best manga being released at the moment is the sci-fi horror epic "Biomega" by Tsutmou Nihei. The visuals are grand in scale, painting the picture of a bleak world wrought with destruction caused by individuals infected with a disease (zombie-itis?). There are androids; zombies; monsterous humanoid creatures; a girl getting torn asunder after being run over with a motorcycle, and a bear with a sniper rifle uttering the line "Let the girl go".

     I wasn’t a fan of manga before but this brought me into the fold. The black and white visuals actually help to create the mood and amplify the thematic elements the story is putting forth of despair and impending doom. There are some colorized panels before the start of each volume though, some of them make me wish this was done in color but I don’t think anything is lost.