I’ve read manga for over half my life. I’ve seen the North American manga industry boom, collapse, rebuild, and stabilize. Today, we’ve reached an equilibrium in the English-language market. The biggest titles are translated simultaneously with the Japanese release and publishers are taking risks, licensing lesser known titles and classic backlist series. As a result, some of the best manga series are now available for us to read.
In assembling this list, I cast a wide net. It looks across many genres and age categories as well as what many consider to be the best manga this year and what were the most famous series in the 1970s. I firmly believe that there’s a manga for every reader. Hopefully, one of the following titles piques your interest.
Completed Modern Classics
If you’re a new manga reader looking for an introduction to the medium in its present form, the following selections are good place to start. I selected these titles specifically because 1) they’re finished and 2) they provide you with the ability to connect with longtime manga readers.
Dragon Ball by Akira Toriyama
Toriyama’s now-iconic manga draws inspiration from the classic Chinese novel, Journey to the West. The series revolves around Son Goku, an alien raised as a human who trains in martial arts and seeks the dragon balls, which can summon a dragon able to grant any wish.
Inuyasha by Rumiko Takahashi
Rumiko Takahashi is perhaps one of the most prominent female mangaka working today. Her backlist consists of many significant works including the genderbending martial arts romantic comedy Ranma ½. Inuyasha focuses on Kagome, a Japanese schoolgirl who falls into a well at her family’s shrine and finds herself transported to the Sengoku era. There, she meets the half-dog demon, Inuyasha, and hijinks ensue.
Naruto by Masashi Kishimoto
What is there to say about Naruto? An entire generation of manga fans cut their teeth on this series about an orphaned boy who dreams of becoming the best ninja in his village. If you love slick battles and cool ninja powers, this is the series for you. It’s also one of the most accessible series for readers brand new to manga.
Fullmetal Alchemist by Hiromu Arakawa
When you ask a manga reader what their favorite title is, Fullmetal Alchemist is usually in their top 10, and for good reason. The premise is deceptively simple: two brothers search for the Philosopher’s Stone to restore their bodies when an attempt to bring their mother back to life goes horribly awry. But it’s so much more than that. Not only does it delve into the relationship between brothers after a catastrophe, it features some of the most awesome female characters you will ever see in a manga and an intriguing plot that consists of conspiracy, redemption, and sacrifice. In my opinion, barring any other reading preferences, this is the best manga to give someone to get them hooked on the medium.
Death Note by Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata
Please forget the atrocious, whitewashed Netflix adaptation and read the original manga instead. A brilliant high school student obtains a notebook that grants him the ability to kill anyone whose name and face he knows. With these newfound abilities, he plans to create a utopian world free of any crime, but as they say, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
Fruits Basket by Natsuki Takaya
When her mother dies in a car accident, high school student Tohru Honda finds herself living with the Sohma family. In doing so, she uncovers their family secret. Each member of the Sohma family is possessed by a spirit of the Chinese zodiac and will transform into their animal form under a specific set of conditions. Because Tohru is a kind-hearted girl, she agrees to keep this discovery a secret and then sets about to break the family curse.
Sailor Moon by Naoko Takeuchi
One of the best manga about magical girls, Sailor Moon has the honor of being the series that launched the genre as we know it today. The heroine, Usagi Tsukino, discovers she is Sailor Moon, a warrior destined to protect Earth from evil. Along the way, she assembles other Sailor Scouts — warriors meant to represent the other planets of the solar system — to help her in her mission.
Best Ongoing Manga Series
Let’s say you want to dive into a series that’s still in-progress with an unfolding plot that lets you speculate and discuss. These titles will satisfy that need.
My Hero Academia by Kohei Horikoshi
The current “it” series, My Hero Academia is an earnest, Japanese take on the superhero genre. Izuku Midoriya is a regular boy born in a world where everyone has superpowers, thus crushing his dreams of becoming a superhero. But due to an unexpected turn of events, he gains a set of super abilities of his own. It turns out his dream might not be out of reach, after all.
