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Hello, my name’s Fiona, and I’m an otaku – or at least, I used to be. My obsession of choice? Comics. I loved them. I was an equal opportunities lover too. At one time my huge collection included Spiderman and Garfield and The Far Side, as well as Doraemon and Dragonball (translated, of course).

These days I’m nowhere near as hooked on comics as I used to be. I just outgrew them, I guess… plus high school exam hell happened. In any case, although I loved both American comics and Japanese manga equally, I found and still find the differences between them quite remarkable.

Marvel comics

Marvel and DC Comics, for example, seem to deal exclusively with the superhero versus supervillain formula, whereas manga has almost too many genres to count. The art style is very different, and so is the humor, especially the many tropes used in manga – and god were they confusing at the start. Bloody noses? Snot bubbles? What?

Funny thing is, once you’ve seen a trope often enough, you’ll just “get” what it means – and that’s a great feeling, like being let in on an inside joke. So for those of you that haven’t “got” it yet, read on to find out more about some common manga tropes. For those that have already “got” it, well, do come along for the ride anyway.

Trope #1 Nosebleeds

A nosebleed, in the wonderful world of manga, equates to sexual arousal.

dragonball_nosebleed

I saw this trope for the first time in Dragonball, when Bulma lifts her dress and the lecherous Master Roshi spurts blood from his nose. Although Bulma was commando at the time, nosebleeds can be triggered by seeing something as mild as a pair of panties. In the case of the boy in the following image, it seems his bloody nose was triggered more by a fetish for swimsuits rather than the girl wearing them:

nosebleed

Clearly, horn dogs don’t spontaneously get nosebleeds in real life. So why is it so in manga? I think it’s generally accepted that a rush of blood to the head and the resulting nosebleed is a visual metaphor for blood rushing to, er, somewhere else – which probably explains why I’ve only ever seen guys get nosebleeds, although I could be wrong about that.

Trope #2 Sweat drops

Sweat drops are usually an “Oh shit I’m in trouble!” reaction, although they can also appear when someone is embarrassed or frustrated. Someone might have one gigantic sweat drop or multiple smaller ones, and they almost always seem to be on or near the head.

fullmetal_alchemist_sweat_drop

Now this particular trope is fairly easy to understand, and I think translates into English pretty well. Breaking into a cold sweat is normal if you’re nervous about getting into trouble.

Trope #3 Snot bubble

Snot bubbles are a particular favorite of mine. They’re sort of cute if kind of gross, and are used to show when someone is sleeping.

The first time I saw a snot bubble was in Doraemon, in one of the many scenes where the lazy Nobita was asleep. Sometimes you’ll see snot bubbles in anime too, where they gently inflate and deflate as someone breathes, or disappear with a pop when that person wakes. Unlike nosebleeds, snot bubbles seem to happen to both guys and girls.

snot bubble collage

Of course, the link between an impossibly large snot bubble and sleep makes no sense at all. The Western equivalent “Zzzz” doesn’t really make any sense either. I guess it all boils down to the difficulty that comic artists have when trying to depict someone who’s asleep, versus someone who just has their eyes closed – they had to make something up, and Japanese mangakas just happened to settle on snot bubbles.

Trope #4 Popping veins

Ever been so mightily pissed off you could feel a vein in your temple throb? This trope basically takes that and makes it larger than life – just the right size for manga, in other words.

The accepted format for popping veins is a cross-shaped squiggle, and you’ll usually find it on someone’s forehead. However, since the squiggle just by itself is enough to indicate anger, they can be in any size and even appear almost anywhere. In the image below, for example, you’ll see some popping veins in Inuyasha’s hair and even in Watanuki’s speech bubble.

popping veins collage

It’s also really common to combine the squiggle with another emotion. Do you want to show that a waitress, despite her polite smile, is annoyed at a customer? Give her a popping vein or two! Or, as in the image below, a character can be sad and angry at the same time:

gakuen_alice_popping_veins

Trope #5 Faceplant

The faceplant is usually in response to hearing so something unbelievably shocking or absurd that the character falls flat on his face, arms and legs in a flailing mess. Sometimes there’s even a puff of dust to exaggerate just how hard they hit the floor.

faceplant collage

The mangaka may even just imply a faceplant. The girl in the image above, whose crush is transferring, is a particularly nice example. Just look at her hair blown back to show how fast she’s heading for the floor! Arms straight out and ready not to break her fall.

Now the faceplant just looks and sounds ridiculous at first glance, but I think it actually does sort of make sense. To me it seems like a natural evolution from facepalm to headdesk to faceplant, one more extreme than the other… like Pokemon! And of course in English you can be floored with shock.

Trope #6 to … ?

The tropes I’ve covered in some detail make up just a fraction of what’s out there. There are loads more, like shock lines, giving up the ghost, a robber with a headscarf tied under his nose… the list goes on and on.

misc tropes collage

The sheer number of manga tropes available means cataloguing them all is going to be darn near impossible, especially in just one blog post. I’ve covered what I think are the most common ones, but which other tropes do you think crop up frequently? Have you come across any that just boggled your mind? Are there any tropes you particularly like or dislike? Let us know in the comments!


