The world of Japanese manga, just like any big form of entertainment, can be a dizzying place to dive into. The same is true for anime and western comics: where to start. So, let’s talk about where to start with reading manga.
Browse a bookstore in the US and the UK and the sheer number of manga on the shelves can be, quite honestly, intimidating. And that’s to say nothing of what the same section of a bookstore looks like in Japan. First thing you need to know is what genre or style of writing and storytelling you’re into.
When it comes to reading manga, every kind of story exists across every genre. From sci-fi and fantasy to queer romance; from kid-friendly stories to literary fiction, the world of manga has it all.
Let’s look at eleven different manga, all popular, all high quality, beautiful art with clever stories. But each one is different, and sits within a specific genre of style. These are not the eleven best manga of all time. They may not be your favourites. But that’s not the point. The point is that each of these represents a great place to start reading manga, depending on what you’re looking for. So, let’s dive in!
Looking for a fun adventure? Read One Piece
One Piece can be seen as the definitive manga. It is the third best-selling comic of all time, tailing just behind Batman at #2 and Superman at #1. In Japan, it is as much of a cultural staple as Hello Kitty. There’s nothing bigger.
The reason for One Piece‘s success is simple: it’s an enormous adventure filled with fun-loving pirates. It appeals to children as much as adults. It embodies the very concept of adventure and discovery. Its protagonist is a wide-eye and ambitious young pirate with lofty ideals and two eyes on the horizon.
There are few better manga to start with if you really want to understand the cultural zeitgeist of Japan. To read One Piece is to read the heart and soul of the manga world. However, there is one enormous barrier to entry which is worth noting.
One Piece is enormous. It has been running for decades, across hundreds of chapters. Buying and reading One Piece is an investment of both your time and your money. It’ll take you a long time to play catch-up. If you’re not in a hurry, however, each volume is cheaper than your average novel or Marvel TPB.
One Piece is the perfect manga to start with if you’re looking to enjoy a fun action-filled adventure that’s appropriate for all ages. It’s clever, layered, beautiful, hilarious, and inspirational. But it is very, very long. Start at the beginning and take your time.
More manga like One Piece: One Punch Man, Demon Slayer, Naruto
Looking for something smart and literary? Read Goodnight Punpun
Goodnight Punpun (or Oyasumi Punpun as it’s known in Japanese) is an intensely smart and criminally underrated manga. It follows the coming-of-age story of the titular Punpun, a young man dealing with a dysfunctional family and a lot of emotional baggage.
While a lot of manga is heavy genre fiction with a focus on action and fun, Goodnight Punpun is the perfect manga for readers of literary fiction. It is an intensely smart and deep manga that stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the giants of classic literature.
Our friend Jamie wrote an incredible essay on the genius of Goodnight Punpun which explores the writing and art of this manga in exquisite and fascinating detail. Check it out if you want to know more.
Goodnight Punpun explores some really big themes, so buckle in for an intense ride. The manga ran for 13 volumes, which makes it a pretty digestible series, as manga go. Depending on where you buy it from, however, you can find it bound into seven volumes with some really gorgeous and evocative cover art.
More manga like Goodnight Punpun: Solanin, A Girl on the Shore, Nijigahara Holograph
Looking for a classic? Read Dragon Ball
There are few series as ubiquitous as Dragon Ball. In the western world, the anime of Dragon Ball Z made a far bigger splash than One Piece ever has. The original manga, which traces the story of protagonist Goku as a young martial artist with a monkey’s tail, is a retelling of the classic Chinese novel Journey to the West by Wu Cheng’en.
Reading Dragon Ball is the perfect place to start reading manga if you want to begin with one of the great classics. And, while you can do that with One Piece, that series is still ongoing, while Dragon Ball wrapped a long time ago and is still celebrated as a beloved classic today.
Dragon Ball represents the essence of shōnen manga (manga geared towards young men who like action and adventure). It’s a combat-heavy manga with gorgeous direction and character design. The fights are drawn with fluidity and the characters are written with clarity and love. And the manga’s creator, Akira Toriyama, is one of the most beloved mangaka in the industry (also famed for his character and enemy design in the Dragon Quest series of video games).
Dragon Ball is one of the few manga that stands up as a classic, has aged beautifully, still looks gorgeous and reads with a lot of fun energy. For budding manga readers looking to go back a few years and begin with a classic, there are few classics as beloved as Akira Toriyama’s Dragon Ball.
