Not all manga readers are into western comics, and not all fans of western comics are that into manga-- in fact, I've even experienced some mild distaste between the two. (To put it very generically, some comics fans think of manga fans as sort of the genre's equivalent of Hannah Montana fans, and some manga fans think that all western comics just plain suck.)
But really, manga and comics are the exact same medium; the differences are mostly stylistic and cultural, and hard to define in a way that's really accurate because on each side there are exceptions to every rule. Western comics are no more all about superheroes than manga all feature enormous eyes and tentacles: a lot of them do, but not all.
So as I once promised, I've put together a little list of manga that non-manga-readers might enjoy, and comics that only-manga-readers should dig into...just five of each (in no particular order), which means I'm surely missing tons, so make sure you share your own genre-crossing recommendations in the comments, 'k?
Manga for Comics Readers
Monster – I was reminded to do this feature thanks to Chris Butcher's talk of this phenomenal (and complicated) story revolving around a doctor who finds himself chasing the titular monster, a serial killer named Johann. It's a superb introduction to manga for comic readers in part because the art style isn't super “manga”-like; creator Naoki Urasawa's characters actually look Japanese or European based on their descent. On top of that, the convoluted story is nonetheless fully comprehensible, irresistably intriguing, and every single character is well-rounded-- there are no “throw-away” characters here.
Hellsing – Now that the series is complete in Japan (you can probably expect the final volume in from Dark Horse in '09), this hyper-violent monster mash is a great choice for fans of comic series like Preacher and Hellblazer. Alucard is a high-ranking vampire servant to Integra Wingates Hellsing, who operates the centuries-old vampire destroying team: the Hellsing Organization. Along with newly-minted vampire Seras Victoria and Integra's impressively powerful butler Walter, the Hellsing Organization finds itself against what may be the awesomest enemy ever: an army of undead monster Nazis.
Me and the Devil Blues – If you're looking for something that doesn't look the least bit like a “manga,” this would be your best option-- the only thing about this that makes it definitely “manga” is its right-to-left reading style. The story revolves around Robert Johnson, a blues musician from early 20 century America, about whose life little is known but whose skill was astonishing enough that rumors circulated that he'd sold his soul to the devil for his blues-playing ability. The manga takes the standpoint that Johnson did in fact sell his soul, and offers a fictional account of his life.
Nodame Cantabile – One of Japan's most popular non-shounen (boys) comics, Nodame is a fun slice-of-life that tells the tale of an anal-retentive piano student and would-be conductor named Chiaki and his slovenly but talented neighbor, Megumi Noda (or “Nodame” for short). One of the nice things about this title is that it follows college-age characters rather than the more typical middle- or high-school age; the characters are masterfully composed and approachable even to those outside of their culture, especially when you see some of them traveling in Europe. It was a toss-up whether to include this or Honey and Clover; for H&C fans, rest assured that I chose based on the number of volumes already waiting to be snatched up by readers!
Black Jack – The only “classic” manga on this list, Black Jack is sort of what you might imagine a 1970s manga based on the story of House would be: an arrogant, opinionated, but exceedingly talented doctor (the titular Black Jack) works illegally without a medical license, his having been revoked by the closed-minded Medical Board. Created by the “godfather” of manga, Osamu Tezuka (who also had a medical degree), it's a great way to see some of the origins of today's manga while retaining a really interesting story, colorful characters, and a certain ambivalence of ethics-- sometimes Black Jack is very helpful and operates for cheap or free on those who need it, and occasionally he uses his immense skill to teach others a lesson. An absolute must-read for manga fans and I think a good choice for non-manga fans as well.
Comics for Manga Readers
Watchmen – You have no excuse now, guys, since it's entirely possible that the Watchmen film-- which looked SO awesome –may or may not ever see a theatrical release. Or even a DVD release. This seminal comic is so phenomenal it even lands on Time's top 100 novels of all time, right up there with Lolita and Catch-22 and the like. Set in a world where there are almost no “super” heroes and masked vigilante-ism has become illegal, a group of former-heroes stumble upon a massive conspiracy and reunite to stop it. It's a dark, ugly, violent tale written in the middle of the 80s and the nuclear war scare, and it's absolutely phenomenal. Get to it.
Sandman – In all likelihood, more than a few of you have already read Neil Gaiman's popular graphic novel series, which features a wide variety of stories and an even wider variety of artists (including one volume, which is actually a novel illustrated by Yoshitaka Amano himself). The setting is Infinite; a lot happens in our usual world but much occurs behind the scenes, where seven mystical anthropomorphizations-- Death, Desire, Despair, Delirium, Destruction, Destiny, and our hero Dream –keep the world running as we're used to. Gaiman's style is occasionally a bit too self-congratulatory (and very '80s/'90s goth) for some, but he makes a phenomenal poet alongside a visual medium and Sandman is definitely some of his best work.
Fables – Imagine if all the fairy tales you were told as a child were true. Now imagine if all of the characters established their own community in New York City, having been kicked out of their fairy land homes by an enemy known only as The Adversary. That's the basic setup for Fables, which features reimagined versions of the characters (Prince Charming, for example, as a cheating cur who has been divorced from Snow White). There's still plenty of conflict even in Fabletown, however...anyone animal-like (or otherwise incapable of participating in normal human society) gets sent to The Farm in upstate New York. It's a lively series, although it's not all as cutesy and fun as it may sound, and it's won fourteen Eisner awards over the years.
Astonishing X-Men – If you've always been interested in reading X-Men but felt daunted by the sheer volume of comics out there, this is a great option for you, because it reintroduces many characters and a fair bit of the story, and it just started in '04, making it a bit more accessible as an ongoing series. (Make sure you're getting the volumes written by the inimitable Joss Whedon, as prior volumes are really different tales even if they share a name.) This is less an “amazing comic!” recommendation and more a “really good, solid comic that'd be easy to get into” recommendation.
Kingdom Come – This, on the other hand, is an amazing comic that is also very accessible. The basic premise is that the next generation of superheroes-- the ones who come after Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, etc. The only problem is that the next generation consists primarily of chaos-loving, irresponsible types, and Superman himself has hidden away in his Fortress of Solitude after the death of Lois Lane, leaving no role model for the young'uns...until he hears of the havoc being wreaked. At only four (long) issues, this piece is an interesting follow-up to the classic superheroes that many of us are familiar with, even if we never read their original comic series.