On August 14th I had the privilege of tabling at Comiket 90, the 90th iteration of Japan’s premiere, bi-annual comic book market. Held at the quad-updside-down pyramid palace known as Tokyo Big Sight, Comiket is easily the most-attended comic book show in the world. With more than half a million visitors over the course of three days, Comiket dwarfs even New York Comic Con and San Diego Comic-Con International’s combined, multi-day numbers. It’s a beast. A strange beast. A kaiju of a show.
Unlike the media-heavy NYCC, SDCC and many other mainstream conventions in the United States, Comiket is essentially one massive artist alley (or a series of massive artist alleys, split up between a few halls) devoted principally to doujinshi (self-published, original or unlicensed fan comics created just for limited runs at cons). For sure, scores of cosplayers pose for photos outside and wander the show floor. Some mainstream publishers and studios like Warner Bros. have booths in a separate area of the show. And naturally, a handful of comics-centric supply companies like Deleter, Copic and Wacom have vendor booths in designated corners of each exhibitor hall. But true to its name, Comiket is a comic market above all else. It’s also completely free to attend, making it one of the most democratic cons of its size. Attendees are suggested to purchase one of the show’s phonebook-sized catalogs, which run ¥2,000 onsite (right about $20 USD), as those funds help keep the show afloat. Attendees can also buy the catalogs offsite, at places like bookstores and manga shops, for ¥2,500 (about $25 USD).
So how did I get to travel to Japan to attend this wild show? How was it compared to comic conventions in the US? What did I learn that I can share to help empower the next generation of comic book creators with more ambition than sense? I will answer at least two of these questions below in this accessible and SEO-friendly blog post, replete with original photos and video and probably some links to stuff you can buy.
I didn’t know Americans could even table at Comiket. How did a rando like you get to table there?
Honestly? I knew a guy who knew a guy. And they all knew things. Bless them.
As far as I know, there are only two ways into Comiket, assuming you have the financial and temporal means to travel to Japan for several days.
- Know somebody who can help you fill out the paperwork and answer any questions you have — and you will have them (like me)
- Be fluent in Japanese (unlike me)
Like a lot of comic book creators from my generation, manga and manga-based multimedia like anime, video games and toys played a huge part in my creative development. I’ve always dreamed of tabling at Comiket for a chance to be among some of my favorite mangaka on their home turf. So after a few years of tabling at some of the larger comic conventions in the US, I figured I’d dig into how to get into the show for kicks. One night, which just happened to be two days before the registration deadline, I did. I visited the official Comiket website and its English language portal for visiting attendees and clicked around using Google Chrome’s Translate extension until I found some application info. I felt confident. After all, I’ve been ordering toys and comics from international sites for years. How hard could it be?
It was too hard.
And so, I reached out to a friend and former co-worker who’d been living and working in Japan for years, to see if he could help. I was expecting a polite “You’re insane,” but it turned out he had a friend who runs an organization connected to the show. They asked me for some crucial info. I replied as best I could. Within the next 36 hours I was registered and assured I’d have everything I needed to table at the show. I just owed them the table fee, which was around ¥9100 ($91 USD) for a single day. This fee covered a table with two chairs, plus three entry passes. It’s about the same rate as a bigger show in the US.
That “crucial info” included the usual stuff — name, address, etc. — but the most important info would decide my fate as a tabling artist.
If you want to table at Comiket, you’ll need a circle name and you’ll need to pick a genre you’d like to be represented alongside. I’d heard about circles before, but didn’t realize their importance. I wanted to table as “Caleb Goellner.” It’s how we do things here, and I figured it might help Japanese readers understand that I was a foreigner with perhaps more “western” material. But, as my handlers explained to me, a circle is kind of like your publisher name for the con. It can be whatever you want — for those with pen names already, it’s simple — but it helps explain your work to people who discover you on the floor or look you up in advance with the phonebook-sized Comiket catalog and its online counterpart. I chose “Mer-Bro”.
