Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Nerd Metropolis

Last December 30th I had the pleasure of attending the bi-annual Comi-ke (Comic Market) underground comics convention at Tokyo Big Site, which looks like My housemate Nori went to promote his Akihabara tours, and admission was free, so I decided to tag along and see what it was all about.

Nori certainly knows his market. I noticed several coach buses parked in front of the convention center circling round the clock to Akihabara. We arrived around 10 AM, but already the flow out of convention center seemed as heavy as that going in. Nori told me that these were the people who had camped out in the snow the night before to get the first crack at especially rare and valuable comics. They were heading straight to Akihabara to sell them at around 100% profit to stores that specialize in underground comics. All this and we hadn't even walked in yet.

Japanese Dojinshi (literally "peer publications") are a massive subculture in Japan. The definition is somewhat fuzzy, having started with amateurs who made simple comics and photocopied extras for their friends, subsequently exploding into any kind of small run comic that is printed and distributed by the artist and not one of the major comics publishers. How big of a subculture are dojinshi? Nori told me that half a million people attend this bi-annual two day convention. That is a lot of nerds.

Nerds being what they will, there were costumes. Really cool costumes. People in and into costumes congregated on an outdoor deck area. Guys with outsize digital cameras sporting lenses whose cost could feed a small African nation for a month vastly outnumbered fans in costumes. Guys in full on fatigues compared makeup with teenage girls in pink wigs and skintight action suits. Cartoon pigs bummed lights from Astro Boys. There was an entire etiquette of photo taking which everyone protected scrupilously; you needed verbal consent before any photos. (Which is why there are no smoking cartoon pigs posted below). Not surprisingly the more skin shown in a girl's costume the more photographers lining up to ask for her picture. Some people were ridiculously elaborate, the two figures in red pictured below were part of a 7 person coordinated squad, where one Japanese guy had even daubed his face and ears a rich chocolate brown in order to better approximate the black guy in the group. Whoa.

But about the comics. A few years ago I attended the Underground Publishing Conference (UPC) in Bowling Green Ohio, a fairly modest coference of underground comics artists and zines of all kinds, with a heavy anarchist DIY presence. There were about 800 people in attendance and it has since fizzled away. That was my last conference. Comike had about 35,000 seperate dojinshi groups that publish their own comics. For the unitiated the sheer volume was just overwhelming, I didn't know where to begin.

While UPC zines emphasized cheap and easy formats, most as simple as folded and stapled photocopies that flaunt their DIY aesthetic, the quality of your average Dojinshi at Comike was incredibly high. Printing in several colors on high quality paper and neatly bound was the standard. Japan is flush in small neighborhood printing shops that do printing for local businesses, and small runs of dojinshi can be published fairly easily.

While the content ranged from sci-fi stories to romance comics for little girls, by far the most noticable was the adult themed stuff. Dojinshi exist in a kind of legal gray area, and aren't subject to the government restrictions and regulations on mass produced stuff, which means the porn market is huge. It was more than a little unnerving to see female dojinshi artists proudly displaying their graphically detailed S&M comics with overtones of rape. But in general the atmosphere in the adult section was congenial and talkative, and outside of the occasional customer who had his scarf wrapped over his face and his cap pulled low, I didn't sense and furtiveness or shame. While the majority of artists were men, I was more than a bit surprised to note that probably 10-20% of them were women. For non-adult themed comics I'd say it was closer to 30 or 40%.

Since they averaged at around $10 a copy I didn't end up buying any comics, and when he ran out of business cards Nori and strolled down to the train station. Which turned out to be jammed with people leaving the convention. There was a 15 minute wait just to enter the station. I suppose it shouldn't have surprised me, but as we shambled along in the sea of nerds I picked out dialects from all over the country. There were even a few other white guys in the crowd, some with matching nerd girlfriends, others sullen islands unto themselves, bundles of carefully wrapped comics under both arms.

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