More manga like Dragon Ball: Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure, Fist of the North Star, Bleach
Looking for what’s popular right now? Read My Hero Academia
There are two kinds of budding manga readers: those who want to read the best classics (like Dragon Ball) and those who want to begin with whatever is most popular right now. And, right now, the king of manga is My Hero Academia.
For those uninterested in superheroes or action-heavy stories, My Hero Academia may not be for you. But also, it might; don’t dismiss it without giving it a shot. My Hero Academia takes a lot of people by surprise. What at first seems like a simple, almost twee, tale of a classroom full of trainee super heroes quickly morphs into an affecting, complex, and mature tale of brotherhood, personal growth, and some genuinely smart moral and philosophical debates.
The very best thing about My Hero Academia is its world building. You have an enormous cast of characters, each of which has a name, an appearance, a personality, and a goal that is unique, well-defined, and engaging. The villains offer interesting philosophical questions. The stories take unexpected and thrilling twists.
My Hero Academia represents a new elevation of the shōnen battle manga formula. It is intensely smart, beautifully drawn, well-paced, and speaks to a lot of different manga fans with various tastes.
If you’re eager to jump into the biggest trend, the biggest talking point, and, honestly, one of the best manga of today, My Hero Academia is exactly that.
More manga like My Hero Academia: Attack on Titan, Dr. Stone, Black Clover
Looking for horror? Read Junji Ito’s Shiver
Junji Ito is the king of horror. And I don’t just mean in the world of manga, but in all literature. In many ways, and depending on your personal taste, Junji Ito is a more creatively terrifying mind than even Stephen King. If you’re looking for the peak of horror manga, Junji Ito is your man.
Where it gets a little complicated is where to begin reading Junji Ito. He mostly writes short stories, which get collected in various places. Right now, you can buy from any bookstore his horror collections Shiver and Smashed. Shiver collects many of Junji Ito’s best short stories, and it the perfect place to begin reading the master of horror manga.
If you’d rather check out a full book, rather than short stories, you can also check out Gyo and Uzumaki which are long-form Junji Ito stories. But beginning with Shiver gives you an excellent taste of the sheer range of genius on display in the terrifying mind of Junji Ito.
Speaking personally, Ito is my favourite mangaka. There is no mind or hand like this man’s. He represent the most creative art and twisted stories in the business, and is a great place to begin reading manga in general, as long as you don’t mind being terrified at worst and unsettled at best.
A bonus with starting at Shiver is that it is a single book. One purchase; done. So many manga make the barrier to entry tough because they are serialised for years. Ito’s stories avoid that problem entirely, so they make for the ultimate representation of manga art and a cheap place to start reading manga.
Looking for romance? Read Orange
Orange is a love story with a twist, as is the case with almost every manga you’ll ever come across. This one tells the story of a high school girl who receives a letter from herself a decade into the future. The letter explains that she regrets something connected to the new transfer student.
Our protagonist, Naho, must follow the letter’s instructions in order to avoid making the same mistakes that her future self did, though this proves more difficult than she expects.
The time-messaging element of this manga certainly provides an interesting angle, but the characters themselves are what really make this a worthwhile story to pick up and enjoy. There are some big, mature themes at play here, most of which circle mental health, suicide, and loneliness.
This romance and slice-of-life manga currently has six volumes out, so it’s relatively small and digestible (though each volume is pretty large). A seventh and final volume is coming very soon.
For budding manga readers looking to avoid fantasy, horror, or any abstract genre fiction, and would rather start with something relatable – a story set today, populated by ordinary people with intense and relatable drama – Orange is exactly the manga you’re looking for.
More manga like Orange: Your Lie in April, Ao Haru Ride, Dreamin’ Sun
Looking for queer stories? Read My Brother’s Husband
One of the most clever and uplifting, not to mention enormously humanising, stories to come out of the world of manga in recent years. If you’re looking for a warm queer story in manga, My Brother’s Husband is a great place to start.
The story focusses around a Japanese man, Yaiki, mourning the death of his brother, who moved to Canada and married a local man named Mike. After the death of his husband, Mike, comes to Japan in order to learn more about his late husband’s former life. He stays with Yaichi, who has always struggled deeply with his late brother’s sexuality.
