The word manga literally means "comics" (or "amusing drawings") in Japanese. In the U.S., it specifically refers to Japanese comic books. Now that English-language manga translations are starting to leap off shelves, it's a good time for the American book trade to get a handle on this curious category.

Japanese comics are very different from their American counterparts—for one thing, they're much more popular. Manga constitute about 40% of all books and magazines published in Japan. They're not just entertainment for teenage boys and a cult of others, as they are in the States; they are basic to Japanese popular culture, the sort of thing commuters read on the train. There are hundreds of manga for girls and for boys, men's manga and women's manga, romance manga, political manga, baseball manga, mah-jongg manga and more. And they're often huge bestsellers: the 34 volumes of Rumiko Takahashi's Ranma 1/2 (a bizarre but hilarious serial involving a panda bear, an omelet cook and a boy who turns into a girl when he's doused with cold water) have collectively sold over 100 million copies in Japan. In the U.S. Viz Communication's translated edition is up to volume 17.

Republishing successful manga for an American audience isn't as simple as translating them and stripping in new word balloons, though. Manga also have to be "flopped": since Japanese books read from right to left and are bound on the right-hand side, the images have to be photographically reversed to be printed in a Western format. (This is why most characters in translated manga appear to be left-handed.) And there's no getting around the cultural quirks that drive a lot of the stories. Masakazu Katsura's Shadow Lady series (Dark Horse), for instance, concerns a teenage girl who gets superpowers from magic eye shadow and involves rather too many glimpses up her miniskirt for a lot of Americans' tastes.

If you're used to American comics, the visual grammar and storytelling techniques of manga can be tough to follow. Different artistic shorthand denotes anger or speed; body proportions can appear bizarre, with huge eyes and heads; and there are transitions between panels that have no equivalent in American comics. The new manga reader faces a learning curve, but the style is seductive: a series of volumes by Hikaru Hayashi and others, with instructions on how to draw manga, were hugely popular among American fans even when they were available only with Japanese text. Watson Guptill is about to publish Manga Mania: How to Draw Japanese Comics, by American "how-to-draw" author Christopher Hart, to attempt to capture the same audience.

There's a complicated relationship between manga and anime, Japanese animated films or TV series. In the U.S. the rule of thumb is that any manga with an anime counterpart available in English will sell better. An anime series from the late '70s called Mobile Suit Gundam has become a long-running franchise. A new Gundam series will debut on the Cartoon Network later this spring, and American licensing companies are already gearing up: Viz Communications is continuing their Mobile Suit Gundam 0079 series, and Tokyo Pop is publishing the related Gundam Wing. Similarly, Central Park Media, a new New York City—based comics publisher, has released in DVD and VHS the sword-and-sorcery Record of Lodoss War anime in the U.S., and its print arm CPM Manga publishes the Lodoss graphic novels.

Dark Horse has been a player in the U.S. manga game for a while, with paperback collections of over 20 series in print, including Hiroaki Samura's Eisner award-winning Blade of the Immortal. Until recently its bestsellers were the anime tie-ins Oh My Goddess! and Gunsmith Cats, but two new graphic novel series have just become its most successful manga titles. Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima's '70s series Lone Wolf and Cub, a bone-chilling epic about a masterless samurai in feudal Japan and his infant son, is being reprinted in monthly digest-size volumes with cover art by Frank Miller (The Dark Knight Returns). Katsuhiro Otomo's Akira, an enormous, dystopian science fiction series, is an even greater success story—Virgin Megastore product manager Carson Hall noted that in less than three months they've sold over 500 copies of Dark Horse's first volume in 19 stores. (Akira was serialized in America as a monthly comic in the early '90s, but never collected in book form in English; the second volume is due imminently.) Yes, there's an anime version of Akira, too. Dark Horse expects Masamune Shirow's long-awaited Ghost in the Shell II, a sequel to the original bestselling SF work and due later this year, to be "gigantic."

Also making strides in the U.S. manga trade is San Francisco— based Viz Communications. Its most popular titles are the ones with TV tie-ins; last year, their Pokémon and Sailor Moon lines, both associated with children's TV series, did incredibly well across the board, though they're both starting to drop off now. (There are also Mixx/Tokyo Pop—licensed versions of Sailor Moon.) Viz's current manga hits include Akira Toriyama's Dragonball, a whimsical martial-arts series with a very young hero, and its sequel, Dragonball Z. Viz releases a new paperback collection of one or the other every month. (Unique among American manga, they're not "flopped"—the books read back-to-front.) Dragonball was loosely adapted into an anime series that's the most popular part of the Cartoon Network's Toonami block; Viz's director of marketing Dallas Middaugh reports that they're selling about 20,000 copies of each volume.

But for all the success Japanese comics have had in America, current titles are primarily science fiction or fantasy. Outside of that genre, there's Keiji Nakazawa's masterpiece Barefoot Gen, a moving and horrific recounting of the bombing of Hiroshima and its aftermath available from Last Gasp. There is also Kaiji Kawaguchi's political potboiler Eagle: The Making of an Asian-American President (Viz), in which a Machiavellian senator named Kenneth Yamaoka challenges a thinly disguised Al Gore for the 2000 Democratic nomination. Viz's imprint Pulp has a few genreless, adult-oriented "mature readers" graphic novels, and Central Park Media publishes a pair of teen romance manga by Tomoko Taniguchi, Aquarium and Call Me Princess.

Virgin Megastore's Hall told PW that he's waiting to see more kinds of manga in English translation. Each of the chain's bookstores contains a graphic-novel section, including a subsection devoted specifically to manga, and Hall stated, "a well-stocked manga section distinguishes one's store from any chain competitor, and from most independent booksellers." (Hall recommends getting backlist into stock for stores experimenting with manga.)

"There's a really broad, devoted base of interest in manga in the U.S. market," said Hall. "I think both publishers and booksellers can get away with stories about more regular people with believable lives—the sort of thing that's categorized as alternative comics in the U.S. market.