Jennifer M. Contino
March 19, 2004 AT 05:00 AM EST

What’s manga? Find out in our guide

A few years ago asking for manga would get you either a blank stare or a tropical fruit. Manga, a term that originally referred to comic books created in Japan, was like the underground comix of the late ’60s and ’70s: Only a cultish few were hip to the Far Eastern jive. Now, with manga series taking up whole walls in mainstream bookstores, regularly dominating the comic sales charts, and bringing in over $100 million last year alone, people are starting to sit up and take notice.

Part of manga’s appeal is the incredible breadth of subject matter. Enjoy samurai movies? Dark Horse has Lone Wolf and Cub to satisfy your yen for sword fighting. Hooked on The O.C.? Snow Drop, Mars, and Kare Kano — all from Tokyopop — are teen angst at its soapy best. Hell, do you like tennis? Check out The Prince of Tennis from Viz.

Manga has become such a force in the marketplace that such U.S. publishers as DC Comics are launching their own lines, while other publishers like Image and Marvel have already dipped their toes into the stylish manga waters, looking to bottle the kinetic immediacy that’s the hallmark of this Japanese art form.

With scores of titles available, it might seem a little intimidating for newcomers to figure out where to begin. Because we like to help, we’ve picked three series perfect for first-timers. Be forewarned: A few of these titles are direct translations from the Japanese, so they read right to left, back of the book to the front. It takes some getting used to, but more often than not, it’s worth it.

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