All manga examples shamelessly lifted off manga aggregation sites.

  • DAVIDPD

    Snot bubble is like “spacing out”. I approve of all the FMA used here. Thanks Fiona.

  • MoshiMoshi

    Nice article! I love the “nosebleed”ing one. But I heard girls watching yaoi saying “I’m having a huge nosebleed!” I guess they don’t know that only boys have it? Or does the girls can have too?

  • Jon

    http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/Manga

    Mwahahahahaha. Clicking this link will end any plans you had for today. You should be able to find a crapton of manga tropes there, though (along with tropes for almost everything else).

    By the way, there is an occasional girl in anime/manga that gets nosebleeds, too. I think Sanae from Shinryaku! Ika Musume gets them from Ika every now and then. In general, I think girls might get one from something that is so ridiculously ‘cute’ that the world would explode if it was any ‘cuter’,

  • http://www.twitter.com/christaran Chris Taran

    I find the snot bubble to be super disgusting, and I find nose bleeds to be crazy annoying. Other than that I love a good visual trope! Bring on the sweat beads!

  • http://twitter.com/HadrielDM Dino ディノ

    I saw a few anime where even girls had nosebleeds (of recent ones Yuru Yuri comes to mind) :D

  • http://www.facebook.com/TangSooPap Lee Vercoe

    Negima: Class Rep Ayaka Yukihiro had a big nose bleed when she saw Negi in drag once. As she’s on the ground twitching one of the other girls looks at her and asks “Is she going to die?”

  • Fee_Fi_Fiona

    Hey Dino! Thanks for sharing that : ) Clearly I’ve only seen/read just a small subset of anime/manga out there.

    So girls can get nosebleeds after all… hmm how does that work I wonder…

  • Daniel

    Yuru Yuri brought the nosebleed trope to an art. I think the careful placement of the nosebleed is one of my favorite parts about that anime.

  • Flora

    I remember the tropes were the reason none of my friends “got” anime when I was younger. They just found them confusing, so I was the only anime otaku I knew until middle school.

    American/Western comics don’t deal exclusively in superheros – that’s a pretty common misconception. It’s just those two well-known publishers. Plenty of others (like Slave Labor Graphics or Oni Press) publish graphic novels that have nothing to do with mutants in tights.

  • Flora

    It’s comics like “I Feel Sick” and “Blankets” why I’ll probably never tire of comics ^-^

  • http://www.facebook.com/joel.alexander.980 Joel Alexander

    Acchi Kocchi also has girls with nosebleeds. In fact, I’m fairly sure it’s only the girls in that series that gets nosebleeds (because, well, Io).

  • http://www.facebook.com/joel.alexander.980 Joel Alexander

    The Phoenix Wright live-action movie had all the characters in a scene do a couple of live-action face plants. It looked about as awkward as it does in manga. =)

    Anyway, you don’t outgrow manga. You just graduate to the next level. =P

  • DrDarius

    I actually saw my sister sleeping with a snot bubble, so i know that’s possible, but you have to be on a really bad cold or something

  • sumdumgai

    girls become aroused the same as men. blood rushes to their lady parts, and…well…you know. in manga the more dirty the thoughts the person is thinking the more their nose bleeds. fujoshi have the best reactions, in my opinion.

  • Meg

    Wow, I didn’t know DBZ could be so…. vulgar….. Childhood = kiiiiiind of ruined. Dontchu worry, though. I still loves ya!! XD

  • Fee_Fi_Fiona

    You’re right, but I was thinking more about spurting blood = ejaculation. Or maybe some women can do that too… it hasn’t been conclusively proved/disproved as far as I’m aware.

  • Fee_Fi_Fiona

    Live-action face plants?! Ouch!

  • Fee_Fi_Fiona

    Edward Elric is my favourite shrimp ; )

  • Alastor

    One of the things I find hilarious about living in Japan is how frequently they mimic the faceplant in real life. Nothing quite like watching a group of 45 year old women all pretend to fall over when something ridiculous happens. It’s contagious. No such luck for the other ones though, they’re perhaps somehow more difficult, hah.

  • sweeny

    and Pheromania Syndrome, although it is a manga. One of the major plot lines, actually!

  • sumdumgai

    It depends on the women weather she squirts or not, but all females can ejaculate. some gush, some squirt, for most though its not outwardly observable. and wouldn’t make since for there to be sex toys dating back to the dark ages if female ejaculation didn’t exist.

  • hinoema
  • http://perpetuallybored.com Calreth

    I was going to scroll down and post this halfway through reading, but you awesome people beat me to it already. <3 Yuru Yuri, especially Toshino Kyouko!

  • no name

    i fell in love w manga because of all those tropes. i get the humor. i never got into american comics. i had no idea tho that was a “popping vein”. i just thought it just symbolically looked angry.

