Japanese comic books continue to make inroads in America

In Japan, businessmen read comic books on the subway, women read romance comics in coffee shops and children pick up phonebook-sized collections of black and white comics printed on cheap paper once a week to read and enjoy.

When those comics are translated and make it across the Pacific to our shores, they are called "manga," the Japanese word for comics, and have taken what was once a truly unique American format, the comic book, to extremes that our homegrown comics have never reached.

Here in Sunnyside, the manga format is popular among young adults and children for its energy and style, as well as the diversity of subject matter the books cover.

At the Sunnyside Library, Thomas Warren says people come in to get manga on a daily basis. At least one young library patron regularly maxes out his borrowing limit getting stacks of manga from around the Yakima Valley Libraries system.

While much of manga is the typical straight up fantasy many expect from comic books, a person would have to look hard to find an American-style superhero. The genres covered in manga include romance, adventure, horror, detective, science fiction, humor and historical drama, along with just about anything else imaginable.

Elizabeth Umberger says she got into manga after watching her step-sister read "picture books."

"I picked up one of her books and realized it wasn't for children," said Umberger. Now, seven years later, she reads a variety of titles, listing "Death Note" and "Full Moon" as favorites.

Mayra Tapia also was introduced to manga through a sister. Her younger sister checked one out of the library and Tapia read it and enjoyed it. So she searched out more from the library. She's been reading manga for three years. She's a fan of "Fruits Basket" and "Full Moon," and recommends "Fruits Basket" to new manga readers.

A lot of manga printed in America preserves the right-to-left reading format of the original Japanese. A reader must start at what is usually the back of the book and read the book in the opposite direction readers of English books are used to reading.

"It takes a few minutes to adjust," said Tapia. "But then it's just reading."

Cosme Martinez started reading American comics like Batman and Spider-Man. He learned that the Japanese cartoons, anime, on television had a print counterpart and sought out manga to read.

"The art style really hooked me because I'd never seen anything like it," he said. "I first saw Kekkaishi, and from there it branched out into more and more. I found manga to be very addicting."

Many manga fans also try their hand at drawing their favorite characters. Both Tapia and Umberger said they enjoy drawing as well as reading.

"Almost all my friends read manga," said Umberger. "And draw it."

There is a dark side to manga, however, of which many parents are unaware. Because manga in Japan is marketed to all ages, including adults, some titles include language and imagery that is not intended for children.

While some of the more adult material is translated and sold in the states, most of it doesn't reach library shelves. Manga series available through the Yakima Valley Libraries go through a process to make sure they are aimed at the correct audience.

But when out buying manga, parents shouldn't think "It's just a comic book" simply because it has drawings. Some of the subject matter in manga aimed at teens may be fairly mature. The popular series "Death Note" deals with a boy able to kill people by writing their names in a book. The romance manga "Nana" starts with a reference to an affair an older married man had with one of the lead characters.

The popularity of manga continues to soar among children and teens. Bolstered by Japanese cartoons, often originally based on manga, more people read them every year. Most is light entertainment, meant to be enjoyed and forgotten. And it's as close as the local library for those who want to give it a try.

Laura Gjovaag/Daily Sun News

Thomas Warren, librarian at the Sunnyside Library, picks up a number of manga books from the return bin to check in. Warren says library patrons regularly will get entire runs of a title to read.


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