Animation in the United States once meant Mickey Mouse, Snow White and Winnie the Pooh.

Nowadays, it's just as likely to mean fighting cyborgs, doe-eyed schoolgirls and sinister monsters -- thanks to people like John Ledford. The 36-year-old American is one of the top foreign distributors of Japanese "manga" comics and animation, or "anime," building his fortune on a genre that is rapidly changing from a niche market to a mass phenomenon.

Ledford, who is so busy that his dubbing studio in Houston is running 24 hours a day, said the key to the success of manga and anime in the U.S. is its widely varied, cutting-edge subject matter.