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MANGA MANIA

The teacher is barely 5 feet tall, 14 years old and dressed in tattered Converse All-Stars.

The lesson: manga (pronounced mahn-gah), an array of Japanese graphic novels that have exploded into a $125-million-a-year industry in the United States.

Largely fueled by a female audience, the genre is one of the fastest growing segments of an otherwise flat publishing industry in the States. It's even prompting classics like Harlequin Romance novels and Nancy Drew to go manga.

But on this day, the little instructor at the head of the class, a.k.a. Rachelle Carnes, is simply trying to school a pupil twice her age on exactly why it is that teenage girls are now "into" these comics.

The answer is something called shojo (Japanese for girl), or manga geared toward girls.

"Manga has character development, it's more fleshed out," she explains."The stories are really interesting subject matter, deep, deep stories you can form a bond with the characters."

Perhaps adults will never understand why girls like Rachelle would rather read these inky comics for hours on end than obsess over seemingly more fitting teenage girl pastimes such as lip gloss and the ongoing denim saga: boy-cut or boot-cut?

But what you must "get" about girls like Rachelle is that they are changing the publishing world.

Manga, or graphic novels, account for less than 1 percent of the $25-billion-a-year U.S. publishing industry. A drop in the bucket compared with European markets, where the genre accounts for 10 percent and generates billions.

But while other areas of that U.S. market have remained flat, manga sales have more than quadrupled since 2001, according to ICv2, a Wisconsin pop culture think tank.

Experts say tween and teen girls buying shojo manga are largely fueling that growth. Indeed, the bestselling manga titles in the United States are shojo titles.

"These girls are realizing there's something new for them out there," said Milton Griepp, president of ICv2. "They're finding new and quirky stories that appeal to them. In shojo, a girl might get involved with a boy who's inhabited by an alien."

Unlike the traditional U.S. magazine-style comics, manga is done in a novel format (think TV Guide). But instead of words, there are blocks with word bubbles containing the dialogue.

Most manga run about 200 pages per book and are often done as a series. Following Japanese style, they're usually published in right-to-left format, which means readers begin at the back of the book. But the most identifiable aspect of the books is the art: saucer-sized eyes pop on characters with angular faces and wild hairstyles.

In Japan, manga exist as a half-a-century old multibillion-dollar industry with a story line for everyone from salaried men to school girls.

The genre was introduced to the American market in the late 1990s. The stories imported to the United States were heavy on martial arts and science fiction, largely appealing to 18- to 34-year-old men. By the turn of the century, a generation raised on cartoons like Pokemon and Sailor Moon, animated series imported from Japan, would soon become the new face of manga.

"The companies licensing the material started turning their sights to target groups that haven't traditionally been a part of the comic animation market," Griepp said. "That means they're now bringing over stories that they think will relate to young tween and teen girls."

Publishing companies like Viz Media and Tokyopop helped drive expansion of the genre the last few years.

"We were the first to say if Japanese girls loved manga, American girls would too," said Susan Hale, spokesperson for the Tokyopop, a Los Angeles manga publishing and entertainment firm.

In 2000, Tokyopop began increasing the titles it imported from Japan, especially those that appealed to girls. They added mall bookstores to the mix of distributors.

For $10, a young reader could get 200 pages of adventure, peril and life - all easily tucked into a backpack.

At Barnes & Noble on Tyrone Boulevard, manga has added a layer to the bookstore experience. What began as one rack behind the sci-fi section is now four racks throughout the store, including the teen fiction and children's sections. On any given day after school, teens can be found sitting cross-legged on the floor reading manga.

"It's not a bunch of shoot 'em up graphic novels anymore," said Kelly Harsh, community relations manager at the store. "It's a bunch of different topics now, especially things that teen girls, who may have been reading teen fiction, can relate to."

Buh-bye Babysitters' Club. Hello Revolutionary Girl Utena.

Utena is among the 50 bestselling manga titles in the United States. The story's main character Utena rebels against teachers at Othori Academy by not dressing in the school's uniform. The leggy teen prefers to dress in a boy's uniform that reminds her of a prince she met just after her parents died.

Let 14-year-old Lyndsi Williams tell it, and Utena is more misunderstood than rebellious.