Attack on Titan by Hajime Isayama
Isayama took the manga world by storm with his post-apocalyptic vision of a faltering human race besieged by man-eating giants. The plot has evolved since that initial premise; it’s now filled with conspiracies, a questionable exploration of oppression, and even more questionable parallels to real-life history, but those early volumes remain of the best manga portrayals of action-packed survival and adventure.
One Piece by Eiichiro Oda
One Piece is one of the most significant manga series of our generation. Full stop. No question. It holds records and has topped Japanese bestseller lists since it first debuted in 1997. In a nutshell, it’s about a young boy who wants to become the pirate king. Full of funky special abilities, hilarious visual puns, and found family feels, One Piece is a magical journey that reminds everyone to go after their dreams.
One-Punch Man by ONE and Yusuke Murata
A semi-satirical look at the superhero genre, One-Punch Man follows Saitama, a once-average young man who trains himself to become a superhero. Unfortunately, he’s become so overwhelmingly strong that he defeats everyone with a single punch. Facing no challenges, Saitama now faces existential ennui, even as he joins a superhero organization to protect the world from monsters and supervillains.
Influential Classic Manga Series
You’ve cut your teeth on the modern classics the average manga fan knows. You’re reading what many people consider to be the best manga series in 2018. Now you want to delve into series that pioneered the medium and influenced generations of manga creators.
Astro Boy by Osamu Tezuka
Known as the father of manga, Tezuka’s expansive catalog influenced the medium and pioneered many of the conventions we know today. You can’t really go wrong with any of his titles, but I chose to include Astro Boy, which features the now-familiar story of a brilliant scientist who replaces his dead son with a robot.
Devilman by Go Nagai
Originally published in the 1970s, Devilman has spawned countless spin-offs and anime adaptations — the most recent of which took Netflix by storm at the beginning of 2018. It’s the story of a pure-hearted young man who gains the power of a demon and chooses to use those abilities to protect mankind. Alas, his chosen mission is complicated by two things: the question of whether humans are worth protecting and his best friend.
Akira by Katsuhiro Otomo
Most fans are familiar with the now-seminal anime, but as with many film adaptations, the movie condenses thousands of pages into two hours — which erases many nuances. At its heart, the manga details the conflict between biker gang leader Kaneda and his unstable telekinetic friend, Tetsuo. But in whole, the story also explores politics, power, and corruption.
Cardcaptor Sakura by CLAMP
CLAMP has created many beloved series, although a good number of them also remain unfinished. No shade. (Well, maybe a little shade.) As a magical girl series, Cardcaptor Sakura is probably one of the more accessible series in their backlist. It follows a young girl named Sakura who accidentally releases a set of magical cards and now must work to retrieve them and seal them away once more. While Sailor Moon launched the modern magical girl genre, Cardcaptor Sakura cemented the cutesy aesthetic we associate with it today.
JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure by Hirohiko Araki
Once considered an obscure series among English readers, JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure enjoys new popularity thanks to the anime adaptation streamed by Crunchyroll. This long-running series follows the strange lives of the Joestar family. Its structure is unique, with each part focusing on a different family member and taking place in a different time and location. For example, Part 1 focuses on Jonathan Joestar and is set in Victorian England while Part 4 focuses on Josuke Higashikata and takes place in a small town in Japan. This is one of the most influential manga in history and once you read enough of it, you’ll see references to it in countless manga and anime series.
From here on out, I categorize manga titles by their genre. Each category includes many different genre takes and executions in hopes you can find the best manga to read for you.
Best Romance Manga
High School Debut by Kazune Kawahara
A middle school softball superstar, Haruna decides to pursue a different goal when she enters high school: finding a boyfriend. One small problem: she’s never paid attention to romance, fashion, or make-up and has no idea how to go about achieving her dream. Not to be deterred, she seeks help from the most popular guy in school. To everyone’s surprise, he agrees to help but on one condition: she must not fall in love with him. The premise sounds stereotypical, but you will fall in love with Haruna’s earnest, straightforward charm.
