Monday, August 24, 2009

Do-It-Yourself Comic Booking in Japan: A Look at Comiket Courtesy One of My Students

Well, I’d hoped to be going nuts over the three most recent Nana volumes, but has royally screwed up my order—pay twice for something? No thanks—but instead I’m here to tell you a little something about Comiket.

What’s Comiket? Comiket is a Japanese-English contraction for Comic Market (the Japanese use contracted word-combos more so than acronyms), a twice-yearly doujinshi convention held in Tokyo. What’s doujinshi? Hold on a sec…

Introducing American Comics to a Japanese Audience

As you probably know, I teach English in Japan, and I like to have my students read books, magazines and comics as part of their homework. I usually recommend translations of Japanese comics, especially Viz’s amazing work on Yazawa Ai’s Nana. But being a full-fledged comic geek, I like to share American comic culture here. People tend to be interested in American comics—not so much the stories or characters, but the format. A slim magazine in full color? And it’s monthly? How strange! A student asked me if she could read some so I grabbed a random sampling from my collection and gave her Batgirl, Astro City, BPRD and Hellboy. And possibly something else I’ve forgotten.

Batgirl and Astro City did nothing for her, but she loves BPRD. It’s taking her longer to read it than either of us anticipated, so by way of apologizing she printed out and gave me a booklet called “What Is the Comic Market?” It’s a “presentation by the Comic Market Preparations Committee,” dated February 2008, and it gives an insider’s overview of the Comiket.


The Comic Market Preparations Committee defines doujinshi as “magazines published as a cooperative effort by a group of individuals who share a common ideology or goals with the aim of establishing a medium through which their works can be presented.” They further state:

Originating from the world of literature, fine arts, and academia, doujinshis experienced unprecedented growth in Japan as a medium of self-expression for various subcultures centered around manga.


At present, books edited and published by inviduals with the aim of presenting their own material are also considered doujinshis. As a norm, doujinshis are not included in the commercial publishing distribution system. The primary goal of doujinshi publishing is that of self-expression of one’s own works—Oridinarly commercial profits are not the primary rationale for doujinshis endeavors. Their distribution is limited in scope.

So basically, doujinshi are amateur, self-published comics, magazines and even video games (if I’m reading the report correctly). The “do-it-yourself” aesthetic applied to comics, comics made by small collectives of like-minded people.

That’s an exciting idea. Getting together with friends and collaborating on a comic that reflects your interests and creative ideas. That’s one thing I miss about playing in bands—that feeling of collaborative effort, of shared adventuring. Marvel Comics used to sell us that myth with the whole “Marvel Bullpen” thing, when actually most of their artists were living out in the suburbs and commuting in once or twice a week for meetings. But wasn’t it nice thinking all these guys like Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Don Heck and Marie Severin all hung out in the same big room with drawing tables, laughed it up while drawing Galactus eating Pluto and Spider-Man tossing web-balls at the Human Torch while Stan Lee played his ocarina?

Doujinshi circles make this fun fantasy a reality. Working together to make something creative and enriching, like music. Comic books. Something not beholden to corporate structure, authorship or ownership. It’s your comic, yours and your friends, and you sell it directly to the readers. Therefore, it can be anything and doesn’t have to rely on marketing or trend-watching.

Although if you wish it to, then that’s up to you as well.


The first Comiket was held in 1975. There were 32 circles (circle is Japanese-English for group or club and is used in contexts ranging from school-sanctioned activity clubs to informal fashion subculture groups) participating with about 700 total attendees. One of the most recent Comikets featured 35,000 circles with a peak attendance of 550,000 people. So many people move through this event crowd control and flow are major concerns. The organizers place circles whose doujinshi are expected to prove most popular near the loading docks so the lines can be arranged to move outside the building and ease floor congestion.

The Comiket is so popular and well-attended certain train and bus lines change their operating schedules to accommodate the human traffic.

The demographics fascinate me. They’re not what I expected at all and seem almost like my ideal for comic book fandom. I’m not sure what the gender breakdown is for your typical American comic book or sci-fi convention, but I imagine women are well-represented among the fans. To an extent. And even then you have to deal with the concepts of "safe spaces" and locker room/boy's club mentality. However, for Comiket, general attendance graphs show 57% women and 43% men attending. Even more exciting are the creator circles with 71% women versus 29% men involved in making comics and this form of doujinshi self-expression.

Granted this isn’t ostensibly professional work, but can you imagine if American comics—amateur or professional—were two-thirds female-created? Do you think you’d be reading condescending articles about what girls can do at conventions guaranteed to piss you off with their retrograde views on fannish gender expression? And how would it affect storylines and readership? Personally, I’d love to find out because my gut tells me they’d be better (they could hardly be worse). I’d probably find a lot more to read among the mainstream books, by which I mostly mean superheroes.

I can’t think of an American equivalent to Comiket. I know there are plenty of Western DIY comic book makers out there (and many of them are probably women), especially on the web. And they more than likely have little conventions or symposiums I know nothing about. But can you imagine half a million people in the United States showing up to buy homemade comic books? I can’t imagine half a million people showing up days in advance just to buy the professional stuff!

Sure, the San Diego Comic Convention got 125,000 to 140,000 people over its three-day course this year, and the New York Comic-Con drew around 77,000 (note the New York International Auto Show had over 1 million attendees, by the way). Those numbers are peanuts compared to Comiket. And how many of those people are there to actually buy comics and how many are there to ogle Megan Fox or listen to Joss Whedon or whatever Hollywood types were on hand to shill their latest TV shows or movie projects, most of which have only a tenuous connection to comics? At the Comiket, there may be cosplay and professional presentations but the comics—the homemade comics—remain the primary focus, the purpose-driver.

It's a Manga World and We're Merely Living in It

Sometimes I think American comic books are merely a bump on the ass of the great body of comic book culture, and that body makes its home here in Asia. It’s not that manga are making inroads into American markets, it’s that American markets are finally catching up with the rest of the world.

Even when you read smart articles about how comics aren't as doomed as everyone thinks, among all the high-powered reasoning you rarely find an acknowledgement that what we think of as comics, meaning strictly the American stuff, is paltry compared to what's produced in Japan, the rest of Asia, Europe and South America. They still tend to miss the point that American publishers may need "new voices" and "new delivery methods" but they are ultimately just a fraction of what comic books entail.

DC and Marvel might be losing readership, but even if they end up selling their characters off piecemeal and closing shop forever, comic books will continue. And most comic book fans won’t even notice the American mainstream is gone… because they’re only vaguely aware it even exists in the first place.

How is that Japan can generate such enthusiasm for comic books, with broad reader acceptance, greater choices of genres in the mainstream and a what amounts to an inverse gender demographics among creators and readers... and the American comic book industry can’t?

And wouldn’t it be a cool cultural exchange if I helped foster a Hellboy/BPRD fandom in Japan?

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