Among the superhuman powers of TV's Astro Boy: the ability to fly off shelves

Astro Boy. Fifteen-year-old Shawne Kleckner had never heard of him when his boss at a Des Moines computer reseller asked him to track down some episodes of the old TV series. It was 1987, and Robert Ferson had a personal hankering to revisit the adventures of the doe-eyed, pointy-headed little robot that he remembered watching as a child in the early 1960s. But Astro Boy, a Japanese cartoon import, had vanished without leaving even a rerun behind.

What started as a simple exercise in nostalgia became a business when Kleckner and Ferson realized Ferson wasn't the only baby boomer who had a yen to see Astro Boy again. Ferson bought the U.S. rights to the series, started the Right Stuf International Inc. (#369), and began selling Astro Boy videotapes by mail order. Two years later, in 1989, Kleckner joined the new company full-time as president and CEO, spending the next four years splitting his time between the company and classes at Iowa State University, while Ferson stayed on as chairman. Unlike Ferson, Kleckner wasn't especially passionate about Astro Boy, but he loved building the business. "I got more joy out of getting letters from people saying, 'I've been looking for this for years," Kleckner says. By the time he graduated with a degree in computer engineering, in 1994, he never even considered looking for another job.

In fact, the Right Stuf's timing was right on. At the time the company jumped into the market, Japanese animated movies and TV shows, or anime, weren't just for kids: in fact, many of them were aimed at adults. By then, anime encompassed a broad spectrum of genres, including adventure, sci-fi, drama, and pornography. (One unifying trait: characters with oversized eyes, an Astro Boy legacy.) By the late 1980s, bootleg tapes of contemporary anime had developed a tiny American cult following, prompting several legitimate companies--Central Park Media and AnimEigo, among others--to start bringing recent anime into the United States. In the early 1990s, the Right Stuf, building on its reputation as a publisher of classic '60s anime, carved out a niche distributing its competitors' videos directly to consumers by mail order and the Internet. Its catalog, newsletters, and Web site include not just video listings but enough anime history and esoterica for the most devoted hard-core fan, or otaku.

Although the Right Stuf started out riding a single demographic wave--men ages 28 to 35, Kleckner says--the U.S. audience for Japanese animation broadened as more series became available, and Kleckner's sales grew accordingly. From 1994 to 1998 the company's revenues rose 808%, from $237,000 to $2 million, with profit margins of 6% to 10%. The Right Stuf has also expanded its publishing line, releasing more up-to-date Japanese animation such as the sci-fi comedy The Irresponsible Captain Tylor.

In 1996 Kleckner started a second imprint, Critical Mass Video, for adult-only titles, such as the dark and explicit Cool Devices, with story lines about sadomasochism, incest, and voyeurism that, surprisingly, strike a relatively wholesome note in the anime world. "When Kleckner picks something naughty, he picks something that's out of the ordinary--it's consensual," says Kelly Adams of Ingram Entertainment, which distributes anime videos. "A lot of adult anime out there is people being raped to death by monsters." The new imprint also includes Weather Report Girl, in which two rival weather reporters fight it out for TV time. "Expect catfights, tight dresses, and quite a bit of laxative before this series is done!" warns the Right Stuf's catalog.

Right now the biggest segment of the $50-million anime market is among teenagers and young adult males, says Adams, but more and more young women and girls are watching it, attracted by strong female characters. For instance, Sailor Moon, a hit series about a leggy, miniskirted 14-year-old girl with magical powers, turned young girls (and some men) onto anime, Kleckner says. Meanwhile, today's PokÉmon fad is attracting a new generation of otaku among the preschool to preteen sets.

"The market grows because my competitors put out new titles," says Kleckner. "I welcome every release anyone puts out, because I'm going to sell it, and someone's going to watch it and say, 'Neat!"

Emily Barker is a senior staff writer at Inc.