Comiket N00bs – Amature Comics for Amatures

Comiket is the biggest event in all of Japan, where over half a million people gather in celebration of grass roots artistic endeavors. It’s held twice a year, currently at Tokyo Big Site, though by most accounts the event has considerably outgrown this venue – due in part to free admission. There are separate areas dedicated to industry, cosplay, and doujinshi. And though doujinshi may be something of the minor league of manga, it tends to have a very healthy fan base, arguably fostered by the rarity, and thus collectivity of the comics. Even within the doujinshi areas there are certain subsets, and circles (meaning artists and dealers) tend to be grouped by theme. This piece of Comiket coverage will look at the people that make circles, the people that buy from them, and the people who are just there. After all, 510,000 is a lot of people.  And seriously, I’m a n00b.

Cruising by Tokyo Big Site on the adjacent monorail at 9am, one hour before the event opens, an unmistakable sea of people swells all around the complex. Some have been waiting since the first train arrived in the morning at 5am. Since then, the cool summer dawn has shattered into a sweltering and sordid day; many attendees drape themselves in towels, and others use cooling strips generally used to reduce fevers for moment of relief. Staff are armed with large spray cans of deodorant, spritzing as necessary without inhibition to maintain appearances. And though covered, with hundreds of thousands of people crowded inside, the other side of the door offers only spiritual oasis.

“You want to get a feel for the atmosphere at Comiket?” asked Mr. Yamaguchi, a slightly disgruntled event concierge who appeared to be in his mid-40s. “It’s crowded. It’s crowded, and it’s hot,” he spouted rhetorically, wandering about the crowded tables arranged in block fashion to facilitate navigation. And though he’s right, most everyone else present is willing to see past these inconveniences to revel in their respective creative, or perhaps consumer, joys.

Even past the entrance lines, which can take hours to navigate, the tables of popular circles have lines all their own. Some have special staff to manage crowd control, but others use a simple sign. The last person in line will dutifully hold the sign, saying something to the effect of, “Table 24-1 A end of line” until the next joining the queue takes position. One patient attendee who declined to give her name said she was waiting to buy a gag-themed doujinshi based on a comic “that was never so popular but was published about 10 years ago and ran for about six years but is now totally out of print.” When questioned as to why she was so interested in this particular rendition of the story, she answered simply, “Because I like it.” And though “because I like it” may not seem like the most sophisticated response at first, it manages to sum up the passion that motivates the event perfectly.

Most of the artists featured at Comiket are not professionals, regardless of the polished quality of their work. Among those interviewed, many had started their circles after “becoming members of society,” ie, graduating from high school or university and entering the workforce. Those with newer circles tended to have paper booklets stapled together, while others with more established presence had soft cover bound books and other character goods. A significant minority of tables offered or displayed relevant handmade goods, such as dolls dressed and custom painted to resemble their doujinshi characters, and gifts for purchasing customers.

Though perhaps a few artists were selling original doujinshi, most gained their inspiration from existing stories, and were grouped accordingly via derivation. The East halls contained the “Japanese” area, including Dragon Ball, Naruto, Bleach, Death Note, xxxHolic, and hundreds if not thousands of others. Though not all doujinshi carry an erotic or homoerotic overtone, due to new regulations, any comics containing sexually explicit material must now be plainly marked for “18 and up” only. Surprisingly, creators at these tables were the most reluctant to interview, and those willing wanted an outline of possible questions before proceeding. However, all were very gracious, even in decline, nonetheless.

“You can photograph, but, please remove my name before publication… I’m a little… embarrassed,” giggled a young doujin author, just starting back in the field after a mandatory two year vacation. As hobbyists, real life tends to cause periodic breaks in creation. “Before this I was in a circle for three years, but the stories were different – nothing special we just did whatever we liked.” The doujinshi she was selling found its inspiration in the anime xxxHolic-Kei, which only recently finished airing in Japan.

Of the two West halls, one was dedicated to music or band inspired work, and the other Japanese and American science fiction. The latter was by far the most surprising, some authors combining the two genres to create hybrids such as X-Men Den-oh, a pairing of Marvel’s X-Men and the Masked Rider Den-oh series. The “slash” genre of fan fiction found a whole new world of vivid depiction, but other artistic creations graced tables as well. Whether it was the general age of creators, which was notably older, the material, or just the heat at the end of the day, circles tended to be much more talkative about their work.

One notable exception to the Star Trek norm was the series Neko Trek, actually a doujinshi of a doujinshi. The author based her cat themed gag comic on her own favorite Star Trek gag series, and the two were fortunate that day to sell comics side-by-side. Apparently, a friend of a friend was a bilingual Trekkie and even took the effort to make an English edition, translating the Japanese passages into English printed beside the panels. However, both creators just seemed confused at the notion that the publication mimicked a textbook.

Debu Spiderman, or Fat Spiderman, was another hilarious work that exhibited the author’s extensive knowledge of this web-swinging superhero. “I started making it about five or six years ago, publishing it on the internet, about the same time the Spiderman movie came out in Japan… The cover? Yeah – it gets a lot of inspiration from old style American comics, but you know, Spiderman originally debuted in the comic Amazing Fantasy – hence the name Amazing(ly) (Fat) Spiderman. On this one, well, he’s in the toilet, but you can see comic he’s reading on the floor,” he says, pointing to the Todd McFarlane mock cover.

However, this area didn’t seem to be the most popular, especially among young people. “My daughter bought the CD-ROM catalog as soon as it came out and made an extensive list of everything she wanted to get, including the place, the price, even the bonus gifts if they came with any,” said Mari, a mother in her 50s, showing off her 15 year old daughter’s notes. “Then she made a map of where and how to go.” This is apparently the third time Mari has chaperoned the event.

“At first I was really concerned about what my daughter was getting into. It seemed dangerous – not only because of copyright issues and pornography, but because of the, well, you know… sometimes there are perverts at the events. I was afraid it would be dangerous. But, after going to the first one with her, I realized that most of the creators are women, and the audience, too. Especially private events where you have to pay – they are all, like, 99% women. It really made me feel safe.”

Noting that Friday specializes in comics oriented towards women, but looking around and realizing a sizable portion of men, she added, “This year is kind of different. I guess it’s getting bigger… But, it’s still amazing you can have so many people in one place peacefully.”

In conclusion, Mari said that she felt the otaku of today were safer, incredibly creative and expressive compared to the archetypal Miyazaki incident that defined otaku sub-culture for her generation. Describing Miyazaki as a criminal and pedophile, she even drew a distinctive line between the recent incident in Akihabara and the day’s events. “He is the total opposite of what you will find here. I don’t think you can call him otaku…. The first time I came (to Comiket) I just said, ‘Wow! These people can do this?!’ I couldn’t believe it.” One can only hope that her newfound awe and appreciation – despite still having no real interest – continues to inspire others.

1 Comment

  1. scott said,

    August 25, 2008 at 2:05 am

    Again another very informative piece that succeeds in both giving us an impression of what it was like to be there while being factually informative. i so wish i would have gone. i didn’t even know about this sub-trend of home grown manga. i love this level of creativity. so raw but so full of potential. i am shocked by the depiction of otaku as perverts and deviants. i always bring my american thinking to the table and i just use the geek overlay to think about otaku, but apparently that won’t work. geeks/nerds are viewed as socially ackward and immature, but never as murderous sexual predators… and i know that isn’t the truth about otaku here, but so sad that they have to contend with these negative associations.

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