The Japanese comic strip proper, (the “yonkoma” or 4Koma) obeys rules that differ only slightly from the traditional American funnies, (in the Charles Schulz mode). We still have four gag panels, but stacked atop each other to conform to Japanese reading directions; typically (not always) the punchline is in the third panel and the fourth offers some reaction to the preceding twist, whereas American comic strips tend to shove the punchline and any reaction to it on the last panel.
“Azumanga Daioh,” by Kiyohiko Azuma (who also created “Yotsuba&!”), is the 4Koma par excellence, tracking the progress of a group of girls through most of their high school years. The crew contains child prodigy Chiyo (she of the detachable ponytails); reckless Tomo and reasonable Yomi; country-bumpkin Osaka; athletic Kagura; and my personal favorite, Sakaki, who always tries to conceal her (unrequited) passion for pets. In dubious charge of their education are Miss Kurosawa and the wildly irresponsible Miss Tanizaki. The friendship between the characters is warm, even though it sometimes reveals itself through rivalry; if the designs are not too distinctive (non-alert readers might well lose track of who’s who) the charming, subtle humor makes up for it.