I was walking through the artist alley at Anime Expo this year with Tom and the thought kind of came to me: in the US we sell crap as it is in the Artist’s Alley–character merchandise labeled with our favorite ideas, like t-shirts with sarcastic or funny phrases on them. In this case it also doubles as a stylistic option given the artwork on your hat or pin or the print you hang in your bathroom wall. [I'm so hanging that pretty neat Miku print I got last year in my new bathroom.]
The whole thing is more along the lines of an arts and craft show than a maniacs-of-franchise swap-a-thon, the latter being the case of Comiket, where fans flock to pick up their doujinshi or whatever. From a copyright perspective the differences between American and Japanese fans explain the nature of copyright enforcement in this practical application of law between the same two countries. At the same time, it feels like the American artist alley wares fill in a gap in the consumer market: the lack of licensed merchandise and goods at the right price.
Except that isn’t even quite the case anymore. There are licensed merchandise for a lot of this stuff available in the US. It may be hard to find sometimes, and there may be smaller gaps (licensed “sarcastic t-shirts” are hard to find and really expensive when you do; always make me a tad bit sad when I see those Jlist shirts) that are not fulfilled, but merch presence is by and large there in some way. What’s a fan to do in this context as a producer of stuff to sell? The thought came to me about doujinshi, then, as what market segment it really fills.
I mean in some ways there were always American fans putting together these coterie magazine like EX or that new Colony Drop zine or Super Rat’s zine. There are plenty of examples littered across the past 20 years. Even now, I know some folks I work with on Jtor also are interested in making that kind of stuff. There’s a particular attraction to that publishing format. I think especially today in America, where e-readers and tablet computing are truly the order of the day, there’s a rich visual space now available that would really suit publishing for this kind of material. (Not to mention that for photogs there’s also something a nice print offers that your monitor is definitely missing.)
It just makes me wonder why people don’t flock to this format in the artist alley. I suppose, comparing workflows, it’s way less work and pressure to just make prints of random stuff you draw or make buttons or whatever. In Japan people bust balls (often together!) trying to put together their 16-page manga or whatever before the various deadlines for the various doujinshi events. It feels like the former is run like a lemonade stand and the latter is run like an actual project.
I’m not really here to minimize the contribution and hard work of artist alley types or lemonade sellers. I’ve bought my fair share of things from them, and some of those arts and craft stuff are well worth of our money and attention (in fact, I want to highlight that here). And we all know lemonade makes a delicious summertime drink. The artist alley concept is fine to have these vendors and artists participate, and for the most part the notion of artist alley as we know it works perfectly, and each con’s add a piece of the local flavor and culture to the overall convention experience. But culturally, the con artist alley is a creatively dead space, full of two types of things: people making a quick dollar on derivative copyrighted works and well-known trademarks, and artful people making cool art stuff. Sure, there are still some people doing their original stuff here and there, but I mean, I want my US counterpart of the doujinshi market to be able to provide an environment where a Tsukihime or a Nyoro~n Tsuruya-san will be able to thrive. But I just don’t see that being ever possible with the way things are.
Where is this happening? Where everything else is happening: the intarwebs.
The mode of consumption, I wager, has completely screwed the pooch in terms of where “content” buyers go to shop. People who buy crap at the artist alley at an anime con are shopping for some kind of image-based good. They want merch; they’re not as interested in content. By this I mean we’re after just ideas, icons and signals; not narratives. For that we go buy anime or manga, even web comics, forums and fanfiction. If we want a cute story about Cirno, for example, we can go read a Japanese doujinshi. And I imagine any American doing the same thing is likely going to publish it online anyways. It’s like, you can’t make it as an artist in the artist alley; you make it as an artist somewhere else, and you use the artist alley like a dealer’s room: sell crap.
With that in mind, I’ll cop a line from Makoto Shinkai’s Otakon press panel (my version w):
With the changes to animation and computer technology, how have things changed in the past 20 years as an artist?
Shinkai: Today the circumstnaces are better, the hardware is better, and there’s the internet to help distribute. There’s better software. The truth is what you want to express in your work is still the basis of that. When you are creating it on your own, the effort goes into making it look good. So today even when the circumstances are better, if the artist doesn’t understand that you need to express through from what you want to show, then things hasn’t really changed much.
So how do today’s independent artists accomplish this, at least in the context of the artist alley situation? To me the solution is obvious for an organizational body. Tap into the fan-creation communities (lots of places) and make a call for self-published works in the long format. Work with an online print company to organize some kind of infrastructure where you can do, for example, print on demand, bulk, negotiate on infrastructural burdens and prices for those things. Set a deadline for submissions, screen the submission and assists authors and creators with their work, and submit the end results to the print-on-demand service. Be the go-between for the printer and the artists. Set a fix date (like a week) where people can buy the doujinshi from the site at a discount and they will be all shipped together at the end of the period. Market the hell out of the online event during that time. Debut all those submissions at the start of the week and take them down after it is over. If you’re awesome, you can also make them purchasable via e-reader/tablet-friendly format.
- Divorce the “con” culture from the nature of the creative endavor but still put it in context of the fandom; use the internet instead.
- Reach the people who are already interested in these expressive forms of discourse by marketing to specific grottoes on the internet
- Create value for POD/publisher by bundling eyeballs online and attach their brand to the effort
- Create value for buyers and artists by bargaining collectively and sell in bulk, reduce shipping charges
- Provide the middleman for technical help and billing, education and generally assist artists in online sales.
There are a myraid of technical challenges along the way, but the biggest question in my mind is what would people want to buy? Doujinshi as we know it? Doujinshi as it is in reality (ie., a lot of text-based things)? Music? Games? I see things like, say, Altogether fitting this idea closely. Translating a doujin game is a very different process flow than running a lemonade stand. But what else? I think people would buy photo books of figures. Even more people might buy your garden variety cartoon for adults, but that runs into some problems. Who would buy some home-grown Touhou doujinshi? Is this like the field of dreams, where if someone builds a cheap, accessible way to create, sell and buy doujinshi, people will come?
And again, to address my previous point about artist alley, in reality it isn’t the fault of anyone that our American artist alleys are like that; it is just much easier and natural to do a lemonade stand than to manage a project on the scale of a properly-made doujinshi. It’s also much easier to run something like a dealer’s room than to manage something like Comiket. So rather than to change a thing that works, maybe I’m just looking for something that’s not offered by that space.
Though, this isn’t a chicken-and-egg problem. Comiket and its kin can’t exist without doujinshi, and doujinshi cannot exist without passionate creators and fans. So at the core of it all are dedicated fans who want to semi-formally communicate with each other (and also less-dedicated fans) about the stuff they love. Maybe that is the true test of the nature of America’s fascination with Japanese pop culture from the lens of anime, manga and games. I have no doubts that these people exist, I just don’t know if they can be organized enough to build on top of the same feelings and emotions that drives them.