ANDREA SEABROOK, host:
Batman was born in a 1939 comic book. It was Frank Miller who developed his darker, modern-day incarnation in the 1980s. Miller is a pioneer of the graphic novel, a grown-up version of the old-time comic book. It's a form that's taken off around the world.
Go to any neighborhood bookstore these days, and you'll find whole shelves devoted to international graphic novels, from Japanese Manga to European art comics.
North Country Public Radio's Brian Mann has this report.
BRIAN MANN: Manga comics are a little hard to describe. These illustrated serials from Japan, with their big-eyed, heavily stylized characters, range over every conceivable genre. There's sci-fi and horror Manga, but there's also high-school melodrama and grown-up romance.
Mr. MILTON GRIEPP (Publisher, ICv2): I remember when I saw my first Yaoi title, which is a subgenre that's based on relationships between gay males.
MANN: Milton Griepp publishes an influential online comics trade journal called ICv2.
Mr. GRIEPP: And I thought, well that's a pretty narrow market, but that category has actually done quite well here in the States
MANN: It turns out Yaoi is a hit among women readers. According to Griepp, there were more than 1,500 different Manga titles published in the U.S. last year, a 25-percent rise over the year before.
(Soundbite of "Honey and Clover")
(Soundbite of music)
Unidentified Man: (As character) (Speaking foreign language).
MANN: That's a clip from the animated version of a popular Manga series called "Honey and Clover" that reads sort of like the TV show "Friends."
Ms. HEIDI MacDONALD (Blogger, Publishers Weekly): Manga is off the charts.
MANN: Heidi MacDonald blogs about graphic novels for Publishers Weekly, a trade magazine that tracks book trends. She says that Japanese invasion has helped pry open American markets to authors and illustrators from other parts of the world.
Ms. MacDONALD: Marjane Satrapi, definitely with "Persepolis," she's definitely one who has had a huge breakthrough commercially and critically.
MANN: "Persepolis" is the story of an Iranian girl and her expat life in France. The black-and-white graphic novel was translated into English and made into a film that was nominated for an Academy Award.
(Soundbite of film "Persepolis")
Unidentified Woman: (As character) (Speaking foreign language).
MANN: Dedi Felman is a senior editor at Simon and Schuster and co-founder of an online magazine called Words Without Borders. She says this kind of success is rare in America, where readers have grown more insular.
Ms. DEDI FELMAN (Senior Editor, Simon and Schuster): I think all of us are frustrated with the limited opportunities to publish work in translation, and I think there was a closing of the doors since the '70s, when you know, sort of international film, international art, all that stuff was hip.
MANN: Only about 2 percent of books published in the U.S. are works in translation, but in the graphic novels business, more than half the titles sold here are foreign-language imports.
Artist Charles Berberian is co-creator of the Monsieur Jean books, which won the top international comics prize last year. He says trying to crack the American market is just good business. A Bigger audience here will help him finance more ambitious projects.
Mr. CHARLES BERBERIAN (Co-Creator, Monsieur Jean Books): Selling books like Monsieur Jean gives us that kind of freedom and, of course, encourages the publishers to work with us.
MANN: The Monsieur Jean stories are already best-sellers in Europe. Imagine a French version of an early Woody Allen film. Isaac Cates came to get an autograph.
Mr. ISAAC CATES: I've got to say, I find it very natural to read, and I've never been to Paris, but the setting certainly isn't forming any kind of barrier for me. You know, Monsieur Jean thinks about having a kid. You know, that's the sort of thing that we all think about.
MANN: Graphic novels enjoy some big advantages over other kinds of foreign lit. You can read one in a couple of hours, and blogger Heidi MacDonald says the visual ideas in comic books cross cultural lines more easily.
Ms. MacDONALD: The issues of translation don't necessarily matter as much, in some ways because, you know, you have the pictures to tell the story. It isn't as much of an issue in a lot of ways as with a poet, for instance, where translating is about the translating it is about the hardest thing possible.
MANN: Industry experts say the mainstreaming of foreign graphic novels is also being driven by a bigger trend: the explosion in sales for all graphic novels. Bookstores sold more than $370 million worth of these oversized comics last year. That's a fourfold increase over 2001.
For NPR News, I'm Brian Mann.