Picking your genre is even more important. Comiket takes place over three days, between the remarkably doable hours of 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Day 1 is usually a “boys” day and deals in genres generally associated with young men and boys — shonen manga and its ilk. Day 2 is usually a “girls” day and deals in shoju manga and content targeting principally women. Day 3 is principally an “adult” day and is chock fulla’ every flavor of porn a pen can create. Guess which day I was there?
Turns out, there was a little bit of confusion about where to put me since I was a foreigner with a wholly original graphic novel instead of a more traditional doujinshi. To simplify things, I was seated with travelogue artists in a circle area that happened to be located smack dab in the middle of dozens of rows of hentai on Day 3. This was just a little bit wilder than I expected. I’m on Tumblr and Reddit and whatever and I still blushed a little. In the end, things worked out fine, but if I return, I’m going to shoot for Day 1 to try to reach a more targeted audience.
So that’s how I did it.
If you can read Japanese at a high level, you should be able to take care of everything yourself, provided you’re familiar with convention and basic manga industry jargon. You can simply download a PDF and submit it through the site like you would for most US shows. Just follow the instructions. There are a lot of them, but it didn’t seem any more complicated than what I’ve encountered at home.
You don’t really have to wait to get “accepted” like at a vetted/curated show. You just wait a little while for a confirmation e-mail. I want to say I got my confirmation info within a few days. Once that happens, you’re asked for some additional information, along with an image that Comiket can use for its physical and digital exhibitor catalog. The instructions for formatting are very clear, but very specific. So be ready for that as well.
So what’d you take to sell if you didn’t make a doujinshi?
I met a pair of professional translators through a colleague and hired them to localize my comic Mermaid: Evolution, transforming it into マーメイド進化論! It was a straightforward process, but more work than I was expecting. First off, I had never written a proper script for Mermaid (surprise, I know!), so I had to transcribe it from scratch to send to the translation team. Secondly, I hadn’t created a trade paperback collecting the series in English yet, so I had to design and format one. Lastly, I had to erase — and in some cases redraw — parts of my book to accommodate new lettering. One big hitch was that even in Clip Studio Paint, I had no idea how to use fonts correctly or accommodate annotative tools called ruby characters in my re-lettering process. It was a whole thing. But after a few weeks, I finished! The translators and a few native Japanese-speaking friends told me it all made sense, so I sent it to the printer and got copies with time to spare before the con.
I felt legit. I was going to sell my comic to Japanese readers in their native tongue! Just in case, though, I also packed some issues of my Mer-Pugs comic, some Mer-Pugs pins, some copies of Task Force Rad Squad #1 and a few TMNT trade paperbacks I have stories in. I usually sell a short box worth of comics at a 2-4 day show in the US, so I felt good with approximately 65 comics in tow for a single day.
Okay, so you’re approved and have stuff to sell. What next?
I visited Japan for a little longer than a week in 2015, so I was ready to travel to Tokyo and get around by train and all of the logistical stuff that makes a trip a trip. My wife, Anna, was helping out big time as well, so I could focus on lugging around comics and whining about how hot and humid it was (and it was hot and humid – I grew up in the midwest, but Portland summers have made me soft). Here’s a tip for Tokyo in August that I learned from an American friend living in Japan: Go into a Lawson or another convenient store and grab some Gatsby Cooling Wipes. You’ll thank me later.
Anyway, we got into Tokyo a few days early. I met with my handlers at Tokyo Big Sight the next afternoon and they got me set up with my official information packet. It contained my three passes, a map of the show floor, and other basics. One of my handlers outlined show rules for me, as well.
Here are a few takeaways:
- You’re supposed to be able to communicate with guests at Comiket. For me, this meant having some help from a handler, who sat at my table with me for portions of the show. If you go on your own, either speak enough Japanese to get by, or have a friend who can tag along. Most people knew enough English to buy from me while I was alone, but you’ll want the help if you’re not fluent.
- Comiket doesn’t have creator badges. Or badges for anyone, really. Your passes are holofoil-y paper tickets that gatekeepers quickly rip before sending you on your way through an exhibitor line.
