Ghouls, demon slayers and socially anxious students: how manga conquered the world

They range from science-fiction epics to high-school romance and are selling faster than publishers can print them. But what has driven this new appetite for Japanese comics?

I head to Waterstones on my lunch break to find something for my daughter’s birthday (she is turning 12). I never seem to get it quite right when choosing books for her, so I ask the bookseller (in her 20s) for a recommendation, and she directs me to the manga shelves. It’s cool, you read it from right to left, she’ll love it, I’m told. Komi Can’t Communicate, about a socially anxious high school student, could work. Or how about dark fantasy Tokyo Ghoul: slightly age-inappropriate, but that’s what preteens love. As we search the shelves, however – four whole bays, devoted to manga! – volume one in every potential series appears to be missing. Waterstones just can’t keep them in stock, the bookseller explains, because they are so ridiculously popular.

Loved by preteens … Tokyo Ghoul.
Loved by preteens … Tokyo Ghoul. Photograph: TOKYO GHOUL © 2011 by Sui Ishida. Courtesy of VIZ Media

Manga, broadly defined as comics originating in Japan, has been huge in its home country for decades. But over the past five years, sales have been exploding around the world. The UK numbers for the graphic medium, which spans many genres and is typically printed in black and white, are staggering. According to Nielsen BookScan, in 2012 there were 434,633 copies of manga titles sold, for a value of £3.17m. By 2019 this had more than doubled, to 983,822 copies, for £9.1m. So far this year, 1.8m manga have been sold – nearly double the full-year sales of three years ago.

In the US, the figures are equally eye-watering. In 2020, there were 9.68m copies of manga titles sold, says NPD BookScan, and the following year sales jumped 160% to 25.2m. In 2021, manga was the leading growth category in the total print book market in the US, outpacing the next-highest growth category (romance) by three times. English-language distributor Viz Media says it has seen “phenomenal” increases in the past 18 months across all its territories – Canada, Australia and New Zealand as well as the US and the UK.

“It started to kick off and really build during the first lockdown when sales online tripled, month by month. Then, when the shops opened back up again, it really ramped up in there as well. There’s so much more demand for it,” says Bea Carvalho at Waterstones.

Manga – which is generally published in volumes here, unlike in Japan, where it is serialised in weekly magazines – was already selling faster than shops could get their hands on it, and then the lockdowns meant that printers couldn’t physically print any more copies, says Stephen L Holland, owner of Nottingham comics shop Page 45 and the current UK comics laureate. “So you’ve got a double whammy here of huge interest and also scarce availability, and of course that amps up everyone’s interest. Everyone wanted them.”

It was the same story in the US – where there was even talk of “the great manga shortage of 2021”. “We were out of box sets by the second month of lockdown,” says Kevin Hamric, senior vice president of publishing sales at Viz Media.

Manga (derived from the kanji characters “man” (漫), meaning “whimsical”, and “ga” (画), meaning “pictures”) in the form we know, dates back to the late 19th century. By the 1980s and 1990s, a “golden age” of manga had arrived in Japan, according to a history of manga by Ryōko Matsuba and Alfred Haft. The world’s most successful manga, One Piece, has sold more than 500m copies since 1997. Created by Eiichiro Oda, it tells the story of Monkey D Luffy, who travels the world searching for a legendary treasure, and is able to stretch like rubber after having eaten the Gum-Gum Devil Fruit. With the latest feature-length movie based on Luffy’s adventures, One Piece Film: Red, already breaking box office records in Japan, and out in UK cinemas from 4 November, this staggering number is only set to grow.

Manga first began reaching English-language markets in the 1970s, but its incredible surge in recent years can be attributed to various factors. First, streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon began showing much more anime: cartoons from Japan, invariably adapted from existing manga. Teenagers, trapped at home during lockdown, got into anime series such as Tokyo Ghoul (“Tokyo is haunted by ghouls who resemble humans but feast on their flesh”), Attack on Titan (“With his home town in ruins, young Eren Yeager becomes determined to fight back against the giant Titans that threaten to destroy the human race”), My Hero Academia (“After he saves a bully from a villain, a normal student is granted a superpower that allows him to attend a high school training academy for heroes), and Demon Slayer (“After a demon attack that leaves his family slain and his sister cursed, Tanjiro embarks upon a perilous journey to find a cure and avenge those he’s lost”). Then viewers found that most of these anime were based on manga – and that in book form, these titles ran to dozens and dozens of volumes, expanding the worlds of the characters they loved.

