A bookshelf at Kinokuniya that shows how manga is often sorted alphabetically by book title.

What Cover Design Says About Genre in Manga

Manga was one of the largest growing genres in 2021. Despite its growing popularity, in many US bookstores manga is not sorted by subgenre. This can make it more challenging for readers to find the books they’re interested in. Given this context, it’s extremely important for information about a volume’s genre and intended audience to be conveyed through the cover. Manga genres are also defined differently than in US publishing. They are usually primarily categorized by gender and age. This post will be exploring three different manga covers. All three of these are titles that would be considered young adult genre-fiction in Anglophone literary spaces. However, because of the way manga is shelved, they must each distinguish themselves.

Death Note written by Tsugumi Ohba, illustrated by Takeshi Obata

Right away, this cover of Death Note implies darker themes with its extreme color contrasts between black and pink. There is also death and religious imagery in the skulls and cross shape, hinting at the different topics this book will examine. There is also a demonic creature that shows the incorporation of the supernatural elements. It very clearly depicts a teenage boy in a school uniform. This places it in the shonen category, aimed at young men.

RWBY by Bunta Kinami

The focus on RWBY’s cover is the two female characters, Ruby and Weiss. In this image, the two important characters are given contrasting color schemes, expressions, and poses. Fantasy elements are implied through their outfits and weapons. In contrast to Death Note, they are not shown in traditional school uniforms even though their attendance at school is important. What’s interesting is that the manga came after the anime, so in this situation, the priority is emphasizing the characters, the name, and that this is the “official manga.” Ruby’s signature scythe, easily recognizable to people who watched the anime, is one of the clearest elements on the cover.

Tomie by Junji Ito (1996 edition)

Tomie by Junji Ito (2016 edition)

Tomie by Junji Ito was initially published as a serial in a horror-themed magazine meant for adolescent/teenage girls and then put together into a volume in 1996. The earlier cover highlights Tomie, a young woman, continuing with the theme that the protagonist often aligns with the intended audience. The style of the artwork, the dark clouds, and expression on her face as well as the red text hint at the genre—horror. Years later, the author has become well-known as a horror manga artist and writer and, as a result, the intended audience has shifted from young women to horror readers. This is reflected in the newer 2016 cover. The genre is still very clear with the black cover with the red splotch. Tomie’s age and gender are not emphasized as clearly as they were in the first cover.

African American woman looking up over her left shoulder, in pop-art background

Colors in Ink: Diversity Among Graphic Novels

As an avid reader, a few years back I made it my mission to venture out of my comfort zones (horror, historic fiction, and poetry) to test the waters in different genres. I picked up my first graphic novel back in 2020—A Game for Swallows: To Die, To Leave, To Return by Zeina Abirached—and fell madly in love with the simple yet beautiful artwork, and the heart-wrenching story. I also enjoyed the fact that it was a quick read. It was beautifully written, and being used to submerging myself in novels the weight of my car, I found the graphic novel was a welcome easy-read to get me through my ever-returning procrastination of my to-be-read pile.

Since then, I have steadily amassed a small collection of graphic novels and graphic memoirs. I have tried to specifically focus on finding ones from the #OwnVoices category, with the intent to one day amass a diverse collection for my own son when he is older.

As such, I thought I’d share some of my favorites that focus on diverse representation. The tales range marvelously from war aftermath to more classic bildungsroman-style narratives, and the artworks encapsulate and celebrate the beauty of diversity in all ranges of color—and some in black and white! If you’re looking to explore the world of graphic novels, then look no further than these amazing suggestions (in no particular order)!

  1. A Game for Swallows: To Die, To Leave, To Return, by Zeina Abirached. This graphic memoir centers on a day in Zeina’s childhood during the civil war in Lebanon. When her parents go missing after crossing to the other half of the city, Zeina’s neighbors step up to make her apartment feel like a safe home for her and her brother. From lessons in cooking to games and juicy gossip, they all band together to get through the chaos of the day.
  2. I Was Their American Dream: A Graphic Memoir, by Malaka Gharib. Focusing on family heritage, discovering oneself, and freedom of American immigrants, Malaka Gharib’s graphic memoir will pull at your heartstrings through the tales of first-generation immigrant children.
  3. Gender Queer, by Maia Kobabe. An autobiography in graphic novel form detailing Maia’s journey through adolescence as a genderqueer teen. From confusing crushes to gushing over gay fanfiction with friends, this graphic novel is perfect for anyone wanting to understand—or relate to—the struggles and triumphs of being nonbinary and asexual.
  4. The Morning Tribe: A Graphic Novel, by Julian Lennon and Bart Davis. A fun graphic novel that centers on twins Dawn and Dusk, two members of the Morning Tribe in the Amazon rainforest, who must gather their courage and their friends to stop the Agricorp mercenaries from destroying their homeland.
  5. Nubia: Real One, by L. L. McKinney. “Can you be a hero . . . if society doesn’t see you as a person?”
  6. American Born Chinese, by Gene Luen Yang. Following three seemingly unrelated tales, this graphic novel weaves together the lives of Jin Wang, Chin-Kee, and the Monkey King in a comical, action-packed modern fable.
  7. Pemmican Wars (A Girl Called Echo #1), by Katherena Vermette. After moving to a new town and school, Echo Desjardins struggles to fit in and find her place. That is until one day in history class, when she is transported back in time to a bison hunt on the Saskatchewan prairie. Echo must find her bearings as she slips back and forth from her time to the dangerous days of the Pemmican Wars.
  8. Squad, by Maggie Tokuda-Hall. When Becca moves to a new high school, she is surprisingly invited to join the most popular clique in school. That isn’t the weird part though: her new friends are werewolves, hunting slimy boys who prey on unsuspecting girls. A funny, action packed graphic novel focused on taking down the patriarchy—one boy at a time.
  9. Generations, by Flavia Biondi. A wholesome, heart-jerking tale of Matteo, a young gay man from a small country town who, after spending years away in Milan, must return to his conservative family and rebuild his life.
  10. Turning Japanese, by MariNaomi. “In 1995, twenty-two-year-old Mari had just exited a long-term relationship, moving from Mill Valley to San Jose, California. Soon enough, she falls in love, then finds employment at a hostess bar for Japanese expats, where she is determined to learn the Japanese language and culture. Turning Japanese is a story about otherness, culture clashes, generation gaps, and youthful impetuosity.” — Goodreads.

While this list could go on forever, these ten will hopefully help you find your next (or possibly your first) graphic novel read. If you are looking to explore even more graphic novels that center on diverse characters and stories, Richard Library has a wonderful list of Great BIPOC Graphic Novels, and Books & Bao have an amazing list of Queer Graphic Novels.