- Comiket exhibitors don’t really do the huge retractable banner thing we’re used to doing at US shows. To be honest, there’s not really room for them. Some people have thin stands with a poster or two hanging from them, but otherwise you should bring a tablecloth. That’s probably it. I forgot to bring one and I regret it.
- Tables are small. They’re like what we think of as half-tables in the US. Two seated chairs with people in them is a tight fit. You’ll want to be ready to deal with the space issues.
- You’re not supposed to hassle people, but you can politely pitch passers-by. Basically say something concise like “I’m selling a comic about a Mermaid. Please take a look.” If you’ve walked through an entertainment or vice district in Tokyo, it’s kind of like how waiters pitch you on coming into a bar, but even more low key.
- Nobody really seemed to be taking commissions at the show, though you probably can if you can get people interested. Fans are mostly just expecting new comics.
- At US shows, most people kind of expect a signature when they buy something. At Comiket, everyone acted surprised by the offer. Go figure!
Cool. So how’d your day at Comiket go?
It was great. Hot. But great. Better than I’d hoped.
Here’s a rundown of my day.
My wife and I woke up at 5:30 a.m., went for a run, and got ready to hop on a series of trains from where we were staying in Shinjuku to the station outside of Tokyo Big Sight in Ariake. It was about an hour commute, exacerbated by packed train cars. You’ve probably seen footage of people being squeezed into trains during rush hour in Tokyo. Our first few trains were empty (Sunday mornings are typically quiet), but as we began transferring closer to the show, the crowding bordered on mythical. Fortunately, nearly everyone was headed toward the same comic-filled destination, so spirits were high despite the increasingly lessening impact the train air conditioning was having.
Once we got to the Kokusaitenjijoseimon station, we made our way up an escalator and out of its heavily anime ad-decorated interior onto a paved path leading up to the expo center.
Tokyo Big Sight is one of the coolest convention centers I’ve ever seen, like something you’d see on the Vegas Strip, only… nice. Really nice. If you arrive via the train station, you walk through a bit of a shaded pavilion onto series of wide staircases up into the main floor of the facility, then into one of the main hallways, which is walled with a series of halls on each side. We rolled in around 8:30 a.m., which is prime time for exhibitors to show up, but still early for fans, who have to wait until 10 a.m. to enter.
Getting into the show as an exhibitor was surreal. Maybe the lowest-impact check-in to a show this complex. We simply walked into the building alongside a bunch of other exhibitors, handed one of a dozen volunteers our tickets at the entrance line, and made our way toward my table. It was easier than getting into a matinee at a chill suburban movie theater on a Tuesday.
Meanwhile, thousands of guests were waiting in lines stretching from the entrance all the way back to the train station. It was something to behold. I’ve never seen anything like it, even at major outdoor music festivals. Guests seem relaxed. Many of them were sitting, passing the time in tranquility before doors open and the (crazy organized) race inside began. I credit the relaxed vibes chiefly to the army of volunteers, who keep everything flowing in what feels like one fluid motion. In their neon green hats (with many wearing work gloves) they were unto a legion of Luigis. 2013 was eating its heart out.
Once inside, we made our wall through the main hall and over to the West Hall, where I thought my table was, but turned out to contain two massive rooms housing some of the publisher booths and other circles. It only took a moment to realize my table was in the East Hall across the way, which housed around than half a dozen connected rooms of tables. I was relieved, because the AC hadn’t been turned on in the West Hall yet and it was… less than comfortable. Once in the East Hall, we quickly located my table with the help of a volunteer, who could tell I needed a boost.
At my table — East Hall 5, table 53B — I had about 45 minutes to meet my handler, arrange my wears and meet my neighbors before the halls shut down to prepare for the grand opening. I tabled next to a group of Japanese/Finnish comic creators who publish a an anthology that they sell at shows across Europe and Asia, along with a local creator who published manga about what it’s like to be a voice actor in the anime industry. As I mentioned earlier, we were in a cluster of tables representing mostly foreigners and local creators who published travelogues and associated “real world” works. Mermaid is basically Guy Delisle fare, right?
