Reviews of The Manga Guide Series (2004) and related work

The Manga Guide Series (2004)

Informal textbooks in narrativized sequential art form. There is a shell of fiction, but I’m classifying the series as non-fiction.

Japanese production non-fiction sequential art series

The Manga Guide to Databases (2004)

Azuma Shōko (artist), Takahashi Mana (writer).

Read in 2020.

Relational databases and SQL.

As a comic, this is the most facile entry in the series. It’s set in a pseudo-medieval pseudo-European fantasy kingdom, an idyllic monarchy with 19th-century maids and laptop computers: A completely untenable JRPG-style world unsuited to the topic. There is no story to speak of and the art is unimpressive.

The subject matter has aged poorly. It is a breezy introduction and a few of its key concepts are still relevant in 2020, but it looks as if it was written for the 1990s. The most recent credited source is a 2002 JIS standard. There is absolutely nothing about ORMs, document-based databases or cloud-based containers, XML is mentioned as an up-and-coming trend (it wasn’t at the time of translation to English, in 2009), and more object-oriented models get only one page in the closing remarks. At the same time, nothing at all is said about specific database technologies or how to get a database running, and yet there are quiz sections as in a textbook, which is not typical of the series. Admittedly I am a professional, but I would not recommend this even as a starter. I suppose the medium of sequential art makes it especially difficult to update a “textbook”.

Japanese production non-fiction programming sequential art

The Manga Guide to Statistics (2004)

Inoue Iroha (artist), Takahashi Shin (writer).

Read in 2020.

Hypothesis testing with P values.

A fine entry: The subject matter is reasonably advanced, the academic presentation is decent despite glossing over a number of points in the interest of practicality, and the art, characterization and plotting (by scenario writer re_akino) are all above average for the series, though not so complex as to get in the way. Student protagonist Rui strikes a good balance between interest and disinterest, having an ulterior motive. The non-comic portions are brief and relatively good, and the author is appropriately careful with the epistemology, noting why he insists on “failed to reject the null hypothesis” etc.

Japanese production non-fiction sequential art

The Manga Guide to Calculus (2005)

Togami Shin (artist), Kojima Hiroyuki (writer).

Inadequately adapted to the medium. I can see the need for teaching the clunky traditional notation, but sequential art provides larger opportunities than are used here.

Japanese production non-fiction sequential art

The Manga Guide to Electricity (2006)

Matsuda (artist), Fujitaki Kazuhiro (writer).

Read in 2020.

The fictional plot is unusually thin, the art style somewhat awkward, and again it feels as though the medium is not being fully utilized in the explanations (e.g. an analogy with the flow of water, strictly in diagram form), but the material is suitably comprehensive and the overall level of craftsmanship is high. If you also find out about ESD from another source, I recommend this if you want to do some tinkering with household electronics.

Japanese production non-fiction sequential art

The Manga Guide to Physics (2006)

Takatsu Keita (artist), Nitta Hideo (writer).

Read in 2020.

Newtonian mechanics via an athletic high-schooler’s interest in tennis.

Relatively basic stuff for the series. My high-school physics class covered all of it, including the calculus, which is reduced here to fairly long text-only intermissions with clear warning labels. The medium is used fairly well and the story is kept appropriately simple, but despite Nitta’s ambitious preface, most of the visual aids are the kinds of easily portable props a teacher would use in a classroom, rather than the larger means at the artist’s disposal.

Japanese production non-fiction sequential art

The Manga Guide to Linear Algebra (2008)

Inoue Iroha (artist), Takahashi Shin (writer).

Read in 2020.

The integration of the mathematical subject matter with the narrative is simple but smooth, a sign of the series’ maturity. The ending is somewhat surprising and the text-only intermissions are relatively brief, except the last one. However, the characterizations are weak.

Japanese production non-fiction sequential art

The Manga Guide to Molecular Biology (2008)

Sakura (artist), Takemaru Masaharu (writer).

Read in 2019.

