W.I.T.C.H., a comics magazine for girls that originated in Italy and is now the fastest-growing girls' comic in the world, has spawned magazine and book publishing programs throughout Disney offices worldwide, in 64 markets. This spring Hyperion Books for Children is launching a W.I.T.C.H. program of its own, debuting with nine paperbacks.

The series began in 2001 in the Milan offices of Disney, as a magazine aimed at tween girls; it is now one of the most successful comics in Italy, with a circulation of over one million copies each month. According to Lisa Holton, senior v-p and publisher of Hyperion Books for Children, the program was developed when the artistic and creative team in Milan said, " 'Let's make a comic that appeals to girls.' Three years later it's still going strong."

Holton noted that there were certain considerations to take into account before publishing the series in the U.S, saying, "Comics are trickier to publish here." The publisher decided to make the books not just chapter books and not just graphic novels, but rather hybrids. "There are eight pages of full-color comics on either side of the novelization that is in between," she said.

Focusing on the lives of five girls who discover that they each possess the power to control a natural element, the storylines are adventures with themes of friendship, and are set in "a world you just want to hang out in," in Holton's words. "These girls are going through the normal traumas of 13- or 14-year-olds. The books emotionally tap into exactly what girls are going through at this time in their lives."

The series, which takes its name from the first letter of the five character's names (Will, Irma, Taranee, Cornelia and Hay Lin), will continue past the nine books being published this spring and summer, as Holton reported that 20 titles have already been planned.

The marketing campaign behind the program is extensive and is being carried off with help from across the company. "I've never had so much marketing power behind a series," said Holton. "The whole Walt Disney Company has gotten excited about W.I.T.C.H." A television show is in the works, as is a full consumer products program.

As part of the promotion, trailers will appear on Lizzie McGuire, Haunted Mansion and Kim Possible DVDs, as well as on United Airlines' in-flight video package; a book sampler will be given out at movie premieres such as Princess Diaries II, a Web site was launched last December (www.clubwitch.com), and there will be national print advertising as well as a display that will ship to bookstores this summer.

The W.I.T.C.H. series won't stop with the chapter book/graphic novel hybrid, as Hyperion already has another format for the characters in the works. "In the spring of 2005," Holton said, "we are going to publish a cross between a graphic novel and a magazine, which is coming from a partnership between us and Disney Adventures magazine." That format will contain 80 pages of comics with 16 pages of editorial; according to Holton, the title is considered a graphic novel.