SAN FRANCISCO -- Comic books have a lousy reputation. In this country, they're either the domain of prepubescent boys or kooky collectors.
But in Japan, where "manga," or comics, are sold at kiosks on the streets and cut across gender and age boundaries, it's a $4 billion industry. Manga accounts for 40 percent of all printed material in Japan. And in a country where a movie ticket costs about $20, it's an entertainment bargain at $2 for a small magazine and $3.50 for a thick one about the size of a small phone book.
Japanese manga (pronounced MAHN-gah) and anime, or animated movies, such as Pokemon, Dragon Ball Z and Yu-Gi-Oh -- even Speed Racer, which first aired here in the late 1960s -- already have migrated to the United States and attracted legions of fans.
Now, a San Francisco-based publisher of manga has decided the American public is ready for Shonen Jump, a monthly anthology series making its debut Tuesday.
"Most American kids have been introduced to these properties through anime or on television," said Rick Bauer of Viz Communications Inc. "It's our intent to carry the most popular stories and continue introducing the hottest properties in their original form."
Rick Malixi, a 24-year-old anime and manga fan, was thrilled to hear about an English version of Shonen Jump. In high school, he looked at manga for the pictures, but was always disappointed he couldn't read it.
"I love the art, the style," he said. "I think it has much more detail than American cartoons or comic books."
At Comic Relief in Berkeley, manager Todd Martinez sets aside the front section of his store for manga. He says its popularity grows as customers are drawn both to the high-quality artwork and the compelling storylines.
"In Japan, you've got millions of grown adults reading manga, every week. There's not the stigma that comics are for kids," he said. "They've got more people doing it, it's more of a respected medium, so you've got higher quality stuff out there."
Shonen Jump's premiere issue at 288 pages is a mostly black and white, National Geographic-sized magazine that reads Japanese style -- from back to front and from right to left. Bauer acknowledges his company printed it that way "because it's cool" and because that's how the artwork originally was intended to be seen.
Viz Communications already had 10,000 Shonen Jump subscribers before the magazine's release, Bauer said. They're targeting 12- to 17-year-olds who "identify with the anime/manga lifestyle," he said. Those teens spend a lot of time watching television, surfing the Web and communicating via e-mail.
Manga offers complex stories and more realistic characters than stereotypical American comic books, says Seiji Horibuchi, president and CEO for Viz Communications.
"It's a superhero-driven industry," he said. "Those characters are 50 years old now. U.S. publishers didn't create or cultivate a younger audience. They have to invent characters for a younger group. I think they missed that."
And Horibuchi's filling the gap.
No independent group monitors comic book sales, but the ICv2 Retailers Guide to Manga estimates manga accounts for about 5 percent of the comic store portion of the U.S. comics market. When factoring in subscriptions and bookstore sales, manga is probably a $25 million to $30 million market, Bauer said.
Next year, Viz expects to publish Shonen Jump every other week, eventually putting an issue out weekly.
There's a backlog of manga in Japan with only a fraction that's been translated into English, so there's more than enough to keep Shonen Jump readers hooked, Bauer said.
"The vision is to bring all the world together through manga," he said.
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