Before I realized it, several announcements had rang over the PA and the doors were open, with the AC kicking on.My wife caught a bunch of good footage of attendees being unleashed in waves. The volunteers have to do a lot of crowd control, no matter how chill the otaku at this show might be. I sat several rows down from the hall’s main entrance and watched from afar as a flood of thousands of fans poured. Exhibitors and volunteers clapped in appreciation — and I did appreciate it. It felt kind of like cheering the starting lineup of a pro sports team as they run onto a court. Considering how long attendees had been waiting, they deserved it.
Right away staff came by asking for a copy of my comics for the show and their assigned registration cards. Basically, there’s an organization that collects one copy of each debut (and just your new work created for that show — no worries about giving them a copy of EVERYTHING you bring) and inserts a sticker with your work’s info and price. It was a quick process and I was happy to contribute copies of Mermaid and Mer-Pugs. Now I’m in the Comiket history books.
I had no idea what to sell my work for. Most people have things priced to move. I stuck with ¥500-1,000 (around $5-10) for my books, depending on page count.
I was busy most of the day, with some slowness between bursts of buyers. It was more or less like any show I do in a new city where I don’t have any returning fans and have to be social to engage new ones.
A friend in Tokyo had advised me on a few expressions I could say as people walked by. It was a big help. A simple “Irasshaimase” goes a long way to welcome people to your table and figure out what you’ve got on hand.
Maybe a quarter of my buyers were Americans abroad or otherwise Engish-speaking foreigners living in Japan. Otherwise, almost everyone was Japanese. Most knew enough English to ask me about my books and inquire about my trip to Comiket (I wish I’d known more Japanese, I was really grateful for their courtesy). A few knew very little English, but we got by as they pointed to what they wanted and I pointed to prices. My Japanese handler who spoke a plethora of languages and studied in America was crucial to one or two interactions that would’ve otherwise been a simple exchange of money and goods. I got some nice feedback and got to show my appreciation more elegantly than by clumsily smiling and nodding. Many were also kind enough to add me on social media after the exchange. I got a few nice notes that night, too, from people who enjoyed the books and appreciated an American artist coming to the show. I… may have teared up a little.
Before I knew it, it was 4 p.m. The show was over already. I’ve done long days at major cons, but even at several hours shorter, Comiket took it out of me. A combo of the trip, the heat, jetlag and my brain being on fire trying to remember my crude Japanese probably added to the fatigue. An announcement chimed over the PA and the crowd erupted in applause as a stream of volunteers rolled in from outside to tear things down. It was all I could do to pack my comics up in the minutes that followed. When I looked up, half the room was empty and almost all of the nearby chairs had been loaded onto wheeled racks. Many tables were beginning to be stacked as well. Comiket does NOT mess around.
Relieved, we made our way out of Tokyo Big Sight and soaked up the evening view, taking the long staircases down to the train station. It was super peaceful as we left, with the sun beginning to set in the distance. Chill vibes, you know? The station itself was packed, with a line winding 7 rows thick just to get to the ticket machines, which I’d never seen before even at the busiest stations. Fortunately, like all lines in Tokyo, it moved efficiently.
We tripped back to the hotel many comics lighter, dizzy with dehydrated euphoric exhaustion. I’d sold nearly all of my books and hopefully made an impression on some mainstream manga readers. I didn’t get discovered by Shueshia and instantly become the latest star artist in Shonen Jump, but as I downed what felt like my 30th bottles of Pocari Sweat and Boss coffee of the day, it felt like maybe a version of me somewhere in the multiverse might’ve.
All that, and you didn’t go shopping or check out the cosplay scene? What’s wrong with you?
