These Are Not Your Father's Comics

Meet the latest Japanese import to make a splash in the U.S.: Youth-oriented manga, a form of book-length graphic novels

A high school student discovers he has secret powers with which he can fight off invaders from outer space. A 16-year-old girl is transported to an alien planet, where she's called upon to awaken a sleeping deity. A working-class youngster becomes an auto-racing champ by using the driving skills he has perfected while making tofu deliveries.

Tofu deliveries? Welcome to the world of manga, the book-length comics imported from Japan that are starting to make a splash in the U.S.

While sales in many book categories are stagnant or even sinking, demand is growing for so-called "graphic novels," or illustrated narratives. Sales of these volumes have doubled each year for the past two years, reaching $100 million in 2002. (Business books, by contrast, racked up $834 million in sales during the same period.) And among graphic novels, the fastest-growing segment is manga, the Japanese books drawn in the anime style that's now familiar to some Americans as a result of Pokemon or the animated film released by Walt Disney (DIS ), Spirited Away.


  In Japan, manga sales run into the billions of dollars annually. In the U.S., such publishers as Viz Communications, Dark Horse Comics, ADV, and TokyoPop -- manga's chief U.S. purveyor -- are just beginning to find a mass audience. But such is the potential that Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, this summer announced that it will begin competing with these smaller publishers by launching its own line of translated manga titles in early 2004.

Manga's themes range from demons and the supernatural, to dramatic swordplay, genetic experimentation, and car chases. There's also sex -- in some cases for mature audiences, other times, titillating only to youth. For example, the "T" (for teen)-rated Love Hina series, written and illustrated by Ken Akamatsu, features a college boy, Keitaro Urashima, who in volume one goes to live with his grandmother, the caretaker of a girl's dorm. In an early scene, Keitaro accidentally enters the girl's shower room, allowing Akamatsu to depict just a touch of bare female anatomy and a bit of inadvertent co-educational groping in a hot tub.

Such topics may seem like familiar fantasy stuff. But manga will strike some American readers as exotic. To begin with, you usually open the books from the back cover, and then proceed to read from right page to left page. Moreover, since most are simply English-language translations of books by such Japanese writer-illustrators as Keiji Goto and Hiro Mashima, other Japanese cultural peculiarities remain intact.


  For example, volume one of Clamp School Defenders: Duklyon, by the four-woman Japanese group known as CLAMP, is set in a high school established by "Japan's largest zaibatsu, the Imonoyama family." The book features two student heroes who fight off numerous threats to their schoolmates, including a kidnapping scheme organized by an evil secret society, The Imonoyama Shopping District Association. Japanese name suffixes -- honorifics such as –san, noting respect, or –kun, noting familiarity -- often appear. And, perhaps most fundamental, manga characters -- with their oversize, baby-doll eyes and prettified features -- bear little resemblance to either the Simpsons or Superman.

For many manga fans, such exoticism is no obstacle. "They just seem like normal comics, but the drawing style is more interesting," says 14-year-old Ted Brandston, who has a large collection after being introduced to the books two years back by his summer camp counselor. The 9th grader at New York's Calhoun School says his favorite is Ranma ½, a series by Rumiko Takahasi about a wandering martial arts master and his son.

However, he gives a thumbs-down to Initial D by Shuichi Shigeno, a series about car racing that he calls "very-American influenced" and "more violent than most." In general, says Ted, parents need to look at the books their kids are reading since there's a great deal of variation among manga titles, from tame to highly violent and risqué.


  Manga's No. 1 American fan may be 36-year-old Stu Levy -- who also happens to be the CEO of TokyoPop. Growing up in Los Angeles in the 1980s, Levy was a devotee of Japanese video games and first became acquainted with anime-style graphics via the game Streetfighter. Later, after a stint at Georgetown Law School, he moved to Japan and worked in multimedia. There, someone passed along Parasyte, the first manga he had seen. Says Levy: "I read it and immediately felt it should become a Hollywood movie."

Instead of making movies, though, Levy returned to L.A. and, starting in 1996, became a manga publisher. TokyoPop's sales have been trending sharply upward ever since, he says. Today, with hundreds of its manga titles in print, revenues are projected to run around $35 million in 2003, up from $16 million in 2002. TokyoPop's wares are widely available, selling in some independent bookstores and at such diverse chains as Barnes & Noble (BKS ), Virgin Megastore, Suncoast, Best Buy (BBY ), and Walden Books, a division of Borders Group (BGP ).

Despite their action-and-sex themes, manga has a surprising audience: TokyoPop surveys indicate that readership is 65% female and 35% male. On the other hand, as might be expected, most readers are between the ages of 9 and 25. Levy's volumes carry age-appropriate ratings, from Y (or youth) for age 7 and up to OT (or older teen) for age 16 and up. The titles aimed at teens and older teens appear to be the hottest sellers.


  Licensing deals are an up-and-coming area of growth for TokyoPop, just as they have been for DC Comics and Marvel (MVL ). An animated feature based on the publisher's Reign: The Conquerer is now airing on the Cartoon Network, and Levy is in negotiations with MTV and other networks over the sale of further properties.

But shouldn't young readers be focusing on classics rather than manga escapism? Responds Levy: "Today, there's a fear that kids don't have any excitement about reading at all. That's why even librarians get excited about our stuff. What matters is that young people get turned on to literature, even if it is the hip-hop of fiction."

By Hardy Green in New York

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