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Americans Say Oui, Oui To Foreign Graphic Novels

Americans don't buy a lot of foreign novels, but go to any neighborhood bookstore and you'll find whole shelves devoted to international comics.

The trend began with Manga, illustrated comic serials from Japan, which feature big-eyed, heavily stylized characters. Milton Griepp, who publishes the online comics trade journal ICv2, says that more than 1,500 different Manga titles were published in the U.S. last year. That's a 25-percent rise over the year before.

The books cover many genres, from sci-fi and horror to high-school melodrama and grown-up romance. Some of the titles seem to target a niche readership:

"I remember when I saw my first Yaoi title, which is a subgenre that's based on relationships between gay males," says Griepp. "I thought, 'Well that's a pretty narrow market.' But that category has actually done quite well here in the States." (But it turns out Yaoi is a hit among women readers.)

Heidi MacDonald, who blogs about graphic novels for Publishers Weekly, says the Japanese invasion has helped pry open American markets to authors and illustrators from other parts of the world, including Marjane Satrapi.

"Marjane Satrapi ... she's definitely one who has had a huge breakthrough commercially and critically," says MacDonald.

Satrapi's black-and-white graphic novel, Persepolis, tells the story of an Iranian girl and her expatriate life in France. The book was translated into English and made into a film that was nominated for an Academy Award in 2008.

Foreign titles are rarely that successful in America, says Dedi Phelman, a senior editor at Simon Schuster and co-founder of the online magazine Words Without Borders. 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.

One foreign title that has done well in the American market is Monsieur Jean, which might best be described as a French version of an early Woody Allen film.

The Monsieur Jean stories were already bestsellers in Europe, but Charles Berberian, who created the comic with Philippe Dupuy, says cracking the the American market has opened the door for him to work on other projects.

"Selling books like Monsieur Jean gives us that kind of freedom and, of course, encourages the publishers to work with us," says Berberian.

When it comes to selling foreign titles, graphic novels enjoy some big advantages over other kinds of literature: The books only take a few hours to finish, and the visuals can allow ideas to cross cultural lines mores easily than text alone.

"I find it very natural to read," says Isaac Cates, a fan of Berberian's series. "I've never been to Paris, but the setting certainly isn't forming any kind of barrier for me ... Monsieur Jean thinks about having a kid. That's the sort of thing that we all think about."

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 of these oversized comics last year, a four-fold increase over 2001.

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Brian Mann is NPR's first national addiction correspondent. He also covers breaking news in the U.S. and around the world.