For comic book fans, it may seem like 2020/2021 was the rebirth of manga. Adaptations were filling the Netflix stream. Local comic book stores were constantly re-ordering for manga and light novels. Ebook sales were up. While it would be easy to think the increased popularity of anime streaming is responsible, there is as much influence coming from light novels and subsequently reawakening the discussion around light novel vs manga. Sure, readers will have their preferences but the truth is: you can do both. And honestly, you should.
So, What’s the Difference Between Manga and Light Novel?
Manga are comics from Japan. That’s it. Cell by cell, reading from right to left in true Japanese style, manga are simply comics. They are usually printed in black and white, with greater detail on characters and dialogue-centric storytelling. Manga comes in lots of different genres, many of which have been called out as “typical manga” but honestly, they are ALL manga. If you really want to dive into the full history and interpretation of manga (which is actually very cool), check out fellow Book Rioter Vernieda Vergara and her article, “A Beginner’s Guide to Manga”.
Light novels are not quite as prolific in mainstream pop culture as manga. Light novels are kind of the equivalent to ‘novellas’; born from Japanese pulp magazines who were trying to catch young adult readers losing interest in manga. Light novels still feature some artwork but more as an additional feature than part of the story. The artwork is very similar to the more common manga style, however, the illustrations are not key to the story. Instead, the story is kept short and light at a slower pace. Rarely will a light novel go over 50,000 words, tending towards less dialogue and more exposition. Again, our resident Queen Vernieda has produced a great article if you want more details: “What’s a Light Novel and Where Should I Begin?”
If a Series Has Both Manga and Light Novel, Which Do I Read?
My first reaction is BOTH! But then I am a book collector who tends to find a series/topic and then Must Read All The Things. However, at the risk of overloading the newcomers, let’s take a look at some personal preferences between the two.
It’s really important to note there are structural differences in the writing between manga and light novels. If you do find a manga copy of a light novel (or vice versa), please do not assume they will be the exact thing. As mentioned above, manga tend to be character/dialogue driven while light novels are known for focusing on exposition.
My 15-year-old son, who is a huge fan of anime, prefers to read light novels over manga. He said, and I quote, “the pictures tend to get in the way of reading.” Considering his love for anime, I initially found this weird until he pointed out how many light novels are the source material for his fave anime. For him, it’s about the detail in the storytelling, not just the imagery.
Personally, I love the artwork — especially the exaggerated facial expressions. Now that I have read a lot of manga, I can usually imagine the facial expressions within a light novel but they are rarely as good as the artist. After much debating between us, we finally came to an agreement on our preferred reading method for manga and light novels:
- If the manga came first, then we will read both but we haven’t come across anything yet to test this theory.
- If the light novel came first, he will read only the light novel. I will read the manga for a volume or two and then come back to the light novel, such as So I’m a Spider, So What? by Okina Baba (light novel) and Tsukasa Kiryu (character) design and Asahiro Kakashi (manga artist)
- If the light novel is a backstory/side-story to a manga series (or vice versa), he will read the light novel first and then decide if he wants to read more manga. I tend to go for the manga first and then expand the story further with the light novel. Apparently, I’m a monster. *shrug* A perfect example is My Hero Academia by Kohei Horikoshi (manga) and the spin-off, My Hero Academia: School Briefs by Anri Yoshi (light novel)
- If we start on the manga and later discover the light novel, he will read the light novel while I (the completionist) will finish the manga first. And he still thinks I’m the monster.
How you read manga and light novels is dependent on your personal interests. There is no ‘light novel vs manga’ way of reading them. You can read both or choose one path over the other.
If Light Novels are So Good, Why Aren’t There More of Them?
Better marketing campaign? Okay, so manga has a bigger reputation. It’s amazing how many people will start on manga because they don’t want to read so many words. And that’s fine for their preference. Some people will change over to light novels for more detail in the storytelling and never go back to manga (hello, child of mine). Manga are promoted as the bite-size snack in our ever-consuming world. There are weekly updates in ongoing serials, both online and in print. Each issue is short and sweet, with maybe a little detail in the artwork to make it worthy of a re-read later. When you have enough issues, you can collect them in volumes for a more complete story — but there is no obligation to do so.
Light novels, however, are usually a bit more sporadic in their publication. They may even be standalone, which brings a greater push from publishing companies for the book to do well. And because of the word count or the details in the storytelling, they are still snack-size “light” books, but they do require a little more attention when reading. This is the real kicker, because this factor alone can be a deterrent for translating many Japanese light novels into other languages.
Truth be told, there is absolutely nothing wrong with reading manga or light novels or both! There is no “light novel vs manga” war. It purely depends on how you want to read. Whether you are character-focused or pay attention to little details.