Manga Meets Biochemistry: Diets, Robokitties, Romance and Learning

Reading Time: 3 minutes
Cover art for The Manga Guide to Biochemistry
Cover provides example of the manga art in The Manga Guide to Biochemistry (image courtesy No Starch Press).

The  Manga Guide to Biochemistryoffers a fun and nontraditional route to knowledge of the molecules and processes of life. If you want to learn about biochemistry and you’re a fan of manga, comics, or stories, or you simply don’t want to plow through a complete textbook, manga may save you. This is a full-out manga, giant eyes and flying sweat drops included, and the comic is augmented with occasional section summaries of major concepts in text rather than panel layout. The author is Masaharu Takemura, an associate professor of biochemistry at the Tokyo University of Science, and the  manga artist is Kikuyaro.

You can view the table of contents; detailed table of contents (PDF); and index (PDF).

The book introduces Kumi, a high-school girl who wants to diet and lose weight, and Nemoto, an older college boy, who suggests that learning about biochemistry will help her understand nutrition and metabolism. Kumi is entranced with a photo of Nemoto’s beautiful professor and obsesses about becoming more like her, and agrees to learn about biochemistry. Nemoto has a crush on Kumi and the book includes some background romance.

Our family already had a cartoon-oriented popular science text for biology that we liked (The Way Life Works by Mahlon Hoagland and Bert Dodson), so I checked a major concept, glycolysis, in each of the books to see how they compared. TWLW focuses on all of biology, not on a chemical approach, but it does use color cartoons and text blocks to present its material.

  •  In TWLW, glycolysis gets a 2-page spread with a large color illustration and callouts that summarize the processes involved. There’s also mention of its role in anaerobic (oxygen-free) energy production in our bodies, and evolutionarily. Descriptions cover both animal cells and plant cells. A separate side bar about Pasteur’s work with fermentation and pasteurization, which involved glycolysis.
  •  In TMGTB, glycolysis is mentioned in context, then described in more detail over a 2-page spread. It  goes into much more chemical detail than the information in TWLW.  A third page describes glycolysis’ role both in anaerobic conditions and in primitive times.

I found a few things in this book that got under my skin. It mostly uses the human body for examples and as its laboratory. This is probably an effective way to catch initial interest, but it’s also a narrow lens for viewing any non-medical science. Similarly, Kumi’s obsession with losing weight is a popularizer but not the sort of message to have clouding the thought processes of anyone reading the book. Kumi also freaks out about achieving Professor Kurosaka’s beauty–this is not only irrelevant to biochemistry, it is also an old-fashioned stereotype that undermines the struggles of women striving to make their way in academic, science, and technology fields. An additional point that may be obvious, but there are no photos at all. The schematics and diagrams are informative but in a traditional textbook there would be photographs and micrographs to show the actual appearance of various objects. DNA does not look like puzzle pieces on a twisted pair of strings, a typical representation of it.

The text-based summaries of major concepts are effective and well designed. The first one explains chemical terms used in the early pages of the book (proteins, metabolism, etc.). The last one describes conducting biochemistry experiments for readers who have read that far and are ready to actively investigate biochemistry.

The manga approach has been applied to other topics from No Starch Press: calculus, physics, molecular biology, and relativity, plus many others, and more are in the works.

The Manga Guide to Biochemistry is like hiding vegetables in your pasta sauce; it could be a good way to fool yourself or another deserving learner into swallowing, if your word association is “biochemistry = medicine.” For a manga lover, a reluctant science learner, a youngster, or someone looking to review material learned toooo long ago, this graphic and entertaining introduction to biochemistry could be the first step in a transition: from someone looking to borrow notes, to a fully accredited Dr. Frankenstein.