"She's just different. She's not afraid; she's individual," said Lyndsi, a cherub-faced student at Palm Harbor University High School. "Like me, I'd rather go outside in the rain than shop."

Girls like Lyndsi are drawn to manga, in part, because they identify with the characters.

"In shojo, a girl will run into a wall," said Lyndsi, who is a member of the school's anime club, which is mostly female. "That I can relate to. That's something I'd do."

Other periodicals looking for a refreshing way to bring in young readers are taking note of manga's magic.

CosmoGIRL! magazine, which has 6-million readers, was the first mainstream teen magazine to feature manga. In August, the magazine began running The Adventures of CG, an American-produced story about a seemingly normal college girl who goes through the ups and downs of love.

"Character development and the graphic aspect is the thing that separates this from what we've seen before," said Svetlana Chmakova, a Toronto artist who authors the CG series.

In January, some of the country's largest newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune, added manga to their comic page lineup. The papers are running Peach Fuzz, a shojo strip about the relationship between a 9-year-old girl and her pet ferret.

And before parents cast off manga as just another fad, they should know that classics like Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys are getting a manga makeover.

The Demon of River Heights, the first Nancy Drew mystery adapted to a manga style, came out in April. The company distributed 30,000 copies in its first release. They have since tripled the number of books available, said Terry Nantier, president of Papercutz, the book's New York publisher.

"The potential for us in the U.S. is infinite," Nantier said, citing an estimated 50 percent jump in manga sales nationwide last year."We've just barely scratched at it."

On a recent day in the modular classroom that serves as Palm Harbor University High's anime club, it's hard to talk economic prowess when Japanese pop tunes bounce in the background.

The room resembles more teenage dance than after-school club. The boys play the left wall, the girls the right.

To the girls in the tight-knit semicircle formed at the head of the class, manga is something very personal.

"When I first saw manga stuff I was interested because I hadn't seen it before," Lyndsi says. "It was something that didn't have Hollywood written all over it."

The girls nod in agreement.

"It's something about it," says Meteka Smart, 15. "Like I can come here and hang out and read this and feel totally safe."

Class dismissed.

Nicole Johnson can be reached at njohnson@spttmes.com or (727) 445-4162.

EYE-POPPING SALES

Manga retail sales of books and magazines in the U.S. and Canada through stores, mail order and online have steadily climbed in recent years.

2001 - $25 million

2002 - $50 million

2003 - $100 million

2004 - $125 million

Source: Estimates by ICV2.

ALL ABOUT MANGA

Manga is the Japanese word for graphic novels; the literal translation is "whimsical pictures." Stories range from horror to comedy to romance. Anime - animated shows or movies - often are based on the most successful manga stories.

HISTORY: The genre gained increased popularity in Japan just after World War II. Artist Osamu Tezuka is widely regarded as the creator of manga. He took elements of cinematic theater, including close-ups and wide angles, to fully express the movement and dialogue of characters in his drawings. Emphasis also was placed on expanding storylines beyond the traditional "happy-ending" to include stories about anger, fear and sadness. Tezuka's Mighty Atom manga was adapted to the popular 1960s anime series: Astro Boy. Soon, legions of artists, including several women, adapted their drawing to Osamu's style and manga began to dominate the Japanese publishing market.

MAINSTREAMING: In recent years, manga has been becoming more a part of American youth culture, largely due to an increase in the anime genre. This year, several large U.S. newspapers began carrying manga in their comics lineup. And well-known brands like Harlequin romance novels, Nickelodeon and Nancy Drew have released thousands of books in the manga format.

NOTABLE AUTHORS AND TITLES:

Rumiko Takahashi: Considered the princess of manga, known for Inuyasha and Ranma 1/2.

Akira Toriyama: Notable work includes Dragon Ball, which was adapted into the popular Dragon Ball and Dragon Ball Z anime series.

Ken Akamatsu: He generally writes stories about boy-and-girl love interests; highly successful stories include Love Hina, A.I. Love You and Negima!.

Naoka Takeuchi: Creator of Sailor Moon, one of the best-selling shojo series.

Hiromu Arakawa: author of Fullmetal Alchemist, a manga that has been adapted into a popular television series, movie and video games.

Up next:BIRTHS

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