We've been blaming Duolingo for all of our troubles this past week. The Eat Your Comics intern has started using the language-learning app on her phone, but her ear for language is somewhat limited, which means when she begins channeling her Italian grandmother and urging us to eat, she yells at us, “Manga! Manga!” It probably doesn't help that we just all start pulling out issues of Attack on Titan and One-Punch Man. That only makes her yell louder. We might need to consider investing in earplugs if this continues.
It seems a little close minded to say that all manga look the same, especially when pairing that remark with one about how American comics are more diverse. The truth is there is more diversity in manga—and anime—than you realize, and the vaunted diversity in American comics is not quite so diverse.
If war and militaristic culture stifle creativity and art, then the inverse is also true; the newly disarmed nation was more free to be creative, and manga grew out of that. It first came about in Japan in the years following WWII. The United States soldiers who occupied the country during the first years after the war introduced many of the Japanese people to comic books for the first time. They combined this new art form with their deep cultural influences, which together brought about the birth of a new type of comic.
Unlike in the United States where a vast majority of comic books are aimed at boys, there is a split in manga between shōnen and shōjo, boys and girls, though both also differentiate between stories for children and those for adults. (Think Archie and Friends in the checkout lane at your local supermarket and Afterlife with Archie.) Some of the first manga to become popular, Astro Boy and Sazae-san, are each an example of shōnen and shōjo; one is a sci-fi action-adventure story about an android who acts as a hero and the other follows the familial interactions of an atypical wife. Both are still popular even today.
When the art is published in comic form, it is referred to as manga; when it is in a cartoon, it is called anime. Using the terms interchangeably is like calling Action Comics a cartoon or referring to The Smurfs as a comic.
There are a few things that differentiate manga and anime from Western comics, though not all of these things are found in every manga or anime just as some of them will be in Western comics. The characters tend to have a unique sense of fashion, whether it be dictated by the world they are in or because they are unique individuals. (Making the hero stand out through unique styling is a storytelling device not unique to Japan.) Both hair and eyes tend to be larger than life, though the body types are often less pronounced than the typical superhero—think smaller chests in both sexes and fewer skintight clothes and over-sized muscles.
A technique often used in anime is to pan the camera across a still image in order to convey movement without the necessity of drawing each frame of the action. The anime that isn't directed at young children will often contain very detailed art, especially in the background. The story topics are generally more serious and touch on deeper topics as well.
And there you have it, your primer on manga and anime. It's not by any means comprehensive, but at least you can sound a little more cultured around your D&D water breaks.
Bonus Trivia: In Japan, the word “anime” refers to anything that is animation. (“Manga” also refers to any printed comic.) It is not unusual to hear the term “Disney anime” to refer to the newest Disney release. However, the rest of the English-speaking world uses the generic Japanese term for an animated cartoon to refer specifically to animated cartoons that originated in Japan or that use the same art style as those cartoons that originate in Japan. This is because English is weird and broken, and because all of us are a little bit lazy and are fond of terms like “anime” that help clarify nuances more easily.