Thursday, June 23, 2011

How to Read Manga

"Why is it backwards?"

Many ask this question when they first see manga. (The answer is that Japanese reads from right-to-left, whereas English reads left-to-right. It's not "backwards," just "opposite"!) Translated manga used to be "flipped" to read Western-style - and a few still are - but most creators prefer their artwork to be presented as it was originally drawn, so flipping is rare nowadays.

So what's a reader to do when presented with this unusual page layout? Sit back and learn! This post will take you step-by-step through the process of reading a right-to-left comic. By the time you're through, you can pick up any manga and read it like a pro!

Note: If you're new to comics in general, please take a look at the How to Read Comics guide. Japanese and Western comics share the same basic storytelling elements, so understanding one will enhance your enjoyment of the other!

Step 1: A Single Panel

Panels are the building blocks of comics. They can make a beautiful structure when stacked together, but it helps to understand them individually.

Within a manga panel, the upper right corner is your starting point. From there, make your way to the lower left corner, taking time to read both the text and the picture.

See? Simple! If you ever get stuck, just keep this basic top right ---> bottom left layout in mind.

Step 2: 4-Koma

4-koma (roughly "four-panel") manga are similar to newspaper comic strips. They're typically presented vertically, two to a page. This is where the first challenge comes in! The first strip (the one furthest on the right) must be read entirely, from the top panel to the bottom panel. Then, jump back up to the top of the second strip and make your way down again.

(Click image for larger view.)

Presto! If you want a whole book of 4-koma to practice with, I highly recommend the high school comedy Azumanga Daioh.

Step 3: Simple Full Pages

Here's where things get interesting! Most manga you find on a shelf will look something like this:

Kind of intimidating, right? Well, manga artists have come up with a neat trick to make reading full pages a little easier: Gutters!

Look closely at the blank spaces between the panels. Notice how the horizontal gutter is a little thicker than the vertical one? This works as a subtle barrier, telling the reader that the two panels on top should be read first. Like so:

In fact, the gutters divide the page into a familiar shape: One giant 4-koma! (Or 3-koma, in this case.)

Now that you've been clued into this technique, practice using it on this two-page spread. (Remember, just like with 4-koma, read the right page first!)

(Click image for larger view.)

Not every artist uses the gutter trick, but many do, and even those who don't widen their horizontal gutters use the same basic principle.

Step 4: Complex Full Pages

This is the final step! Here we'll look at a more complex kind of page. This style is most commonly seen in shojo manga - those written primarily for teen and preteen girls.

Diagonal lines, tall panels, panels smushed against each other without a gutter to keep them apart - how on earth does anyone read this, you ask?

With a little bit of practice, of course!

First, let's peel back the artsy touches to look at the basic structure underneath:

Say, that looks just like the kind of page we saw in Step 3! As glitzy and experimental as shojo manga can get, few artists stray from that essential top right ---> bottom left arrangement.

There's still the matter of that pesky tall panel, though.

This is where our lesson from Step 1 kicks in. Remember that in order to enjoy the whole arrangement one must first understand the individual parts. It may be tempting to read a set of panels like this:

But you'll likely find it much more satisfying (and understandable!) to read it like this:

Now that we've seen what makes a complex page tick, let's put that layer of style back on and practice with our last two-page spread.

(Click image for larger view.)

. . . and there you have it! You've gone from confused newbie to manga expert in less time than it takes to eat a bagel. (Note: Bagels make excellent manga-reading snacks.) Now head on over to the nearest bookstore or library and see what the manga section has waiting for you!


  1. Your tutorials are so adorable, man.

  2. Aw, thank you! I try to make my tutorials as entertaining as the comics they will help people read. :]