The Mike Toole Show
Comic Market Sweep

by Mike Toole, Feb 5th 2017

My wife and I pushed through the crowded, unending streets of Tokyo, still hauling our luggage from the plane trip. The first major stop of our journey was a little café over in Takadanobaba, right on the outer edge of Shinjuku, and we'd skipped dropping our crap off in order to make sure we saw this particular place before closing time. See, it was right before New Year's holiday, and a lot of places shut down for several days to celebrate. Fortunately, it wasn't too much longer before we arrived at our destination: the Polar Bear's Café.

It was exactly what you'd expect—a little café with coffee and sweets, plus some fun souvenirs and sights from Aloha Higa's popular comics and cartoon series about a polar bear barista and his friends. As we sat down, a lady came over to ask about my Crunchyroll hoodie, so I got to haltingly explain that I only knew about Polar Bear's Café because I'd watched the series on CR. Then, we ate parfaits – I got the Grizzly Bear one, because that dude is the best – and talked strategy. It was December 28th, the day before Comic Market, the biggest indie comics festival in the world.

I'm tempted to brand Comic Market, which the cool kids call Comiket, the biggest comics festival period, because it happens not once per year but twice, and draws attendees in the hundreds of thousands each time. Maybe the giant U.S. Comicons in San Diego and New York are larger, in terms of sheer numbers, but are they really still about comics? Comiket, as I would soon discover, really is about comics before everything else, and also about creations by fans. But first things first: a lot of artists and attendees on Twitter were changing their names to reflect their attendance at Comiket, adding words like コミケ (“comike”) or 冬コミ (“fuyucomi,” or “Winter comi”) to their names, so I followed suit, adding “クラムケーキ91” (“crumbcake 91”) to mine. I figured this would be funny, but still had to deal with people asking me about “cram cake” and “clam cake” for the next few days. Our Comiket Day 1 plan was simple: screw Comic Market, let's go to Harajuku! Days 2 and 3 would be the target.

It's necessary to break your planning into multiple days, because each day at Comiket is a little different. Day 1 is kind of a hodgepodge of different stuff, but Day 2 is more focused on comics geared towards women, including yaoi fare, and Day 3 leans towards comics geared towards men, which is to say porn and lots of it. But these groupings aren't strict, and it's not just a matter of which types of dirty stuff are on offer-- day 2 also has a lot more gag comics, text-only fanfic, and silly one-off stuff, and day 3 has entire areas dedicated to music doujinshi (not simply chiptunes, but also complex synth music and bangin' metal tributes to the artists' favorite comics, animation, games, etc.) and crafty stuff like jewelry.

Our Comiket day 2 strategy was relatively simple – we rolled up at around 10:00am (when the doors opened), got a bunch of snacks at the Daily Yamazaki in the Washington hotel, hung out at the benches outside, and quietly wolfed them down while watching the biggest single line we'd ever seen (and remember, we've been to multiple World Cups!) slowly trickle into Big Sight, the massive convention center that hosts Comiket. By 11am or so the line had dwindled to a manageable size, so it was our turn to go in, and it was my wife Prairie's turn to join the cacophony of rolling suitcases heading downstairs to get changed into costumes.

I've heard it said that when it comes to cosplay, Comic Market is a cut above most other events. I don't agree with that, at least not in terms of quality – you can find absolutely amazing costumes at even small fan events. But what Comiket has is meticulous organization and sheer density. You can go to a con outside of Japan and see hundreds of pretty damn good costumes, but at Comiket, you'll see thousands. Just head to the gigantic free-for-all in front of Big Sight, or the gigantic free-for-all around back, or the third gigantic free-for-all up on the West roof. If you're costuming yourself, remember to pack smart (you can't wear your gear on the train), and be ready to pay a modest fee to register as a cosplayer and use the changing area. Once Prairie was changed (she was dressed as Love Live!'s Rin, in her “snow halation” getup), she hit these places for a bit, and managed to get photographed by a gaggle of nerds and interviewed by a bunch of students about international cosplay, thereby crossing “cosplay at Comiket” off the ol' bucket list. As for me? Maybe I'll do it next time.

This column is ostensibly about anime, and fortunately there's a ton of anime and anime culture at Comiket. I discovered this first on Day 2 when I went to visit the industry area in the west wing. Comiket is primarily about indie and amateur creations, but a good 20% of the space is taken up by the anime and manga business, whose players (including the likes of Trigger, Toei, TMS, and Kyoto Animation) dutifully build typical tradeshow booths hawking everything from keychain charms to plush dolls to Comiket-exclusive artbooks and goods. This single area feels a bit like Anime Japan, partly because it's about the same size-- Anime Japan also takes place in Big Sight, but it is much smaller than Comic Market!—but also because it's the place to go for mass-market goodies, branded shopping bags, and tons of flyers, posters, and sample comics of new stuff. I had to pause to get a photo below of Kero-chan, who capered in a curiously empty area, the better to remind fans of the forthcoming new Cardcaptor Sakura animation.