A lot of the illustrations are clearly lifted out of traditional textbooks. The narrativization is a curious balance between anthropomorphization (“Enzyme Man!”), the conceit of VR for viewing realistic cell internals up close, and the outer, human-level story of Professor Moro teaching two near-dropouts for the selfish purpose of curing his own disease. It works surprisingly well, concluding with discussions of the 2006 and 2007 Nobel prizes in Physiology or Medicine.

References here: The Manga Guide to the Universe (2008), The Manga Guide to Biochemistry (2009).

Japanese production non-fiction sequential art

The Manga Guide to the Universe (2008)

Hiiragi Yutaka (artist), Ishikawa Kenji (writer).

Read in 2020.

Astronomy.

This was the last I read of a physical No Starch Press bundle from the series. In that set of 10 books, this entry is the most closely aligned with contemporary trends in manga and anime. It’s straight-up “cute girls doing cute things”, in this case a drama club with three effusive high-schoolers who are all close friends: The introvert playwright, the big-breasted US exchange student, and the dumb brash athlete. Together, they beat a college team at soccer along the way. Appropriately, the art style is unusually warm. Uniquely, the volume ends with a colour insert of pretty astronomical photos.

The plot is thin. There is a student-teacher situation, as in most of the series, but there is no literal course being taught and no academic stakes. The playwright is just looking for a modern astronomical grounding so she can adapt “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter” (ca. 900 CE) with something more credible than the moon as Kaguya-hime’s home. The basics of astronomy are presented in a similarly casual manner, switching freely between the comic and conventional longer texts. There is little use of the medium to aid the explanations, just to add a parallel narrative interest. There is a lot of history and very little, barely even high-school-level math. Like The Manga Guide to Molecular Biology (2008), this overview of the subject puts some emphasis on very recent developments, but it’s aged reasonably well. It’s superficial though; more of a book of facts than a textbook that could reasonably supplement a course. For instance, there is very little discussion of how the Fourier-transform-like mathematics of epicycles helped sustain geocentrism, and none of astrology.

References here: The Manga Guide to Relativity (2009).

Japanese production non-fiction sequential art

The Manga Guide to Biochemistry (2009)

Kikuyaro (artist), Takemaru Masaharu (writer).

Read in 2019.

A high-school studient learns about biochemistry until she can penetrate the bullshit of dieting fads.

As a comic, it’s significantly better than The Manga Guide to Molecular Biology (2008), being less contrived. Instead of VR on a desert island, there’s just an appropriately marginal endoscopic robot premise. The non-comic portions between chapters are thinner and flow better. The science content itself seems more appropriately apportioned. It ranges, amusingly, to the topic of mochi springiness. The previous book’s discussion of a couple of Nobel prizes is replaced by nine pages of the author’s personal reflections on the differences between the two disciplines, via what appears to be his thesis project.

The main character of the narrative, Kumi, is driven by a desire to lose weight, but there is no sign that she is overweight. If any manga should have an overweight and adult protagonist, surely it’s this one, given the purely pro-science, incidentally anti-Banting message and college-age target audience. And yet, even here, the protagonist is a high-school girl on the slim side. More surprisingly, all three characters in the book are diligent and enthusiastic from the start, even if Kumi is a bit of a ditz for comic relief.

Japanese production non-fiction sequential art

The Manga Guide to Relativity (2009)

Takatsu Keita (artist), Yamamoto Masafumi (writer).

Read in 2020.

This entry stands out as zanier and more sexualized than the rest; more objectifying even than The Manga Guide to the Universe (2008) by a thin margin. Annoyingly, in every shot of Einstein he has his tongue out, alluding to Arthur Sasse’s unique photo. The storytelling is thin and chaotic but I still think the medium is used well, including the addition of some personal drama to an example of time dilation under general relativity involving a falling elevator. Einstein, alas, does not race a beam of light as in the thought experiment he described as an old man. The maths are pared down to the most practically useful formulae, with the focus instead being on just a few key concepts.

Japanese production non-fiction sequential art