Komi Can’t Communicate.
Komi Can’t Communicate. Photograph: COMI-SAN WA, COMYUSHO DESU. By Tomohito ODA © 2016 Tomohito ODA

“Our digital sales also grew astronomically during Covid and are trending up again this year,” says Hamric. “But there’s really no comparison. People want the print books. They collect them. They post pictures on social media.”

At science fiction and fantasy retailer Forbidden Planet, manga’s newfound popularity has changed the customer demographic. “It’s really diversified the people coming into our stores,” says the shop’s comics buyer, Jamie Beeching. “A few years ago, it’d be a lot of late-teen boys or men in their 30s and 40s. And now I go in and see a bunch of schoolkids; they’ll have just got out of school and come down to the shop and they’ll all be super excited about it. They’re incredibly engaged and incredibly knowledgable. A lot of them are younger teens as well, and at that age, when you’re into something, you’re really into something.”

Manga is also, Beeching adds, “a lot cheaper than traditional graphic novels, because it’s black and white and often printed on low-quality paper, which means you can get quite a lot of pages for a relatively small amount of money. So if you’re young and you’re spending your pocket money, you can get a lot of manga.”

Nia Ewington, 17, from Stockport, says anime was her route into manga, starting with Attack on Titan. “It was very popular and it was all over social media,” she says. (On TikTok, the hashtag #mangatok has 523m views, and teens recommend titles to each other and showcase their bookshelves.) “It has a very interesting storyline and each character has a fascinating backstory. It isn’t too similar to other mangas so it stands out a lot.” She is now into Jujutsu Kaisen, in which a boy is trying to save the world from demons, but hasn’t read all the manga yet “since the anime hasn’t caught up and I don’t like to read ahead”.

Isabella Garside, 13, says she was looking for something new when she stumbled on to manga. Her favourite series at the moment is Death Note, in which a high-schooler finds a notebook that gives him the power to kill anyone whose name he writes in it. “It tugs on your emotions,” she says. And “it’s really easy to read”.

Manga encompasses genre after genre: classic superhero stories, like My Hero Academia. Horror, like Jujutsu Kaisen. Action – try Chainsaw Man. More literary stories, such as Ping Pong. LGBTQ+ stories, such as Boys Run the Riot or My Lesbian Experience With Loneliness. Cookery: Viz has a series called Food Wars!, which it pitches as a “saucy food comedy”. There’s shoujo manga, aimed at young girls, featuring romance and high school drama. “That’s just not really represented in many places, except for YA novels,” says Beeching. “And then there are areas that really only Japan is serving, like isekai (roughly translating as “different world”), which is about being reborn into a computer game or a fantasy world, like a guy who’s reborn as a slime creature, or one who’s reborn as a spider.”

It is partly this diversity of genres that is driving the boom, says Yu Saito, deputy editor-in-chief at Weekly Shōnen Jump magazine. “We now have countless genres of manga that evolved organically, without marketing, to target people of all ages and preferences, beyond what other media can provide, so readers can find what speaks to them. I think that’s why manga was able to cross borders and find readers all over the world.”

ATOM: The Beginning.
ATOM: The Beginning. Photograph: Titan Comics

Science fiction and fantasy publisher Titan has just launched its own manga imprint, Titan Manga, kicking off with the October release of Atom: The Beginning, an original manga based on the late manga legend Osamu Tezuka’s series Astro Boy. A science fiction series, it follows two robotics engineering students and their latest project. Titan has also recently found success with a manga adaptation of Sherlock Holmes, and Eldo Yoshimizu’s Ryuko, about a woman of the yakuza.

“Getting into manga is like opening a whole Aladdin’s cave,” says Andrew Sumner, executive vice president at Titan Entertainment. “It’s a really deep universe that you can dip into, explore and share with friends and recommend different titles – it’s a very deeply layered artistic world that new readers hadn’t known existed.”

Sumner sees the western boom in manga as a generational thing, with younger people moving away from mainstream superhero comics to find a new graphic medium, where series will often be written and drawn by the same creator, and obey “a different set of rules to the very mainstream DC and Marvel Comics universe”.

“I’m a huge Batman fan, but the reality is Batman is owned by a corporation, and there are many, many different versions of Batman that you can find,” he says. “But with manga, you’re essentially reading volume after volume of the same creative team exploring a specific idea and a specific universe in depth: their work often hasn’t been handed off to a wide variety of secondary creators. I think there’s a creative through line with manga that is impossible to have in most big name western comics.”

This is certainly what attracted Yoshimizu, author of Ryuko, to the genre. He had always been an artist, but also wanted to tell stories. “My ideal was a movie, but I need money and I would have to direct a lot of people. However, manga can be created by one person,” he says.