Paradise Kiss by Ai Yazawa
Yukari is a high school student who should be preparing for her college entrance exams. Her plans go off the rails when she meets a group of fashion design students, thus changing her life forever. Paradise Kiss is full of fabulous fashion, first loves, and the pain of growing up.
Love Com by Aya Nakahara
High school can be a stressful time, especially if you deviate from social norms in any way. Risa is taller than your average Japanese girl and Atsushi is shorter than your typical Japanese guy. Because of this, their classmates pair them up as a joke. Even though that’s irritating, the two put aside their differences to help each other win their respective love interests. Things don’t quite go according to plan, however.
Ouran High School Host Club by Bisco Hatori
Haruhi is a scholarship student at a prestigious high school. When an accident incurs an enormous debt, she has no way of repaying it. But she may have a way out: her gender-ambiguous appearance allows her to pass for a boy. Now, she joins the host club as a member, entertaining female customers with tea and food. Despite the familiar premise, Ouran High School Host Club stands out by the way it pokes fun at well-established shoujo manga tropes.
Kimi ni Todoke by Karuho Shiina
Poor Sawako Kuronuma bears an uncanny resemblance to the original girl from the well, Sadako of The Ring. This leads her classmates to ostracize her and spread rumors. But it turns out Sawako is just a sweet girl who wants to form friendships with other people. Her wish soon comes true when the most popular boy in school, Kazehaya, begins talking to her.
My Love Story by Kazune Kawahara and Aruko
Takeo Goda is a muscular, young man who doesn’t have much luck in love — mostly because every girl he’s interested in ends up falling in love with his handsome best friend, Makoto. That all changes when he meets Rinko, who — to everyone’s surprise — falls in love with Takeo. Like Kawahara’s other work, High School Debut, My Love Story is charming and earnest with delightful bouts of sweet humor.
Skip Beat! By Yoshiki Nakamura
Kyoko Mogami followed her childhood friend to Tokyo to support his dream of becoming an idol. But her dreams of one day marrying him are shattered when she discovers he was just using her. This unleashes her wrath and Kyoko swears that one day she’ll become a bigger star than him. Two things elevate this plot about a woman scorned. First, Kyoko discovers her own talents during her so-called “quest.” And two, her love interest is not the childhood friend who took advantage of her good will.
Kuroko’s Basketball by Tadatoshi Fujimaki
The series that kicked off the sports genre resurgence, Kuroko’s Basketball is about a group of amazing middle school basketball players who had a falling out and now face each other in high school. Basketball accuracy isn’t one of this series’ strong points, but if you’re into emotional, interpersonal drama, this one has it in spades.
Haikyu!! by Haruichi Furudate
Shoyo Hinata loves volleyball and aspires to become of the best players around. He has no intention of letting his short height get in the way of his dreams. When he enters high school, though, he reunites with a brilliant volleyball player named Tobio Kageyama, who he’d previously encountered during a single volleyball match in middle school. Now, these once-rivals must become an unstoppable team to return their school to its former volleyball greatness.
Ace of the Diamond by Yuji Terajima
Japan loves baseball, and this manga highlights the emotional ups and downs of the sport. It follows Eijun Sawamura, a lefthanded pitcher who is recruited by a Tokyo high school known for its powerhouse baseball team.
Chihayafuru by Yuki Seutsugu
The beautiful thing about sports manga is that they’re not just about what we in English-speaking countries consider “traditional” sports. A fair number also feature traditional strategy games! Chihayafuru showcases the Japanese card game, karuta, through its heroine, Chihaya, who displays an unexpectedly natural aptitude for the game.
