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Strange girl, that Emily

If you haven't already met her, you will. The "subculture of one" who got her start on stickers and T-shirts appears headed for the Cartoon Network.

Meet Emily the Strange.

Thirteen years old with shiny, jet-black hair cut into China Doll bangs and dressed all in black except for white Mary Jane shoes, she's the girl from school you were kind of afraid to talk to.

Pretty but intensely serious, she calls herself "Mommy's Little Monster," bluntly tells you not to trust her and readily admits the only reason she never gets into trouble is because she never gets caught.

She has a posse of black cats with names such as Mystery, Sabbath and NeeChee. Emily probably even reads Nietzsche _ she certainly has her own slightly crooked outlook on life.

It's an outlook that's earned the teenage malcontent a loyal following despite the fact she's decidedly two-dimensional. Part Wednesday Addams, part riot grrrl, Emily is cute but not cutesy, darkly mischievous and clever. The Los Angeles Times described Emily as "Eloise meets Edward Gorey" _ she is the anti-Hello Kitty, a postmodern Harriet the Spy. She's a teen Barbie without the perfect body, blond hair, colorful clothes, popularity and Prozac. She is, as her bio reads, "anti-cool, a subculture of one."

It's a combination that has, in the eight years since her inception, turned Emily into a pop culture icon, inspiring a slew of hipsters _ teen girls and women in particular _ to buy her stickers, T-shirts, comic books, watches and attitude.

Rob Reger understands the mania. After all, he brought Emily to life and, in fact, considers the gothic gamine his alter ego as well.

"Emily has been a kind of amalgamation over time for me," he says. "I didn't have any idea that it would come to this."

"This" is a national quasi-frenzy. Emily, born in 1992, was created by Reger "out of the need for a strong girl figure."

Her early life was simple. In the beginning Emily's presence was limited to an assortment of stickers designed to promote Cosmic Debris, Reger's clothing line (then based in Santa Cruz, Calif., now stationed in San Francisco) for teenage girls and young women. The stickers were distributed free at various concerts, skate shops and record stores.

Black and white with an eye-catching dash of red, the Emily stickers featured the 13-year-old heroine, her cats and, most important, her dark _ some would say uncommonly warped _ philosophical reflections.

"Emily isn't lazy," reads one sticker, "she's just happy doing nothing."

"Emily didn't search to belong," reads another. "She searched to be lost."

And perhaps the one that best sums up this girl's life: "Emily didn't look happy or tired. She looked like she always did. Strange."

Eventually the stickers spawned T-shirts, then a mouse pad, wristwatch, key chain, coin purse, shoelaces, tote bags and socks. There are even stickers featuring "Emiwee," a toddler version of the troublemaker.

Initially, tracking down the items was like a treasure hunt, with the booty usually turning up at various specialty boutiques. These days, however, Emily and her spoils are accessible through a Web site, Emily merchandise is also available in some retail stores. And it doesn't stop there. There's a 7-inch single featuring a cover of Pink Floyd's See Emily Play by the Lies, backed with the track When Emily Cries by the Knit Separates. Next year look for a comic book, journal and diary from Chronicle Books. And as we speak, the Cosmic Debris clan is hard at work on a proposal for a half-hour series for the cable Cartoon Network.

Reger, who started Cosmic Debris in his garage as a way to finance his college education, sees Emily's success as testament to a cultural demand for something girly yet formidable. Born before "girl power" went mainstream, Emily supersedes all those "girls rule" stickers, the Spice Girls and Powerpuff Girl superheroes.

"Emily is both tough and cute; I think that's a great combination," says Reger, adding that the multitude of letters and phone calls he has received indicate a majority of Emily's fans are self-professed loners, social misfits and non-conformists. A look-alike contest left him "flooded" with pictures of girls copying Emily's dark clothes and hair.

"Emily gives power to those who are in the shadows; she's empowering to someone who doesn't normally have power," he explains. "Emily can take on the world."

She's armed only with a slingshot ("Emily doesn't aim high. She aims low"), her cats and disregard for the routine. Slinking around town by night (often by skateboard), Emily leaves traces of her nihilistic inclinations in her wake. She's the kind of girl who frees bunnies from the experiment lab, then turns around and puts a firecracker in someone's tailpipe because, as her Web site explains, "Brother, you deserved it."

"She appeals to our darker side, to the devil in us all," says Reger, stressing, however, that Emily isn't really evil per se.

"She wouldn't do the things she does without good cause," he says. "I don't want to say she's like a moral troublemaker, but she is kind of. If she does something to someone, I imagine they would deserve it.

Like a parent watching over his child, Reger says he keeps a close eye on what paths she travels.

"Part of her development has been in the marketing," he says, "but she's still totally pure. I'm still very particular about what she does and what she doesn't do."

Reger is especially concerned about how Emily will take to the small screen.

"We almost had this live action show on the Fox network, but they wanted to make her 16 years old with a boyfriend," he says. "I was like, "You might as well give her blond hair.' It was getting out of control. I don't want to see her get in a relationship with another boy or girl . . . That's the furthest thing from her mind _ she's 13 years old! I think she has bigger issues right now."

The latest TV proposal puts Emily in a half-hour combination live action/animated show on the Cartoon Network. Instead of a conventional story line, episodes will be composed of several short vignettes including Emily's home videos, science experiments and some "super cool, kind of creepy puppets," Reger says.

Through the show, Reger says, fans will learn more about Emily's life, from the fact she lives with her single mom to her favorite books and music.

"You'll be immersed in both Emily's world and her fantasy world, and there's going to be a real fine line there," Reger says.

Whatever the direction, Reger promises Emily will never reveal too much _ there will always be an air of mystery surrounding her. She wouldn't let him play out her life any other way.