The story is written by a famously queer Japanese mangaka, Gengoroh Tagame, who before this was primarily known for writing erotica (hence the overly muscular male characters he always draws).
The story will easily move you to tears as Yaichi learns to leave his deep-seated homophobia behind with the help of his daughter, who has not yet learned anything of sexuality and sees Mike only as an exciting new friend.
If you’re looking for a queer manga and want something modern, something that everyone’s talking about, definitely read My Brother’s Husband.
Read our original review of My Brother’s Husband here.
More manga like My Brother’s Husband: Our Dreams at Dusk, Wandering Son, That Blue Sky Feeling
Looking for an epic? Read Vinland Saga
The anime adaptation of Vinland Saga was one of the big talking points of 2019, and it will continue to be for years to come, given the sheer scope of the manga it is adapting. Vinland Saga is an enormous epic set during the Viking age of Northern Europe.
Following the story of Thorfinn Karlsefni, a real Icelandic explorer who lived during the 11th century, Vinland Saga is a slow burn that takes its readers on an epic, snow-covered journey from Iceland and Denmark, across the British Isles, and beyond.
Thorfinn was the son of a legendary, unstoppable Viking warrior with a heart of gold who is eventually brought down by the scheming Askeladd, a Danish Viking leader. Thorfinn vows revenge but is only a small boy, and so we now follow his adventures as he grows into a bitter and hateful, but deadly, young warrior.
Vinland Saga is an enormous undertaking, but given the success of the anime adaptation (which is also outstanding and true to the manga), it’ll be on everyone’s lips for years to come. If you’re looking for an intense historic epic to sink your teeth into, you can’t do better than Vinland Saga.
More manga like Vinland Saga: Vagabond, Kingdom, Planetes
Looking for something short and iconic? Read Death Note
I’ve mentioned a few times by now that manga can be long. Series’ like One Piece and My Hero Academia go on and on. It’s rough on your wallet and your free time. Starting with something that can be bought and enjoyed without much stress is a very smart move. But you also want something that’s quality manga, not just something short for the sake of it.
Thus, Death Note. This series is hailed as one of the best. It remains a firm favourite amongst countless manga fans. And it is a series in just twelve volumes, rather than hundreds. It’s a short, contained, but thrilling drama with some fun fantastical elements.
From the mind of Tsugumi Ōba and the hand of Takeshi Obata, Death Note tells the story of a bored teenage genius who finds a notebook dropped randomly on Earth by an equally bored and curious god of death (shinigami). The shinigami binds himself to this teenage genius to watch how the lad uses this new notebook with the power to kill whoever has their name written on its pages (and in whatever manner the owner of the notebook jots down).
What evolves from here is an intense crime drama/mystery thriller that is comprised of an intense cat-and-mouse chase between our murderous protagonist, Light, and the Sherlock Holmes-esque detective known only as L.
Death Note is one of the smartest and sharpest manga ever written. Beloved by teens and adults alike, it is a nail-biter of a story full of sudden twists and turns that really keep you glued to the page.
This was my own first manga. I decided to jump into Death Note for the reasons I’ve pointed out: it’s short and digestible; it’s critically-acclaimed and beloved by manga fans the world over; it has a fascinating and original premise that has you frantically turning the pages. The perfect place to start reading manga.
More manga like Death Note: Monster, Tokyo Ghoul, Bakuman
Looking for dark fantasy? Read Berserk
For those wondering how dark manga can get without diving into the horror realms of Junji Ito or the murky ethical questions of Death Note, there’s Kentaro Miura’s Berserk.
Berserk is my favourite manga. I could honestly talk about it for hours. It isn’t a shōnen battle manga, but it is certainly geared towards those readers who love fights, adventure, and blood. Berserk is heavily inspired by dark western fantasy, far more than it is by anything historically Japanese. From the castles and knights to the enormous swords and war machines, everything in Berserk screams medieval fantasy.
Berserk is also a manga that has had an enormous cultural impact. While it has never been perfectly adapted into an anime show of its own, the manga’s aesthetic and tone has inspired everything from Cloud Strife, protagonist of Final Fantasy VII with his gloomy demeanour and oversized sword, to the bleak and gloomy world of Dark Souls.
