Comics/Graphic Novels

A Beginner’s Guide to Reading Manga

Over the past several months, we’ve upped our manga game here on Panels. More coverage, more recommendation lists, and more essays about our experiences reading manga. I hope we’ve brought new and interesting series to your attention and that we’ve answered some questions you might have had.

But somewhere along the way, it seems like we might have forgotten to answer the most basic question of all: how do you read manga?

It’s not necessarily apparent at first glance. When Panelteer Ardo picked up some manga samplers from FCBD in 2015, she didn’t know how to read manga. She had to ask those of us more well-versed in reading manga to explain her which direction to read in.

It may seem basic but if you’re new to manga, how would you know? Because, as some people may not realize, manga is printed right to left. Which means you begin reading a manga volume from what traditional English-language readers would consider the back of the book. Once upon a time, North American manga publishers included reading guides with their translated series. Some still do. About half do not.

So to fill that void, I thought I’d offer a simple guide to reading manga. Hopefully, this will make the medium less intimidating for people thinking of getting into manga.

First rule: Manga reads from right to left. So when you pick up a manga volume to read, the spine should be on the right. The right to left directional rule also applies to reading the panels inside.

Second rule: As with English-language comics, manga reads from top to bottom but this works in conjunction with the right to left rule. Hopefully, the mangaka laid out their panels well so there’s no confusion regarding reading flow. But I freely admit that some mangaka utilize more cluttered layouts that make following the action more difficult.

How does this work in action? Let’s look at a couple pages from Assassination Classroom.

Assassination Classroom volume 1. Story and art by Yusei Matsui. VIZ Media.

The red numbers indicate the order in which you would read the panels. (Click to enlarge for a closer look.)

Make sense?

Now here’s an extra bonus tip. Sometimes while reading manga, you’ll encounter panels laid out on a black page.

Assassination Classroom volume 1. Story and art by Yusei Matsui. VIZ Media.

That black background generally indicates a flashback. The events depicted in those panels took place before the current story.

Sometimes you’ll even encounter a page where the background is black at the top and fades to white at the bottom. That color shift indicates a transition from the past to present. It’s a very clever form of visual storytelling that can be used quite effectively as shown here in Gangsta.

Gangsta. volume 6. Story and art by Kohske. VIZ Media.

That should cover the basics of reading manga. Have a question? You know what to do.