Wildly popular and influential in Japan, sports manga is the latest trend in Japanese manga to be introduced to the U.S. market, and publishers and retailers are keeping their fingers crossed, hoping these comics will attract American readers. But comics focused on sports have not been popular in the U.S. comics market since the 1950s, and it remains unclear whether even the ever-growing popularity of manga can change that pattern.

So far, titles released in the U.S. cover soccer, basketball, tennis and football and are usually aimed at 'tweens and teens of both sexes.

Like so much manga, story lines in these comics take place in high school or junior high and play up the typical competition between teenagers and in school athletics. Add to that a smoldering and often comical obsession with the opposite sex. Sports manga offers a package oozing with adolescent social tensions, amped up visually with dynamic action scenes and real team strategy taken direct from each sport's most exciting moments of play. And let's not forget all that perfect hair.

Typically, the protagonist is an underdog, determined to make the team (often to impress a girl or a guy) through hard work and perseverance. A good example of this is Viz Media's Whistle!,a soccer manga about a bench warmer who earns a spot on the field through dedication and rigorous training.

"There's something appealing about rooting for the underdog," said Viz editor Andy Nakatani about the genre's appeal. In addition to Whistle! Viz publishes Prince of Tennis; Crimson Hero, a shojo (or girl's) manga about volleyball; and Eyeshield 21, a manga about the exotic sport (to the Japanese) of American football, which debuts this month. Prince of Tennis is one of Viz's top-selling manga in the U.S. as well as in Japan.

"Kids today are into sports," said Evelyn Dubocq, director of public relations at Viz. "Now there are manga titles just for them." And, Dubocq adds, readers don't have to play the games to enjoy the manga. "Girls also like them because the boys in the stories are cute."

Tokyopop has published Girl Got Game by Shizuru Seino, about a girl who pretends to be a boy in order to play on her high school basketball team, and Shuichi Shigeno's very popular Initial D series, which takes on street car-racing, and Rebound, a basketball manga. Tokyopop is also preparing The Boys of Summer, an original sports manga focused on baseball, written by Chuck Austen (X-Men) and illustrated by Hiroki Otsuka to be released in 2006.

Last year, Tokyopop created a different kind of crossover sports manga with its Cine-Manga line, combining real game photography with a manga-inspired storytelling format. Forming a partnership with the National Basketball Association, Tokyopop has put out books featuring basketball all-stars Shaquille O'Neill, Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett and Jason Kidd. The Shaquille O'Neill book has been its bestselling titles and Tokyopop is planning on releasing two more books in November.

But sports manga doesn't even have to be about a popular sport, or even about athletics. Viz Media's Hikaru No Go, the story of a young boy learning about the ancient Japanese board game of Go, isn't considered a sports manga at all, but it does have the trappings of one. There's a competitive school social scene, a developing passion for the game, a cast of comical and attractive junior high students and even a bit of the supernatural. The story mixes fantasy with competitive spirit as Hikaru, a sixth-grader possessed by the ghost of a 12th-century Go teacher, begins to develops a keen interest in the game thanks to urgings by the ghost. Hikaru No Go was named one of PW's 2004 Best Books, and Dubocq said the book has sold well and was popular among young readers.

But some industry professionals aren't convinced that the genre will ever really catch on. Kuo-Yuo Liang, v-p of sales and marketing at Diamond Book Distributors, offers a word of caution. In 2003, Diamond distributed Slam Dunk, a basketball manga that was an all-time hit in Japan featuring characters based on NBA favorites Patrick Ewing, Dennis Rodman and Michael Jordan.

"It didn't do well at all," Liang said about the series' tepid sales. Other than Prince of Tennis, claims Liang, sports manga has yet to attract a sizable market. Although Liang does note that Slam Dunkmight have done better had its publisher, Gutsoon, released the manga along with the anime DVD—which was just recently released—that is based on it.

Nevertheless, Viz will forge ahead, releasing seven sports manga titles between April and August. Volume one of Eyeshield 21 arrived this month with volumes two and three coming out in June and August, respectively. As for Viz's Prince of Tennis and Whistle! both have two new volumes coming in May and July. Tokyopop's Rebound and Initial-D have volumes out this month with the next volume of Girl Got Gamecoming out in May.

"Kids gravitate toward what they relate to," said Dubocq optimistically. "The popularity, the want and the need is there."