I did take a few restroom breaks (like almost everywhere I’ve been in Japan, they were super clean despite being at a huge comic show), taking a few extra minutes to wander around. It was so hot I didn’t spend much time peering the cosplay up close and settled for taking it in at a distance before returning to my table. I saw a lot of people dressed as Berserk characters — mostly Guts, which makes sense because the new CG anime is in full swing. Otherwise it was mostly, like… fetish characters? I couldn’t ID a number of the more risqué crew, but maybe they weren’t specific characters? Anyway, there’s a ton of cool stuff I know I missed, and you can find that on the cosplay corner of the internet in vivid detail.
Oh, one other observation: I saw maybe 50 people in Marvel comics tees or assorted character apparel. Zero DC stuff. Curious.
Another total aside: There’s no music at Comiket to speak of. I loved it. I mean, I don’t mind hearing the Star Wars theme a few times a day if I gotta at a show in the US, but I did not miss the oppressive pop and sci-fi theme dissonance a lot of cons serve up. The light din of the crowd was all the noise I needed.
Although I didn’t see much familiar cosplay, I did see one Deadpool on my way out. He really wanted my attention. I wish I’d taken a picture as we high-fived.
I also saw a dude wearing a shirt with a piece of red white and blue sushi with a dick on top of it labeled “U.S.A.”. I did get a picture of that. He was very happy to have an American take interest. No, I’m not posting it here. My mom might read this.
Long story short, I was there to connect with a new audience. Exhibitor tickets only cover the day you’re set to peddle your wares, so I focused on manning my table.
So was Comiket worth it for you?
From a financial perspective, this was a total vanity trip. A kind of working vacation. Nobody at Comiket had ever heard of me, and none of my mainstream comics have been released in Japan yet (although my TMNT stuff is on the way). I had to cover translating, reformatting and reprinting my comic, plus lug it from PDX to Narita. We cashed in some miles and got a really solid deal on our flights, picked a chill hotel, did a lot of walking, and didn’t splurge on extra stops in Japan (We wanted to hit Kyoto, but saved it for next time). But still, I had no economic reason to go and had no reason to think I’d make any money. In fact, I was prepared to just pass out my comic as a free promotional item if I had to, to make it worth all the work. Fortunately I didn’t have to. I only had a handful of books leftover at the end of the day, having sold everything else.
But yeah, I had a rad time. It was well worth it to me.
Every — I guess indie cartoonist or whatever I am at this point in my comics journey — has their daydreams. Mine was to maybe interact with a mangaka I’d heard of in some fashion (I did!) and maybe meet an editor from a publication I’d heard of (I totally didn’t!) and potentially get the wheels turning on releasing some of my stuff in Japan (…we’ll, uh, see). But my earnest real-world goal was just to go to the show, walk around, interact with attendees and generally be a part of the event. I did all of that and didn’t pass out from the heat, plus I had several days to see friends, explore Tokyo some more, and generally experience Japan and practice some Japanese. It was a great trip.
Would you do anything differently?
I think so! My easiest seller at the show was Task Force Rad Squad. People really latched onto it in no small part thanks to the art of my oft-co-creator Buster Moody, but also perhaps due to its tokusatsu flavor. One reader who picked up several of my comics sent me a really nice message and mentioned that there’s a growing appetite for American fare (“Amecomi”, as some fans call it) among the core Japanese comics readership. So if I get to go back, I think I’ll:
- Table on Day 1
- Brave the corporate booths to try to network with editors and publishers
- Focus on my higher-end English-language comics
- Know WAY more Japanese
- Figer out a chill way to hange a poster, and bring a tablecloth to look more legit (I could honestly stand to bring my own tablecloth to domestic shows, while I’m thinking about it…)
- Communicate with more people into Amecomi via social media a few weeks in advance, if I can crack that community
- Maybe go to the winter show? It’s right at the end of the holidays, stretching into the New Year. The timing is weird, but the cold is preferable to the heat!
- I might fit in better at Comitia since that show is focused on original work rather than fan comics. It just took place at Tokyo Big Sight, so I kind of wish I could’ve done both shows in one trip!
I have more questions. Can I ask you more questions?
I can try to answer general questions on Twitter, yeah! I’m at @calebandrew