Let the Pictures Do the Talking

Published August 9, 2011 by caitlinnicoll

Comics and manga get a pretty bad rap. Like romance novels and YA, they get dismissed as fluff or kids stuff. There are pictures in this book? THE HORROR! This must be for children. Those thoughts are picture discrimination, I tell you! Sweeping generalizations!

Like the Egyptians in their tombs, Michelangelo with the Sistine Chapel, and Rubens with his Marie de’ Medici Cycle, manga writers and artists rely on pictures to tell their story. It is all about the presentation, the artwork. The artwork is beautiful, stylized, and intricately detailed. Each page is a cohesive work of art, every panel a piece of the artistic puzzle.

Something like this:

While yes, some manga can be “fluff”–and silly–most plots are intricate, poignant, ridiculously detailed, and utterly mind-blowing. With pictures, they are able to convey emotions better than most authors with words. Some of the most creative storytelling I have read has been in manga.

If your not reading manga, you are missing out on some truly amazing and original stories.

And now I intend to break all your preconceived notions. With pictures!

Death Note

Light Yagami is an ace student with great prospects – and he’s bored out of his mind. But all that changes when he finds the Death Note, a notebook dropped by a rogue Shinigami death god. Any human whose name is written in the notebook dies, and now Light has vowed to use the power of the Death Note to rid the world of evil. But when criminals begin dropping dead, the authorities send the legendary detective L to track down the killer. With L hot on his heels, will Light lose sight of his noble goal…or his life?

Light tests the boundaries of the Death Note’s powers as L and the police begin to close in. Luckily Light’s father is the head of the Japanese National Police Agency and leaves vital information about the case lying around the house. With access to his father’s files, Light can keep one step ahead of the authorities. But who is the strange man following him, and how can Light guard against enemies whose names he doesn’t know?

If Dexter Morgan were a teenager, he would be Light. Except Light puts Dexter to shame with his brashness, conviction, and death toll. Besides being a brilliant sociopath, Light is kind of a jerk. He uses and manipulates Misa, and pretends to be friends with L to gain information, yet you find yourself rooting for him to outwit the police. Conversely, you also root for L to find the killer.


Can I just say that Miyamoto Musashi is my historical crush? Ok, moving on.

Shinmen Takezo is destined to become the legendary sword-saint, Miyamoto Musashi–perhaps the most renowned samurai of all time. For now, Takezo is a cold-hearted killer, who will take on anyone in mortal combat to make a name for himself. This is the journey of a wild young brute who strives to reach enlightenment by way of the sword–fighting on the edge of death.

Vagabond is epic; both in length and plot. The manga follows Musashi as he sets out to fight the greatest samurai masters in Japan. The manga itself follows the  book Musashi by Eiji Yoshikawa, which is a fairly accurate account of Musashi’s life.  The manga takes only a few liberties–the battle with the Yoshioka School, for instance. During the story, Musashi starts out as a brash and violent teen, but as he gets older, you start to see a visible change in him. He realizes that skill ultimately trumps brute strength in battle, and eventually his journey becomes about honing his skill rather than just fighting as many masters as possible. He matures and learns to control the raw power that possessed him as a teen. And he’s pretty bad ass.

There is considerable violence and some nudity. You have been warned.

Fruits Basket

The enigmatic Sohma family shares a great secret — they are possessed by spirits of the Chinese Zodiac, and when they are hugged by members of the opposite sex, they transform into their Zodiac animal! Tohru Honda, an orphaned high school freshman, is given lodging in the Sohma household in exchange for taking care of household chores. The humble Tohru is quite grateful for the Sohma family’s generosity, but the longer she stays with them, the more they realize what a blessing she is in their lives as well.

I thought this story was really cute, and the characters are funny and endearing. The ending is sweet and a little sad. It also contained one of the rare love triangles that didn’t send me into a fit of insanity (looking at you Gale).

Vampire Knight

Cross Academy is attended by two groups of students: the Day Class and the Night Class. At twilight, when the students of the Day Class return to their dorm, they cross paths with the Night Class on their way to school. Yuki Cross and Zero Kiryu are the Guardians of the school, protecting the Day Class from the Academy’s dark secret: the Night Class is full of vampires!

Yuki Cross has no memory of her past prior to the moment she was saved from a vampire attack ten years ago. She was adopted by the headmaster of Cross Academy, and now works alongside Zero to guard the Academy’s secret. Yuki believes that vampires and humans can coexist peacefully, but her partner has different ideas…

I know, I know. Vampires. Ugh. So overdone. But give it a chance. It kinda reminds me of Buffy–if Buffy had less witty dialogue and a more complex plot. Zero can be a little angsty and makes Eeyore look like sunshine and rainbows (double rainbows), but unlike some heroines, Yuki can actually take care of herself (despite what the men in the manga think). Plus, it has my favorite scene stealer–Hanabusa Aido.

Fushigi Yugi

Fushigi Yugi is the story of carefree high school called Miaka who, together with her more serious best friend Yui, finds a book entitled “The Universe of the Four Gods.” The book is magic, and it transports them both into its story and the world described there, where Miaka becomes embroiled in a fantastic adventure. An epic romance with a handsome warrior also awaits Miaka as they set out to find and befriend seven Celestial Warriors, including dashing mercenary Tamahome and wannabe empress Nuriko. Only then can Miaka summon the power of the god Suzaku, find her true love, and get home safely.

I haven’t actually read this one yet, but it is in my ginormous TBR pile, which I will get through it someday, though will probably die trying.


Welcome to Neo-Tokyo, built on the ashes of a Tokyo annihilated by a blast of unknown origin that triggered World War III. The lives of two streetwise teenage friends, Tetsuo and Kaneda, change forever when paranormal abilities begin to waken in Tetsuo, making him a target for a shadowy agency that will stop at nothing to prevent another catastrophe like the one that leveled Tokyo. At the core of the agency’s motivation is a raw, all-consuming fear of an unthinkable, monstrous power known only as Akira.

I have mentioned before that I love the movie and all of its post-apocalyptic awesomeness, and the manga takes it to a whole new level. Both are visual masterpieces of epically mind-bending proportions. If your mind is not blown after reading this, then you should probably have your head checked. Both were ground breaking for their time (’88 and ’82-’90 respectively), and for you fact collecting people, Akira was the first Japanese comic aimed at teens. Also, this music video paid homage to the movie.

Also contains lots of violence and graphic weirdness. I liken the anime to an LSD trip.

So, for those of you who do not believe me, or are one of those who have dismissed manga as being for children, I challenge you to go out and pick one up today. It doesn’t have to be one of the ones listed. It could be anything. Like books, manga is a medium that spans all genres, so there is something out here for everyone.

If you are not impressed with the depth of the storytelling, then I will eat this creepy shoe that the dog fished out of a very mucky pond and has probably been there since 1978.

Lastly, here is a fabulous post by Matthew Reeves about how the Japanese are doing publishing better than us.


14 comments on “Let the Pictures Do the Talking

  • Ah, Death Note. I actually disliked Light. He’s a self-absorbed jerk, and I wanted him to get caught. Dexter, on the other hand, isn’t. May he continue to kill criminals forever. =P

    I’ve heard about Akira – I’ll check it out soon.

    • Manga is more of a medium (I think that is the correct term). It covers a broad spectrum of genres and age ranges. And, yes you do need to explore it. I will save your poor depraved soul from the Craigslist surfing and YA book reading. Where YA destroys, manga heals.

  • “Where YA destroys, manga heals.”

    But my library stocks a lot of YA. Not sure if they do the same for manga. Sadly that drives a lot of my reading choices these days. 🙂

    But I will investigate…

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