The manga follows the story of Guts, a morally grey swordsman attempting to survive in a monstrous and corrupt medieval fantasy world. Guts does a lot of bad stuff a lot of the time, and is blinded by rage, revenge, and other masculine issues.
Berserk is an awful lot of fun, and it really stands apart from other manga in its aesthetics: the character, enemy, and world design of Berserk is like nothing else out there. A personal favourite that should be enjoyed by any and every fantasy fan for east to west.
More manga like Berserk: Vagabond, Kingdom, Hunter x Hunter
Looking for a blend of genres? Read The Promised Neverland
This manga, and the anime it has inspired, has been such an insane breakout hit. A manga so popular that it has gone head-to-head with One Piece in terms of sales and fan reception. The Promised Neverland is one of the biggest anime of this decade, and if you’re looking to read one of the big talking points of right now, this is one to check out.
But The Promised Neverland is more than just popular. It’s also completely outstanding. It’s a series that plays with genre in such a clever and mind-bending way. What looks at first like a slice-of-life set in an orphanage soon becomes a cat-and-mouse horror story filled with demons and unfeeling humans. That horror becomes a mystery, and a drama, and an adventure. It just keeps growing and building.
The main premise is this: a group of pre-teen children live in a country house together, all orphans looked after by a woman known as Mom. Soon enough, a revelation takes place and the children discover they aren’t being cared for, but rather reared for their meat. It’s reminiscent of the Kazuo Ishiguro novel Never Let Me Go, but it also builds so much more from here on, with twists you’ll never see coming.
Most of the manga mentioned here have great anime adaptations, and if you’d rather watch than read them, you can. The Promised Neverland is also currently being adapted into an anime, but season one lacked a lot of the finesse of the manga, with unimaginative direction and animation that took a lot away from the horror that the manga manages to portray. So, in this particular case, I definitely recommend the manga over the anime.
More manga like The Promised Neverland: Made in Abyss, Mob Psycho 100, Tokyo Ghoul
Manga recommendations, just like anything else, are tough. You don’t want to miss something, but you also don’t want to overwhelm newcomers. So, there are, of course, a lot of manga missing here that I wanted to mention (hence including the “more manga like” suggestions beneath each primary choice. Here are a few more personal favourites and overall great manga to check out:
- JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure – Omitted because, well, it’s bizarre. But JoJo is one of the best-drawn and most intensely fun manga ever created. JoJo has been going for a long time now, and it only gets better and better. It’s a commitment, but a wonderful one.
- A Silent Voice – The manga that inspired the movie. If you loved the anime film, the manga adds a lot more detail that had to be cut, and will also probably have you weeping.
- Nichijou – In Japanese, nichijou translates to ‘everyday’, and this is exactly that. This is a gut-busting hilarious slice-of-life comedy about high school kids getting into strange and hilarious situations. The most lovable characters ever written in manga (the anime is also outstanding).
- Made in Abyss – A manga for fans of video games. Set in a town that sits at the edge of a hole down into the centre of the Earth (and later set in the hole itself), the story follows an adventurous young girl and her new android best friend who set off into the unknown.
- My Lesbian Experience With Loneliness – This is a graphic memoir about a young, depressed woman learning to love herself and come to grips with her sexuality. It is a moving and sweet tale that speaks to a lot of readers on a deep and personal level. You can read our review of the first volume here.
Tips for reading manga
Now that you’ve hopefully found the manga you want to start with, here are a few things worth knowing about manga:
- Manga is a style of Japanese comic book. The Korean alternative is known as manhwa. That being said, some manga made in Europe and the US that are made in the iconic black-and-white Japanese style are often still considered manga (though some fans get up-in-arms about that).
- Manga are read from right to left. That means from page to page, but also on the page, from the right side of each page and panel to the left side.
- It’s common for a manga series to be written and drawn by the same one person, with a few exceptions such as the aforementioned Death Note and One Punch Man.
- As already mentioned, most popular manga series are incredibly long, and can run for years upon years. Unlike with western comics like Superman or Spider-Man, where you’ll find frequent ideal jumping-on points when a new writer takes over or a new arc begins, a manga is a creator’s own project, and may span years and dozens of volumes. So each one can certainly feel like a commitment.
Will predominantly writes about the books of Books and Bao, examining the literature of a place and how the authors have used the art of storytelling to reflect the world and the culture around them.