You might hate manga. You might want to like manga, and still hate it. You might find the pacing awkward, the tone disjointed, the characters akin to cardboard, the plots absurd, the dialogue primitive, and the art unintelligible. It would be easy enough, in fact, to dismiss manga entirely and go back to Batman or Jimmy Corrigan - until you remember that these are exactly the same criticisms that are commonly made of American comics by outsiders. Consider: you could read a Basho haiku and think, "What's/ all the fuss/ about?" But any foreign art form, in a translation that's inevitably compromised, is going to take some labour before you can really begin to appreciate it.
The particular problem with manga, though, is that there's no way to know if we're really getting the best of the medium. Manga comics constitute 40% of the books published in Japan, so of course only a tiny fraction will ever be translated - and at the moment, that tends to be the best-selling titles, especially the ones beloved by American teenage girls, who are the main market in the English-speaking world. (Manga aimed at teenage girls is called "shoujo", and manga aimed at teenage boys is called "shonen".) I've got nothing against American teenage girls, but what if the Japanese were forced to judge western cinema on the basis of nothing but Ashton Kutcher films?
Still, Mr. Kutcher does have a surprisingly diverse body of work, and indeed most of the manga I've read is wildly imaginative, if not (at least to this untutored eye) all that sophisticated. Simon and Schuster struck a distribution deal this year with San Francisco's VIZ Media, so expect to see a lot more manga in high street book shops from now on, plus the nomadic camps of freeloading teens that always seem to accompany it.
My two favourites from Simon and Schuster's new catalogue are Naruto and Hot Gimmick. The Naruto series, a shonen about a trainee ninja, is on its 36th volume (and still going), and astronomically popular, having sold over 70m books in Japan alone. I read the whole of Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time last year, and that was a burdensome commitment at only 10 volumes; but then, unlike Naruto, it's regrettably short on slapstick wizard combat.
Hot Gimmick, meanwhile, is the only new title with no elements of fantasy or adventure - instead, it's a readable story of crushes and heartbreak at a Tokyo high school. The art is realistic but expressive, and the setting is familiar enough that you can enjoy the melodrama without tripping over your own transcultural bafflement. (Although the treatment of sexual coercion does seem weirdly light-hearted.)
But don't take it from me. I don't think adults really understand this stuff. Better to wait until the next time you're going into an off licence and a gang of teenagers ask you to buy them booze - trick them with a bottle of Angostura bitters and maybe you'll get some recommendations from the experts.
Best new graphic novel: August has been a slow month - in one of the few notable new releases, Brian Michael Bendis's New Avengers: Revolution, even the superheroes themselves are off on holiday. Luckily, they're on holiday to Japan, where they meet a lot of ninjas.