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I’ve been wanting to check out the bestselling Manga Guide series since I first saw images of them when they were published in Japan, so I was thrilled this week when I received the first four English translations, courtesy of their US publisher No Starch Press. I’ve already got a large and random collection of teach-yourself, ‘Dummies guide’ style manuals covering everything from web development to postmodernist theory, so combining that format with manga artwork was obviously going going to snare my interest. The question was though, where the books serious study aids or just another Japanophile curiosity?

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The first thing that is clear is that No Starch have done a great job with their translation and reprint of the Japanese originals; from the colourful front covers too the bold black and white artwork within each volume feels like you’re picking up an authentic manga, with the quality of printing and production excellent throughout. The original illustrations and layouts seem to have gone untouched – save for being flipped for left-to-right readers – and while none of the work on display here is ground breaking, that’s hardly the point. Character designs are stylish, if a little simple and based on generic, moe stereotypes – but when you’re trying to absorb complex information and new concepts it’s probably best not to be distracted by fawning over intricate artwork.

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The set up for the manga sections is simple enough – again no distracting, intricate plot arcs here – our always teenage, usually female protagonists find themselves in situations where they need to know something, and find themselves having it explained to them by one of their wiser, usually nerdier associates. Information is presented by both abstract diagrams and, wherever possible, real world examples. It’s in the later that the manga illustrations become the most effective; there is no denying that trying to understand Newtonian laws of gravity is made a little more accessible by watching a couple of kawaii tennis girls knocking a ball back and forth. But the books are not pure manga from cover to cover; each comic section is broken up by pages of text and diagrams that are more reminiscent of conventional textbooks. It’s not only necessary for some of the more heavyweight or technical information that the books are trying to get over, but also provides useful recaps and, importantly, reminds the reader that they are actually learning something.

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What is slightly unclear is who the books are primarily aimed at – obviously manga and anime fans will be interested straight away – but the first thing that struck me when picking up the The Manga Guide to Physicsand The Manga Guide to Electricitywas that i would have killed for these books when studying for my school exams 20 years ago. Study guides back then were basically densely packed, heavily compressed volumes of humorless notes that frequently left this student looking for any distraction from staring at their blank pages, hoping to somehow just absorb the information imprinted on them. Having something like this, with even the most minimal of characters, humour and narrative, instantly helps to focus attention. As such anyone studying for school exams – or knows someone that is – should check them out now.

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That said, there’s nothing to stop the books being of use to older readers too. I can see myself finding some use for the other two volumes I was sent. The Manga Guide to Databaseslooks like it’ll provide a useful refresher course and reference for my other life as a web developer; it even containing a basic introduction to SQL. Similarly The Manga Guide to Statisticscovers an area where I could do with widening my understanding, even if it’s just for making a bit more sense of the more complicated parts of the traffic reports for this site. While the books are obviously not meant to be a substitute for a proper taught course or a more serious textbook, they offer a fun and accessible introduction to their individual subjects, and with more titles coming soon are definitely worth taking a closer look at.