  • http://twitter.com/memedai Meme Dailan

    Hi, thanks for this awesome post. I have a tiny record of Manga. Initial D, Kimi ga Suki and the first chapters of GTO only. But these Tropes also appear on Anime so I know them. Also I haven’t watched that much Anime to understand the most of the tropes yet but my favorite trope are the shock lines like in the last image.

  • http://www.facebook.com/joel.alexander.980 Joel Alexander

    Well that escalated quickly.

    This is rapidly moving out of the usual family-friendly zone…

  • http://www.facebook.com/joel.alexander.980 Joel Alexander

    Well, it was less an actual face-plant and more ducking down below whichever desk or panel they happened to be sitting/standing behind. For the ones not standing behind something opaque, they’d just throw themselves off-camera, or else make like they were doing so, and the camera would cut away, then cut back to see them getting up off the floor.

  • http://twitter.com/SactoMan81 Raymond Chuang

    I think the author of the manga series poked fun at the entire nosebleed trope with the Chitose character–it’s just so funny! (Indeed, I love “YuruYuri” because of its innumerable chances to poke fun at a mountain of manga/anime tropes. ^_^ )

  • Fee_Fi_Fiona

    Yeah the “popping vein” has become very stylized. Occasionally there are more realistic-looking ones such as in the attached image, you can see how a bit of exaggeration can result in that cross-shaped squiggle.

  • Miss N’Donna

    NaNa is full of nosebleeds – and I think Hachiko is the one who has them usually. But I’ve seen women get nosebleeds as much as men – this is my favorite trope.

  • http://profiles.google.com/ronmoses Ron Moses

    “Marvel and DC Comics, for example, seem to deal exclusively with the
    superhero versus supervillain formula, whereas manga has almost too many
    genres to count.”

    Comparing two corporate publishers to the entire comics output of Japan is hardly fair, is it? That’s like saying Miramax and Warner Brothers deal exclusively in popcorn fare, where as European cinema produces a wide range of independent films. American comics cover no fewer genres than manga does. Not to sound sensitive, it’s simply a matter of accuracy.

  • http://twitter.com/_amywheeler Amy Wheeler

    The girl in Switch Girl gets plenty of nosebleeds too. Though I don’t blame her… XD

  • grotesk_faery

    I agree with you, that sort of crossed my mind while reading this… However, despite the vast array of comics and graphic novels we have outside of the Marvel and DC Universes (Marvel clearly being the superior Universe), I do think that Japanese manga and other graphic novels still have a wider variety, and they certainly have far more defined genres of novels than American ones. I can think of lots of examples of different American comics, graphic novels, etc., but really only a few real genres that are large enough to be considered that. With manga, the genres get really numerous and specific, but they’re also still huge.

  • Fee_Fi_Fiona

    Hey Ron, I agree that sentence was not entirely accurate, like most other sweeping generalizations. I’ll try to explain myself:

    I was still sort of in semi-autobiographical mode when it came to that
    sentence. I started the post off with a personal anecdote, and I
    should have indicated more clearly that I was still speaking from
    personal experience. At time time, growing up in a little Malaysian
    town, it was pretty much Marvel and DC comics = American comics, simply
    because they were most available. Japanese manga, on the other hand, well even then there were already scans from many genres available online.

    Marvel and DC though do have the largest market share between them which was why I singled them out to use as an example. Of course I’m aware that American comics aren’t all like that: there’s hardly anything about superheroes vs supervillians in Peanuts after all. Since the post was about manga tropes and not the difference between American comics and Japanese manga, I decided to simplify for brevity. I chose to leave out long-winded disclaimers for the same reason.

    In any case I guess this has turned out to be the disclaimer after all.

    Thanks for reading and commenting!

  • http://www.facebook.com/melty.blood.act.cadenza マルチン マルク

    Don’t forget Kanako from Maria Holic ;)

  • Huh?

    Talking about blood spurts as male ejaculation is fine, but a detailed discussion about female ejaculation and arousal is gross?

  • sofeenalee

    One that really confused me for a long time was the lone crying eyeball. It’s usually found by a speech bubble to emphasis sadness/despair as the bubble might not have any visual cue. It’s drawn as an single eyeball merged together with a tear drop which is why it took me forever to work out what it was. Kinda looks like a squished-down ping pong paddle with a dot in the middle.

    I think it’s quite rare but I’m sure someone else has noticed it too, right?

  • Fee_Fi_Fiona

    Hm… I can’t say I’ve seen the crying eyeball before. Where did you see it?

    There certainly are some really random tropes out there :D Here’s one that didn’t make the cut: a falling sweet.

  • Fee_Fi_Fiona

    Ah well after that glowing “review” I had to go check Switch Girl out :D
    Quite happy to see it features another one of my favorite tropes, the swirly glasses : )

  • http://www.facebook.com/joel.alexander.980 Joel Alexander

    … You wanted me to individually reply to each post I was concerned about in order to make my point?