From The Melrose Free Press
Thursday, October 19, 2006
The art of Japanese ... comics?

I settled into my chair in the hotel conference room and pulled out my laptop computer to take notes.

A dog demon in flowing crimson robe glanced in the door and walked away. Behind me, a young man sat down, laid his sword across his knees and tied on a metal headband. The speaker came over and gave me a handful of books, but I couldn’t read them because they were in Japanese.

No, this wasn’t some sort of freaky dream. I was at a manga convention.

Last weekend I traveled to Secaucus, NJ, to attend MangaNEXT, the first-ever convention just for fans of manga, or Japanese comic books. The fastest-growing segment of the comics market, manga are longer and more complex than American comic books and are usually published in book format, often reading right to left like the Japanese originals.

Unlike readers of most other genres, manga fans really get involved with their comics. They dress up as the characters, they draw and print their own comics, and they gather in Internet communities to discuss and often rewrite their favorite stories.

So when manga folk get together, it’s really an event. MangaNEXT filled the halls of the Secaucus Crowne Plaza with ninjas, demons, and schoolgirls in sailor uniforms. A chorus of high school students clad in identical powder-blue blazers sang in the hallways, while samurai practiced their moves in the Starbucks line. Best of all, one woman came dressed as a Cup O’Noodles, in tribute to the cult favorite "Project X: Cup Noodle," which tells of the heroic struggles of food engineers to create the familiar ramen-in-a-cup.

Meanwhile, amateur and professional artists sold Naruto buttons, fleece hats with cat ears, and self-published comics. Members of the artist group Musajump, clad in Japanese school uniforms, attracted passers-by with jewel-like Japanese candies and a raffle for giant Pocky (a Japanese snack) as they pushed copies of their comic, Monotone Sky.

Most conventions don’t have a weapons policy, but manga fans are different. The guidebook cautioned attendees: No live steel (swords or bayonets that can take an edge), no crossbows, nothing that looks too real. And there was a strict eight-foot limit on length.

Despite the faux weaponry, the crowd was remarkably friendly. The manga world is a small one, and readers often make personal connections with editors and creators as well as each other. I particularly enjoyed talking shop with editors and publishers and meeting the manga artist Tania Del Rio, who draws Sabrina the Teenage Witch for Archie Comics. (Yes, fellow baby boomers, Sabrina has gotten a manga makeover.)

That’s the great thing about manga. In a world where entertainment and culture are carefully pre-packaged for passive consumption, manga lets you talk back. You can become the characters. You can talk to the editors. You can rewrite the stories. You can even read bootleg translations on the Internet and bypass The Man altogether (although The Man is probably reading the bootlegs too, scouting out the next book). Manga is subversive, and as the folks at MangaNEXT demonstrated, it’s also wicked fun.

I can’t wait for next year. I wonder how that woman got the noodles to stay put ...