Real by Takehiko Inoue
Takehiko Inoue is probably better known for his other basketball series, Slam Dunk. Real is a mature take on the sport, told through the lens of wheelchair basketball. It looks at people marginalized by society in different ways and provides a realistic take on physical disabilities and psychological trauma.
A Bride’s Story by Kaoru Mori
Set in Central Asia during the late 19th century, A Bride’s Story begins by introducing us to a young woman who travels from a distant village to marry a young man eight years her junior. As we learn more about her and her new husband’s family, the series expands to other young women and the men they eventually marry. Full of exquisite art and carefully researched cultural details, this is one for the historical fiction lovers out there.
Blade of the Immortal by Hiroaki Samura
Despite the significance of historical samurai manga like Lone Wolf and Cub and Lady Snowblood, the genre went out of fashion in the manga medium for almost two decades. That changed in the early ’90s when a handful of samurai manga were launched. Blade of the Immortal takes an anachronistic look at the genre, mixing the traditional aesthetic of formal samurai culture with modern fashions and speech patterns. The result is a beautiful, brutally violent series centered on one girl’s quest to seek revenge against the man who killed her parents.
Vagabond by Takehito Inoue
Although Inoue is well-known for his sports manga, Vagabond is his foray into the historical samurai genre. This series is a fictionalized account of Miyamoto Musashi’s life. If his name sounds familiar, there’s a good reason. He’s the legendary Japanese historical swordsman who wrote The Book of the Five Rings.
Ooku: The Inner Chambers by Fumi Yoshinaga
In an alternate history of feudal Japan, a mysterious disease kills off most of the male population. This leads to a matriarchal society in which women assume the role of the shogun and their harem — the Ooku — consists of beautiful men. If you know your Japanese history, especially that of the Tokugawa Shogunate, reading this speculative take on those events is nothing short of fascinating.
Thriller and Horror Manga
Monster by Naoki Urasawa
Naoki Urasawa has created many series that belong on any best manga list. I selected Monster because it defies the expectation that all manga involves superpowers, the supernatural, or the end of the world. Instead, it follows a brilliant brain surgeon who — when given the choice between two lives to save — chooses to operate on a young boy who later grows up to become a serial killer.
Gangsta by Kohske
A gritty urban crime drama with speculative elements, Gangsta follows a pair of “handymen” who run errands around a city, which range from drug-running to eliminating unruly gangs. The city they live and work in, however, seethes with unspoken tensions between gangs, regular people, and the descendants of genetically engineered super soldiers from a previously fought war. As you can guess, that conflict soon boils over with explosive, tragic results.
I Am a Hero by Kengo Hanazawa
You can’t make a list of manga without including a Japanese take on the zombie survival story. Here, a manga artist assistant continues through life, seeing himself as a supporting character even in his own story. Thankfully — or maybe not — he’s jolted out of his mediocre life when a disease begins turning people into zombie-like creatures. Now he has no choice but to take control of his own destiny and do whatever he can to survive.
TOKYO GHOUL by Sui Ishida
Tokyo Ghoul and its sequel Tokyo Ghoul: re, take readers on a dark and twisting ride. It follows college student Ken Kaneki, who goes on a date with a beautiful woman that ends up being a monster. Only a freak accident saves him from certain death but when he wakes up, Ken discovers he’s become half-monster himself. Much like Devilman, this series delves into the psychological conflicts that arise between humanity and the monstrous but reaches a different conclusion.
Uzumaki by Junji Ito
Junji Ito is undoubtedly one of the greatest horror masters, but it can be difficult to pick which one of his works is the best manga in the genre. But when we talk about Junji Ito, Uzumaki inevitably comes up. This manga is about the people who live in a small town plagued by a curse involving spirals (the “uzumaki” of the title). What makes Ito so amazing as a horror creator is that he uses atmosphere and psychological anxieties to instill unease and disquiet in readers to astonishing effect.