This industry area stays the same for all three days, too, so if you miss out on goods or exhibits on one day, you'll have a shot at getting them later. Unless you're after the exclusive Type-Moon stuff, which prompted thousands to swarm the booth and sold out hilariously quickly. Trigger's “Trigger Girls” artbook also didn't last too long, but I was able to get a fat stack of Sound! Euphonium goods from the KyoAni and Animation Do people. Then it was time to participate in Comiket's true purpose – buying doujinshi, and lots of it!

Just on Day 2, I was astonished by the sheer variety of what I saw. I encountered one doujinshi circle made up of pretty, nicely-dressed thirtysomething ladies who produced nothing but silly gag comics about the pilots from Getter Robo. Another circle specialized in boys-love fare starring the gritty, passionate robot athletes of Iron Leaguer, which came out twenty-four years ago. Didn't matter, these folks still had several books about Magnum Ace and Mach Windy and their special bond with each other. There was even an adults-only book, but I was too scared to pick it up and see if the name “Top Joy” referred to more than just basketball. Another circle had nothing but gag comics about Muska, the bad guy from Laputa. There were areas packed with fanfic starring Jomy and Keith from Toward the Terra, or Locke and Leon from Locke the Superman. I spent some time chatting with a circle who specialized in Leiji Matsumoto characters (turns out “This is cool. I like Maetel.” goes a long way!), and spoke at length, in a mix of English Japanese, about the Philippines-only English dub of Mechander Robo with a dude who'd created his very own Roman Album-style Mechander Robo sourcebook.

Bear in mind, this was just fan stuff. Professional manga and anime folks also participate in the doujinshi scene. Trigger may have had a booth in the industry area, but their animator and character designer Sushio also had his own booth, with blackjack and Mako. He was there to hawk his new “Sushio-tan 2” book, which is stuffed with sketches of Kill la Kill characters. Kill la Kill may have ended, but Sushio's affection for the characters continues apace. He still draws them, and was drawing stuff at his booth all day, even after I went by for a look and found that the book had sold out. Fortunately, a buddy of mine figured someone would want an extra and snagged one for me. This book isn't just an engaging look into the mind of an animator, it's a good example of how robust doujinshi culture is. If you look closely, you'll notice that the sketches inside were created across several months before Comiket, but the most recent ones are in mid-December -which means that the printer only needed a week or two to get the book together and ready for sale. A major driver of Comiket is the fact that commercial printing companies really understand what the event is, and are able to offer their services rapidly, affordably, and on a small scale.

On day 3, the porn day (I can't really describe what I saw without breaking laws; suffice it to say, I saw more anime girl skin on Comiket day 3 than I'd seen in my entire life up to that point), I was able to return the favor and get my friend a book that also ended up selling out—this time it was from Masami Obari, the legendary action director and mecha anime expert. Sushio's book was a collection of original sketches, but Obari's new book was even simpler—a reproduction of the master's mecha sketches, plus keyframes from some recent work on Gundam IBO. It wasn't a “story” book, just a showcase. It's still really cool, and was worth waiting in a line of 50 people for. Obari himself wasn't at the booth when I happened by, but his buddies and his wife Ritsu were there, selling like mad. This reminded me of another interesting Comiket wrinkle – for the anime and manga artists who attend as vendors, these events are important parts of their livelihoods. It can be hard to pay the bills in the anime/manga business, but here was an interesting way to supplement things.

After buying Obari's book and pausing to stare in amazement at racy books about Gundam IBO's Biscuit showing off his biscuits (hey, there were all kinds of comics at this event!), I bumped into my friend Dylan, who was queuing up for Obari's book and had just spotted something cool – another animator doujinshi just down the aisle, with no waiting. I went and bought a copy, because it was stuffed with Space Dandy and Mob Psycho 100 art – hey, looks like this book is by yutapon, the legendary gengaman Yutaka Nakamura! So, in just a matter of hours, I'd happened across artwork straight from some of the medium's best animators. And once these books sell out, they're usually gone for good—most doujinshi is not reprinted.

