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To comic book fans, it may seem like 2020/2021 will be the manga rebirth. Adjustments filled the Netflix stream. Local comic bookstores kept ordering for manga and light novels. Sales of e-books increased. While it would be easy to believe that the increasing popularity of anime streaming is responsible, there has been an equally huge impact from light novels and the subsequent revival of the light novel vs. manga discussion. Sure, readers have their preferences, but the truth is, you can do both. And frankly, you should.

What is the difference between manga and light novel?

Manga are comics from Japan. That’s it. Cell by cell, read from right to left in true Japanese style, mangas are just comics. They’re usually printed in black and white, with more character details and a conversational storytelling. Manga come in many different genres, many of which have been labeled “typical manga,” but honestly, ALL mangas are. If you really want to dive into the full story and interpretation of the manga (which is actually very cool), check out book rioter Vernieda Vergara and her article, “A Beginner’s Guide to Manga”.

Light novels aren’t quite as productive in mainstream pop culture as mangas. Light short stories are something like ‘short stories’; born out of Japanese pulp magazines trying to catch young adult readers losing interest in manga. Light novels still include some artwork, but more as an additional feature than part of the story. The artwork is very similar to the more common manga style, but the illustrations aren’t key to the story. Instead, the story is kept short and easy at a slower pace. Rarely will a light novel be more than 50,000 words long and tend to have less dialogue and more exposure. Here, too, our resident Queen Vernieda produced a great article if you would like more details: “What is an easy novel and where should I start?”

If a series contains both manga and light novel, which one do I read?

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My first reaction is BOTH! But then I’m a book collector who tends to find a series / topic and then you have to read all things. However, at the risk of overwhelming the newcomers, let’s take a look at some personal preferences between the two.

It’s really important to note that there are structural differences in writing between manga and light novels. If you find a manga copy of a light novel (or vice versa), please don’t assume that it is just the ticket. As mentioned above, manga tend to be character and conversational while light novels are known to focus on exposure.

My 15 year old son, who is a huge anime fan, prefers reading light novels to manga. He said, and I quote, “The images tend to hinder reading.” Given his love of anime, I thought that was strange at first, until he pointed out how many light novels are the source material for his favorite anime. For him, it’s about the details in storytelling, not just the imagery.

Personally, I love the artwork – especially the exaggerated facial expressions. Now that I’ve read a lot of manga, I can usually imagine the facial expressions within a light novel, but they’re rarely as good as the artist’s. After much discussion, we finally agreed on our preferred reading method for manga and light novels:

  1. If the manga first came out, we’ll both read, but we haven’t found anything to test this theory with yet.
  2. If the light novel came first he just going to read the light novel. I’ll read the manga a volume or two and then come back to the light novel, like So I’m a Spider, so what? by Okina Baba (light novel) and Tsukasa Kiryu (character) design and Asahiro Kakashi (manga artist)
  3. 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 towards the manga and then expand the story with the light novel. Apparently I am a monster. * shrug * A perfect example are My Hero Academia by Kohei Horikoshi (Manga) and the spin-off My Hero Academia: School Briefs by Anri Yoshi (Light Novel)
  4. If we start with the manga and later discover the light novel, he will read the light novel while I (the completer) finish the manga first. And he still thinks that I’m the monster.

How you read manga and light novels depends on your personal interests. There is no such thing as a ‘light novel vs. manga’ way of reading it. You can read both or choose one path over the other.

If light novels are so good, why aren’t there more?

Better Marketing Campaign? Okay, so manga has a bigger reputation. It’s amazing how many people get started with manga because they don’t want to read that many words. And that’s good for their preferences. Some people will switch to light novels for more detail on storytelling and never go back to manga again (hello my kid). Manga are advertised as a bite-sized snack in our ever-consuming world. There are weekly updates on an ongoing basis, both online and in print. Each issue is short and sweet, with maybe a little detail in the artwork so that it can be read again later. If you have enough expenses, you can collect them into volumes for a more complete story – but there is no obligation to do so.

However, light novels are usually a little more sporadic in their publication. They can even be standalone, which gives publishers a bigger boost to make the book do well. And because of the number of words or the details in storytelling, they are still “light” snack-sized books, but require a little more attention when reading. This is the real kick, because this factor alone can put off the translation of many Japanese light novels into other languages.

To be honest, there is absolutely nothing wrong with reading manga or light novels or both! There is no such thing as a “light novel vs manga” war. It all depends on how you want to read. No matter whether you are character-oriented or pay attention to small details.