MEIKO UCHIYAMA sits quietly at a table, engrossed in a comic book, savouring the exotic fantasy of magicians, sorcerers, and witches. Her friend Kyoko Hamaguchi is busy nearby sketching a girl with shaggy hair, and large wide eyes. The two are seniors at Kyoto Seika University, and they are hard at work. Surrounded by GI Joes, miniature cars and other props, they and about 200 other students are crammed into a gymnasium-size room that serves as a communal art studio. All hope to be serious artists. At Japan's first school of manga, as Japanese comics are known, students tap into a national obsession that has spawned a multibillion-dollar industry. Comic-book sales in Japan alone amount to US$5 billion per year. Add in worldwide income from computer games, animated TV shows, movies and tie-ins to characters, and that figure soars to more than US$78 billion annually. Kyoto Seika University was the first to open a manga department, six years ago. More than 20 other Japanese universities have set up similar programmes. 'I dreamed about drawing manga since the fourth grade,' said Ms Hamaguchi, whose desire to be a professional manga artist was so strong she overcame parental objections to transfer from another university. Seika's programme is the brainchild of Keiichi Makino, who in 2000 was dean of the university's art school and struggling to find ways to interest students in the traditional subjects of fine art and graphic design. One day he came across the work of Keiko Takemiya, a famous manga artist, and was struck by the beauty and detail of her work. He also persuaded her to teach on his course and the gamble paid off almost immediately. More than 350 prospective students applied for just 30 places. Previously, professional comic drawers trained would-be artists at technical colleges. 'We went out on a limb,' Mr Makino said. 'We had doubts about the viability of teaching in a university setting, especially because a lot of academics considered manga trashy.' Seika's manga department graduated its first students in 2004. About 10 per cent now work as professional manga artists, while others hold jobs in related fields such as illustration and advertising. In March the university issued its first manga doctorate which it said was a world first. It also expanded its original manga department into a faculty with three departments, cartoon and comic art, manga production, and animation. Manga comics look quite different from American ones. They often run to several hundred pages, are printed in black and white on low-grade paper and have irregularly shaped frames that fit together like a jigsaw. Common story themes include gothic romance, witchcraft, wizardry, science fiction and superhero fantasies. Stories often continue from issue to issue, delve into dark themes and have unhappy endings. Many of the comic books include graphic sex scenes, which sometimes shock foreign readers. As Mr Makino discovered, luring a high-profile manga artist to teach is the key to success for many of these new programmes. Ms Takemiya's lectures draw more than 100 students, many from outside the university. She reserves most of her energy to help students develop their own talents. At the art studio she often stops to advise a student on his or her drawings and will sit for hours with individual students or small groups, explaining the myriad techniques necessary for creating manga. 'Takemiya sensei is like my mother,' Ms Hamaguchi said. 'When I go for a consultation, she is strict but sometimes sweet and praises me.' Not all students are taken with her. Shota Ueno, a senior, sees the teacher differently. 'She is recognised as a legend, an artist who has been in the world for a long time, but she is not my idol. Her generation is older than the manga artists I read.' Many universities have spent considerable effort and money recruiting top manga artists to teach. Osaka University of Arts has hired such well-known artists as Go Nagai, creator of Mazinger Z and Devilman, and Machiko Satonaka, creator of Ariesu no Otome. At Takarazuka University of Art and Design, the main draw is Reiji Matsumoto, who created the sci-fi comics Space Battle Ship Yamato (known outside Japan as Star Blazers) and Galaxy Express 999. The manga artists hired by universities strongly influence the types of students drawn to the programmes. About 80 per cent of the students in Seika's programme, for example, are women, to whom Ms Takemiya's work seems to appeal the most. The majority of students at Takarazuka are men, drawn to Mr Matsumoto's macho characters. Ms Takemiya said: 'Students want to imitate their favourite artists and look at only their work. They want to draw versions of their favourite characters. I have to teach them to go beyond this, to use their imaginations and create new images. Our primary goal is to broaden students' perspectives.' Takarazuka University of Art and Design, about 60km from Kyoto on the outskirts of Osaka, is one of Seika's main rivals. Unlike Seika's crowded, hectic art studio, Takarazuka's studio is in an award-winning building with large windows and bright yellow-and-red decor. The students seem quieter and more focused than those at Seika. Takarazuka established a manga department two years ago, and created a separate animation department this year. There are 320 students studying manga and another 28 studying anime. Haruo Nishigami, manga department director, expects the two programmes eventually to enrol about 600 students. Some private companies have also started universities to exploit the manga phenomenon. Digital Hollywood University in Tokyo was started with seed money from Nippon Keidanren, a quasi-government agency devoted to business development. It gave the project US$250 million over five years. Digital Hollywood focuses on the technical side of anime with many courses in production. Even the elite University of Tokyo is dabbling in the field. But the venerable, 130-year-old institution is not dirtying its fingers with artist's ink. The university offers graduate programmes within two engineering departments to develop the business side of the anime industry. Yasuki Hamano, director of the anime department, said professors were overcoming their distaste for the more lurid side of the industry and were supporting the project. Foreign students, especially from South Korea and China, are also increasingly being drawn to manga and Japanese anime courses. Currently, 10 per cent of the students at Seika's manga school are international. Publishers in Hong Kong and Taipei form the backbone of the manga industry for Chinese readers. Called manhua, these comics are often thinly disguised Chinese versions of Japanese manga. However, some original manhua is surfacing and beginning to create a new Chinese art form. And university students are showing great interest. Universities are seeing potential in the foreign-student market. Nearly 80 per cent of anime sales are overseas, and some American universities offer courses in manga and anime. 'It's the first foreign pop culture to be popular among students in the US,' said Susan Napier, who taught classes on anime at the University of Texas at Austin and, now a Fulbright scholar in Japan, recently completed a book about anime. She said many American students were studying Japanese just to read manga in the original language. Japanese students are very proud of the popularity of manga and anime among foreign students, but they worry that foreigners' interests are too narrow. 'I hope foreign students understand there is a great variety of manga,' said Ms Hamaguchi, at Seika. 'They shouldn't only think of Astroboy, Dragon Ball, Pokemon, and Blackjack. There are many others that are interesting.'