On my way out of day 3, I stopped to chat with someone I'd met at Anime Weekend Atlanta 1999, an artist named Ippongi Bang. Anyone remember her? She and her cohort are still drawing up a storm, and they had several books for sale at Comiket. I reminisced a bit with her as I bought some, including her brand new KochiKame book and a couple of new Yuri on Ice offerings (there was plenty of Yuri on Ice stuff around, but my Japanese pals tell me that the next Summer Comiket will be the true Yuri-on-Ice-pocalypse, since the circles will have all winter to create new books about the now-finished series). “Can you actually speak and read Japanese?” she asked me with a knowing grin. “No, of course not!” I retorted. “I just like the pictures.” After catching up with Bang, I wandered over to the Ganso Sonoda table, to get their latest volume, which was about Girls und Panzer.

The “Sonoda” in the circle's name does indeed refer to legendary character designer Kenichi Sonoda, who drew the above cover (plus a 4-page comic) in his distinctive style, mixing the old-school with the new. I decided not to grill him about his new Riding Bean manga vignette (soon to be appearing with AnimEigo's blu-ray edition!) and instead asked if he remembered meeting me at Anime Central back in the day. He did enthusiastically remember Anime Central, but did not remember me specifically. (I don't blame him, I remember the bar tab from that weekend.)

At this point, I met up briefly with my friends Ken and Heidi, and realized that it was getting to be time to leave Big Sight. That's another thing about Comiket – it's important to not hang around for too long, or else you'll be stuck for a good hour at the train station, waiting in the massive line of people. (Also, don't go to Akihabara directly from Comic Market, because that's where everyone else is going anyway.) Day 3 at Comiket was over, but I'd have my most illuminating experience at Comiket Day 4.

Comiket Day 4” is what local nerds cheekily refer to as going shopping in Akiba the day after Comiket wraps up, because Toranoana and some of the other shops will be stuffed with leftovers from the show. My destination was not Toranoana, but rather a slightly more specialized shop recommended by friends called Comic Zin. Zin is popular for a couple of reasons. First of all, brand-new manga volumes sold there are frequently packaged with exclusive art cards created exclusively for the chain. This is how anime and manga stores get you these days—every cool new thing comes with a little extra item for getting it at a certain retailer, and if you want all of the different retailer-exclusive extra items, well, you'll have to think hard about maybe buying a couple of extra copies of your target. Diabolical. The other reason Zin is popular is because of their large, esoteric collection of doujinshi.

Even after two days at Comic Market, for me it hadn't quite sunk in just how diverse doujinshi could really be. Doujinshi don't have to be about anime, or even about comics. The comic stuff is what sells best at Comiket, but Zin is where a friend of mine directed my attention to a slender, mostly-text volume chronicling the many different anime funded by cults. Jackpot! This particular book was volume 3, which means I now have to find volumes 1 and 2. It also had some extensive information about anime funded by the Sokka Gakkai (which I am aware of), but also stuff by another totally different weird Buddhist sect, which is new information to me. So I've got some research to do! Meanwhile, Prairie found a doujinshi book/comic hybrid all about different coffee drinks. Apparently, simple, gentle doujinshi “how to” books about typical household activities and pursuits are becoming more and more popular; this was just one example.

I also dug the above book, which is exactly what it says on the cover – funny comics and artwork of the Girls und Panzer heroines, all mixed up with Lupin the 3rd. Going to Comiket and then to Zin, seeing for myself this strength and diversity in subjects and meeting some of the artists, left me feeing inspired - not just to consume, but to create. Zin in particular did this, by demonstrating aptly that doujinshi do not have to be purely about comics. I don't want to start prematurely talking about how I'm totally going to have a print zine to sell at the next Comic Market… but I am starting to think about it, just a little.

One final Comiket thought: last year, a twitter buddy lamented that North American cons weren't more like Comic Market, and wished that a Comic Market existed for this part of the world. After visiting it myself, I'm not so sure that we're lacking for similar events. There were entire aisles at Comiket- especially the ones focused on selling crafts and other goods- that felt distinctly similar to American artist-alley style venues. Also, North America has plenty of events celebrating comics great and small – events like the Alternative Press Expo, TCAF, and my own local comic zine event, MICE. I also wonder if a Comiket-style event could survive outside of Japan, because of the weird, largely unspoken agreement that the big commercial content creators have with the small artists and circles who break copyright and sell fan works of licensed characters. Tradition has kept this practice alive at Comiket, but I'm not sure it can be exported at the same scale.

Ultimately, Comiket is different, but not that different. It's still all about spending a couple of days immersed in your favorite characters and stories, and sharing them with other people. It's about taking hundreds of cosplay photos, or dressing up yourself, or collecting a spine-busting backpack full of fan-made adventures of your favorites. One of the first things I saw when I approached Big Sight, filing in quietly as part of the huge line, was a guy at the edge of the cosplay area, facing us. He was wearing a slightly threadbare Super Mario costume, but he had the Mario body language down perfectly—he was just jumping up and down, over and over, and enthusiastically waving to linegoers with both hands. We all waved back.


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