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Guest post: My life with manga by Abby Denson

I ran into Abby Denson a couple of months ago, at a party occasioned by the MoCCA Art Festival here in NYC. She was just about to go to the awards dinner for the International Manga Award, and that got us to talking about her history with manga, and in particular, the very interesting fact that she’s tabled at a couple of manga conventions in Japan. I’d never met an American who’d done this, and I know I’ve got lots of students and friends who would love to know more, so I convinced her to write a guest post for us on the topic. Now that’s it’s shown up in my inbox, I’m even more intrigued and impressed!   –Jessica


On the occasion of receiving the International Manga Award for my graphic novel, Dolltopia , this spring, I’ve been reflecting on my relationship with manga and Japan over the past fifteen years or so. I’ve been lucky enough to study in Tokyo as well as exhibit at conventions there, and am grateful to have had manga as an influence and inspiration for my own journey as a comics creator. At the same time, I’ve always felt it was important to have my own style as opposed to aping a “manga” look that seems to be common with artists in the manga fandom. When it comes down to it, manga is just another word for comics and can be just as universally appreciated as comics from anywhere in the world can be.

I first was exposed to manga culture via anime that was popular in the early ’90s such as Akira and Battle Angel. I had been a comics reader from childhood, especially titles such as the X-Men and Alpha Flight which had lots of female characters and soap opera-ish plots, but had grown out of them as I finished high school. I was reintroduced to comics like Love and Rockets, Hate, and Tank Girl in late high school and college and started buying manga around then too, some of my favorites being Ranma 1/2 and Maison Ikokku. I remember being really impressed with Rumiko Takahashi’s worldwide popularity, especially since she was a female cartoonist. At that time it didn’t seem like there were many mainstream, popular female cartoonists or that large of a female comics fandom in the US. I got involved with the women’s comic organization Friends of Lulu to try and increase awareness of women as comics readers and professionals. I remember the female attendance at US shows being very low when I started to go, and it was rare that they even had any female guests at all. Now I am so excited about how things have changed for the better and I think manga’s popularity in the US is partly to thank for that change.

In 1995, while I was attending Parsons School of Design, I attended my first anime convention with coworkers from Vanguard Media, who I was interning with at the time. They were working on a Project A-Ko videogame among other things. The convention was so much fun; there were lots of female fans and I attended an event called Bishounen Bijoux, which was a screening of bishounen (gay romance themed) anime including The Song of Wind and Trees and Zetsuai. The beauty of the male characters struck me as well as the use of gay themes, and I was driven to do my own take on the theme of gay boys in love, which became my first comic, Tough Love. I also started taking Japanese classes in college, trying to expand my understanding of these comics.

Abby Denson/Yuuko Koyama comic collaboration

My minicomic Tough Love got picked up as a serial in the gay teen mag, XY Magazine. This launched me as a pro and got my work seen internationally through their distribution, including in Japan where I gained a few female pen pals who bought XY. One of these is the cartoonist Yuuko Koyama, who I collaborate with to this day. At that point, I decided to go to Japan and found an opportunity at the Sophia University’s Summer Session program which had credits I could transfer to the New School and had classes, including Japanese Art and Japanese Religion, from 8:30am-1pm, leaving lots of time to explore the city afterwards.  Studying and living in Japan was a definite highlight of my life and I was pleased that the Japanese pen pals I had were fantastic and friendly in person. My visit also coincided with that year’s Summer Comiket – the immense self-published comic show held twice a year in Tokyo.

Yuuko and I collaborated on a comic for the event and luckily we got a booth (they are in high demand and distributed via lottery; each table is allotted for one day of the convention weekend). Here’s a link to an informative English pdf all about Comiket.

Recent statistics show that 71% of exhibitors and 57% of attendees are women!

I wrote an article about the experience in a 1998 Friends of Lulu newsletter. Here’s an excerpt:

“A comic convention with over 450,000 attendees and over 20,000 exhibitors (called fan circles) all of whom are self-publishers. A three-day event, where the first two days are “girls’ days”, when attendance is 75% women, including the exhibitors. It may sound like some amazing fantasy, but it happens twice a year at Ariake Convention Center in Japan.”

I was incredibly impressed with how many of the exhibitors and attendees were female. This was a show that was several times larger than San Diego Comic Con and it was over 50% women creating and buying comics! It blew my mind. It was also interesting to me that most of the comics were parodies of existing video games, manga, or anime and overwhelmingly “adult” in nature. In fact, there were no children to be seen in attendance under the age of 14. This was a huge contrast to the American comic convention experience! I’ll always be eternally grateful to Yuuko for her friendliness and ushering me directly into Japanese manga culture so kindly and easily.

Abby and Yuuko at Comitia

Over the years I’ve continued working on my own comics as well as scripting licensed comics for companies including Archie, DC, and Marvel. I also adapted manga translations for Del Rey, and occasionally taught comics writing classes. I returned to Japan the winter of 2000 (and did Winter Comiket with Yuuko again), and then not again until November 2010. I stayed in touch with Yuuko over all this time and when I planned last fall’s trip, timed it so we could exhibit at Comitia together. Comitia is different from Comiket in that it’s smaller, it happens 4 times a year, cosplay is not a part of it, and most importantly–all of the comics are original as opposed to parodies. This makes it more like the equivalent of a SPX or MOCCA type of show. Except, of course it’s in a huge venue (the equivalent of Javits Center, in the same venue as Comiket) and it happens for only one day. I wrote a few extensive posts (and another one) on my experience this time at my blog.

As for coming to Japan and exhibiting yourself, this is still difficult for non-Japanese residents. According to this document the Comiket rules say to apply for a table, an application must submitted by someone with a home address in Japan, and it’s also part of their application form that the applicant must understand Japanese, so anybody who wants to apply for a table is pretty much dependent on friends in Japan to do it for them.

As for the smaller and more indie style Comitia, they don’t have any English on their website at all. So typically foreigners are still reliant on friends in Japan to participate. However, there is a tour group called Pop Japan Travel that organizes November Japan tours that include tabling at Comitia. They are not running trips in 2011 due to the earthquake, but it could be an option for next year.

In addition to participating in the show I visited the Osamu Tezuka Museum and the Kyoto International Manga Museum. Both are excellent destinations for cartoonists visiting Japan.

Not long after I returned from that most recent trip, I got a call from the Japanese Consulate informing me that Dolltopia won the Bronze International Manga Award. I felt there was no greater validation I could ask for as a manga-inspired artist than this award from the Japanese government. I plan to collaborate with the Japanese Consulate for manga-related events to help assist in recovery after the tragic earthquake and tsunami of this past March and have already planned to return to Japan this fall. I strongly encourage visiting Japan to cartoonists and comics fans, whether or not you are a reader of Japanese comics. Japan’s comics culture is huge, inspirational, and well worth exploring.

 

Abby Denson is the creator of the graphic novels Dolltopia and Tough Love: High School Confidential, as well as City Sweet Tooth, a cartoon dessert blog about NYC. She’s scripted Powerpuff Girls, Amazing Spider-Man Family, and many other comics for Marvel, Archie, and DC. Her work has garnered a Lulu Award, an International Manga Award, and a Moonbeam Children’s Book Award. See her art and listen to her music at http://www.abbycomix.com. Read her dessert blog at http://www.citysweettooth.com/

 

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