Western publishers previously made a push into manga in 2008, flooding the market with what Viz Media’s Hamric describes as “substandard manga”. “The shelves were just jam-packed. Whatever was published was put on the shelves and it saturated the market,” he says. Then recession hit; book chain Borders, which had a large manga section, went out of business; and manga tailed off. The titles being translated now are more carefully selected by publishers, and booksellers are also more discerning in what they stock. “There’s a lot of cultural things that don’t translate. And just because it works over there, that doesn’t mean it’s going to work in English, so we do pick and choose and try to bring over the best of the best.”

A movie in print form … Ryuko.
A movie in print form … Ryuko. Photograph: Titan Comics

Hamric pinpoints 2021 as the year manga “stopped being a niche category, and became a mainstream one”. “For me growing up, it was always, ‘oh, you don’t want to read that!’ Comics were just not understood by parents and educators and librarians, and there wasn’t the TV or the movie aspect of it,” he recalls. It was an attitude that differed markedly from that seen in Japan, and in France, where comics have long been taken seriously as a literary form. “But generations mature. People my age started having kids, and we grew up with comics, and we’re saying it’s fine for kids to read them.”

Holland points out that it is not only manga that have seen sales soar. Comics across the board have seen growth in sales in the past few years – in the UK, there were 2.3m copies sold in 2019, and 3.2m in 2021. It’s a shift he has been awaiting for decades. “When we first opened our bookshop, 28 years ago, I predicted the big stratospheric boom would come the second that this country began hearing a critical mass of signals,” he says. “None of the adult mainstream media was covering comics back then. No animation was being shown on TV. Thirty years ago, there wasn’t a single adult who knew another adult who read comics. They were almost embarrassed about it. Now, there’s a critical mass, and adults and young adults are talking about comics, and manga, with each other. Comics have become part of the British public discourse.”

As for me, on my birthday present hunt, I end up with The Promised Neverland, about a group of children in an orphanage who “uncover the dark truth of the outside world they are forbidden from seeing”. It goes down a storm with my daughter. Luckily for me, there are 20 more volumes to come.

Contributor

Alison Flood

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
How I became a manga hero!
When Michael Booth was told his book about his family’s foodie tour of Japan was becoming an anime film and manga comic he headed to Kyoto to see what he looked like as a cartoon ...

Michael Booth

26, Apr, 2015 @5:44 PM

Article image
The British Museum: marbles, murals... and manga!

Meet Professor Munakata, the crime-fighting archaeologist who saves one of London's best-loved institutions from looters

Mike Pitts

14, Aug, 2011 @6:59 PM

Article image
My girlfriend tracked down Tiger Mask to a shop in Japan – the Christmas present I’ll never forget
I had spotted the wrestler mask in a tiny place in Tokyo years before but couldn’t afford it – and I always regretted it

Joel Snape

21, Dec, 2022 @12:00 PM

Article image
Japan gives Harry Potter the manga treatment
Characters from JK Rowling’s books are being turned into Manga characters in a country which appears obsessed with the Hogwarts and the wizard world

Justin McCurry

03, Feb, 2016 @6:26 AM

Big players tap into mobile manga market

Japan's obsession with manga is about to take on a new dimension as firms prepare to woo mobile phone users with hundreds of comic-book titles that can be read on 3G handsets. By Justin McCurry.

Justin McCurry in Tokyo

31, Aug, 2005 @9:18 AM

Article image
Hokkaido releases manga comic to combat North Korean threat
Weeks after missiles overflew Japanese island, officials produce comic advising residents what to do in event of test launch

Justin McCurry in Tokyo

20, Oct, 2017 @7:24 AM

Article image
One Piece: Stampede review – piratical manga mayhem
This imaginative carnival of battling buccaneers makes Pirates of the Caribbean look like Swallows and Amazons

Phil Hoad

31, Jan, 2020 @9:00 AM

Article image
Boys' love to Pokémon: British Museum to host major show on manga
Exhibition will be largest on the comic books and graphic novels ever held outside Japan

Mark Brown Arts correspondent

05, Dec, 2018 @3:01 PM

Article image
Acclaimed anti-war manga earns reprieve in Japan

Restriction on the availability to children of Hadashi No Gen (Barefoot Gen), Keiji Nakazawa's anti-war classic, has been reversed after protests

Liz Bury

27, Aug, 2013 @1:59 PM

Article image
Japanese school board bans acclaimed anti-war manga
Liz Bury: Hadashi No Gen (Barefoot Gen), about aftermath of the atomic bomb in Hiroshima, was removed from libraries in Matsue city

Liz Bury

26, Aug, 2013 @10:45 AM