Learn more about Junji Ito: the Master of Manga Horror
Supernatural and Fantasy Manga
YuYu Hakusho by Yoshihiro Togashi
These days, Togashi is famously known for his many hiatuses on his current series, HunterxHunter. Before that, however, was this story about a teenaged delinquent who dies while saving a child but gets a second chance on life (so to speak) by performing good deeds at the request of the spirit world. Bonus fun fact: Togashi is married to the Naoko Takeuchi, the creator of Sailor Moon! I love me a cute manga creator couple.
Mushishi by Yuki Urushibara
An episodic series about a man named Ginko, who travels from place to place, researching supernatural creatures called Mushi and helping people who are plagued by them. A deceptively quiet manga, this one will draw you in with its powerful, human-focused storytelling.
Black Butler by Yana Toboso
Set in Victorian England, Black Butler tells the story of Ciel, the last surviving member of the Phantomhive family, who have traditionally worked in the shadows as the royal family’s guard dogs. The true plot of the manga, however, revolves around the pact Ciel made with a demon who has assumed the identity of Sebastian Michaelis, his butler.
Blue Exorcist by Kazue Kato
Twin orphans Rin and Yukio Okumura were raised by a powerful exorcist. But on the day their adoptive father dies, Rin makes a shocking discovery: he’s the son of Satan. Now, Rin intends to become an exorcist himself and defeat Satan himself — but can he succeed when he’s part-demon?
Vampire Knight by Matsuri Hino
Where are all my vampire lovers at? I know you’re out there. This manga is for you. Yuki Cross has no memory of her life before she was saved from a rogue vampire attack by a Pureblood vampire. As a result, she grew up believing that humans and vampires can co-exist peacefully. But as it turns out, her beliefs and even her trust may be sorely misplaced.
Natsume’s Book of Friends by Yuki Midorikawa
Takashi Natsume can see spirits, which has led to him living an, isolated childhood. When his grandmother dies, he inherits a book containing the name of every spirit she defeated and bound to her will. So, of course, Natsume sets out release the names to their rightful owners. As you do.
Claymore by Norihiro Yagi
The shonen manga genre is littered with series featuring majority-male casts. Claymore flips that convention by telling a fantasy story about a group of half-demon women warriors that protects the general populace from a widespread demonic threat.
YONA OF THE DAWN by Mizuho Kusanagi
Set in a fantasy world heavily influenced by Korean culture, the story begins with the sheltered Princess Yona. Her innocence is ripped away when her father is murdered by her childhood friend, Soo-Won, who she’d one day hoped to marry. Yona, with her other childhood friend and bodyguard Son Hak, barely escapes with her life. Outside of the castle, she learns of the disarray the kingdom fell into while under her father’s rule. Now, Yona intends to redeem herself and save her kingdom and its people.
Oishinbo by Tetsu Kariya and Akira Hanasaki
Despite perceptions in the English-speaking world, manga can be about literally anything. Oishinbo exemplifies this by following the adventures of a culinary journalist. The English-language edition functions more like a best-of edition, with each volume collecting stories by theme.
My Brother’s Husband by Gengoroh Tagame
Slice-of-life stories are a popular manga genre, and My Brother’s Husband is one of the best manga to showcase that. The story begins when a single father finds himself visited by the Canadian husband of his dead estranged twin. This thoughtful look at the realities faced by LGBTQ people in Japanese society has garnered many accolades and reading even only a few chapters will show you why.
A Silent Voice by Yoshitoki Oima
Manga doesn’t shy away from tackling difficult subjects, and A Silence Voice is a prime example. It follows a former delinquent who attempts to redeem his past mistakes by befriending the deaf girl he bullied in elementary school.
Yotsuba?! by Kiyohiko Azuma
Another slice-of-life story, this charming manga follows an energetic adopted little girl who learns about normal, everyday things.
Chi’s Sweet Home by Kanata Konami
Remember a few years back when Neko Atsume took the cell phone game world by storm? You can relive those simpler times with this cute manga, about a kitten who gets adopted by a young boy and his family.