|A young man with spikey hair, a monkey tail and super powers is ready to fight Spider-Man, Batman and other sleek super heroes to grab the attention of young readers in the United States.
"Shonen Jump," a comic series or "manga" that has long captured the imagination of Japanese youth with its pages rich with fantastic saucer-eyed characters, is finally taking the plunge into the U.S. market hoping it can raise the same strong following as it did back home.
Bearing the same right-to-left flow of its Japanese parent magazine, the new venture seeks to break with the stereotype that comics are for the geeky bespectacled bookworms.
Shonen Jump, founded 34 years ago, sells an average of 3.4 million weekly copies in Japan after having set a record of 6.5 million in the early 1990s.
"We want to make 'manga' the byword in American households," said Hyoe Narita, editor-in-chief of the English-version of Shonen Jump.
"Americans like super heroes as main characters, but I think they are warming up to the Japanese style of manga, in which readers grow with the main character as it gains perseverance," Narita said.
"There is a little bit of romance too," he added.
Many U.S. comic heroes constantly struggle with their double identities and allow themselves little emotions while they protect human kind from evil forces.
But Japanese manga sprinkles its plots with hysterical and at times ridiculous situations. Good and bad deities, and ghosts and ghouls often interact with mortals in a way similar to that of Greek mythology.
For Erik Kong, a 24-year-old college student in New York, Japanese animation excels in its intricate artwork and complex story lines. "Even violence is portrayed beautifully. I love the attention to detail," he said.
Marvel and DC comics are home to some of the best-selling titles in the United States, but the market here is still dwarfed by the Japanese manga market, which makes up roughly a quarter of that country's 520 billion Yen, or $4.3 billion, publishing industry.
The U.S. version of Shonen Jump is published by San Francisco-based Viz Communications Inc. In January, Japan's privately-held publishing giant Shueisha Inc. plans to take a 50 percent stake in Viz, Shueisha told Reuters.
Viz also publishes a monthly comic book devoted to Pokemon, the chubby little yellow creature that ignited a cult following in the United States a few years ago and helped to mass-market anime, or Japanese style animation.
ROOM TO GROW
"We are targeting circulation of one million copies in three years," said Satoru Fujii, chief financial officer of Viz. "If we can sell as much in comic books as well, we are looking at a $100 million market."
The English-language Shonen Jump debuted in November as a monthly issue of 288 pages, about half of its Japanese original. Eventually it will include more than seven mangas in each edition. Viz officials hope it can become a weekly publication.
"We initially aimed at 200,000 copies (for the debut issue) but we had to reprint an additional 50,000," said Yumi Hoashi, strategy director at Viz. "We hear from the stores that (the English Shonen Jump) is flying off the shelves."
Dragon Ball, the brainchild of famed artist Akira Toriyama and Kazuki Takahashi's Yu-Gi-Oh!, will lead the charge in the pages of U.S. Shonen Jump.
"I think manga will take off (in the U.S.) as much as anime has," said Taeko Baba, president of New York-Tokyo, a media communications firm that helps promote Japanese pop culture in the Big Apple. But it will be difficult to attract middle-aged American men, unlike in Japan, where that demographic is a huge revenue source, she said.
But for Dragon Ball creator Toriyama, whose reserved manners contrast with the fast pace and bursting energy of the manga characters he draws, sales are not at the top of his agenda but rather maintaining the quality of his stories.
"I finished the story (Dragon Ball) seven years ago, so I don't want to change anything. I work out of my hut in the countryside. I just do my thing," Toriyama told Reuters in a recent interview.
With or without his intentions, his manga has traveled through Asia, Europe and South America, and has now finally landed in America.