Online manga can be a little difficult to track down if you are trying to avoid the many sites that exist to host scanlations (fan translations), or in the most egregious cases, hosting scans of the American manga editions. Fortunately in recent months more American publishers are putting manga online for free sampling or to make it easy to subscribe for electronic access. I’ll give an overview of some of the places you can go to read manga online legally.
FREE ONLINE MANGA
Viz Media caused a stir when it started serializing manga chapters on its sites Shonen Sunday and Sigikki. This is the place to go if you are looking for quirky seinen manga, as the parent Japanese magazine Ikki tends to specialize in the obscure. There’s a wide variety of stories and art styles on display. Chapters gradually rotate off the site as the print volumes are published.
Here are capsule reviews of my three favorite Sigikki series:
Afterschool Charisma – This series takes place in a school filled with clones of famous people from history. Napolean seems to be in the middle of a growth spurt, Mozart is an arrogant jerk, Marie Curie wants to play the piano instead of studying radium, and Freud is a creepy teen with a pageboy haircut. The ordinary boy Shiro Kamiya, whose father is in charge of the school and the cloning project, attends school along with the clones. Shiro innocently asks his father to help Marie with her musical ambitions, but what happens to her is not what Shiro intended. Will Shiro find out the truth behind the school? The art in Afterschool Charisma looked the most shoujoish to me out of all the Siggiki series. Sometimes it was difficult to tell apart the female characters, but the male characters were a bit more individual and had more personality. Teen-clone-Freud is hilarious.
House of Five Leaves – Masanosuke is a poor masterless samurai with a personality defect: He falls apart when he attracts attention. Thus he does a poor job of acting intimidating and keeps getting fired from his bodyguard jobs. Yaichi hires him for a day’ work. Masanosuke is struck by Yaichi’s confident air. But it turns out that Yaichi is a member of the criminal group the House of Five Leaves. Will Masanosuke continue to work for kidnappers in the hopes that Yaichi’s calm demeanor will wear off on him? I enjoyed the art of this series, as Ono has a loose and fluid style of drawing which serves to highlight Masanosuke’s defeated body language and his eyes, which look hollow eyes of someone who isn’t eating very well. Most samurai stories feature a main character who is more of a traditional bad-ass type, so I thought this twist on the genre was interesting.
Children of the Sea – Children of the Sea is as beautiful, deep, and mysterious as the ocean that the characters inhabit. Ruka is a young girl who gets in trouble at school for violently retaliating against a teammate at sports practice. She decides not to go home and goes on a quest to see the ocean. She travels to Tokyo at night and reaches an ocean view. A mysterious boy makes the pronouncement “The sea in Tokyo is kinda like a broken toy” and leaps over her into the sea. Ruka runs down to rescue him. Umi was raised in the ocean along with another boy named Sora by dugongs. They maintain their connection to the sea, and their skin becomes unbearably dry if they aren’t submerged in water very long.
Mysterious ocean animal disappearances have started to plague scientists. Animals seem to become spotted with light before they vanish like ghosts. Ruka’s father works in an aquarium where Umi often hangs out. As Ruka tries to escape her troubles in school she spends more and more time in the aquarium, meeting Umi and Sora’s foster father Jim. He’s a foreigner with mystical tattoos who loves to surf. Sora is sickly and spends a lot of time in the hospital. He’s suspicious of Ruka even though Umi says that she “smells like them.” Ruka sees Umi and Sora occasionally glowing with the unearthly light that the ocean ghosts emit. Are they going to be the next to disappear?
Shonen Sunday is a companion online manga site aimed at the younger set. Viz uses it to serialize new series like Rumiko Takahashi’s Rin-Ne and Yuu Watase’s Arata, but it also serves as a way to sample some of Viz’s lesser known backlist titles like the excellent monster hunting series Kekkaishi.
Kekkaishi – The hero of the story is Yoshimori. He’s young and weak and struggles with his training to become the successor to his family’s long-standing demon hunting tradition. His secret friend is the older girl next door Tokine, who belongs to a rival demon-hunting clan. Both Yoshimori and Tokine are aided in their demon hunts by demon dog sidekicks, who provide comic relief and guidance. Yoshimori isn’t very savvy about hunting demons. Tokine saves him and is injured in the process.
The story picks up again when Yoshimori is 14 and Tokine is 16. She criticizes his lack of refinement when demon hunting and counsels him to save his power. He doesn’t want to see anyone get hurt in front of him anymore and is determined to become a better fighter. Their school is conveniently located above a reservoir of power and at night they pursue the hunt. The manga blends action and humor as Yoshimori tries to fulfill his cherished ambition of making the perfect cake and dodges his grandfather’s training attempts. There are darker forces at work behind the sacred site that Yoshimori is sworn to protect. The story lines and character development are more complex than a typical fighting manga, which makes for a rewarding reading experience for those who like manga with a little bit of monster fighting and slapstick comedy.
Other major manga publishers like Tokyopop and CMX do tend to put up sample chapters of their manga, but I think Viz’s decision to set up separate online magazine sites with highlighted content gives their content greater prominence. I wish that in addition to the shonen and seinen sites Viz would put up an online magazine where readers could sample shoujo manga, especially after the demise of Shojo Beat magazine. Shonen Jump will soon be the only manga anthology magazine on the newsstands in the US. Yen Plus recently announced plans to discontinue their print magazine in favor of going digital instead. I think the next few years will hopefully give publishers a chance to experiment with digital manga magazines.
PAYING FOR MANGA ONLINE
This is an area where some of the smaller, more experimental publishers have more developed sites.
This is the online publishing arm of Digital Manga Publishing, which is probably best known for their yaoi titles, although back in the day they put out editions of some wonderfully weird stuff like Bambi and Her Pink Gun and Project X – Nissin Cup Noodle, a manga about the invention of noodles in a cup. While a casual reader might expect the titles on eManga to be only yaoi, there’s actually more variety there, with plenty of manga adaptations of harlequin romances and the shoujo classic Itazura Na Kiss. Reading manga there operates on a points system, where $10 will get you 1000 points, and online access to selected volumes may be priced anywhere between 200-400 points. If you follow digitalmanga on twitter, they’ll often give away free online access to selected volumes.
Netcomics is mainly a specialty publisher of Korean comics, or manhwa. They’ve used their online platform to publish American manga style comics and Japanese manga as well. Paying for manga on this site works on a chapter by chapter basis, with each chapter costing 25 cents. Single chapters from most titles are available for preview as well. Titles are sorted by genre, so it is easy to find series that might fit your mood, if you are looking for romance, comedy, or science fiction manhwa. Some of Netcomics’ titles that had print editions for the first few volumes have the later volumes only available online. I hate it when series are dropped, so while someone wanting to collect print copies of an entire series might be disappointed, it does seem like a good way of making slow-selling titles available to readers.
I can’t say that we’ve reached a level of mature development with the legal manga that’s available for readers. It would be nice if other publishers also followed Viz’s Sigikki model. But at least a handful of sites is available for fans who want to do the right thing and avoid scanlations. Hopefully the next few years will have more manga publishers experimenting with their online presence.