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A-Kon 2010 Convention Report
By Thomas Zoth
June 21, 2010
© Mania/Bob Trate
A-Kon, held annually in Dallas, is the oldest running anime convention in North America. The first, "Project" A-Kon, was held in 1990, and had an attendance of 380 fans. A-Kon 21, held June 4-6 2010, had an estimated attendance of 18,000 people. The previous month had seen layoffs at Viz, the complete disappearance of Go! Comi, and the sudden shuttering of CMX manga, and yet A-Kon staff considered A-Kon 21 their most successful and widely attended convention yet. I am not the first to note the contradiction, but at A-kon evidence was abundant that at the same time the anime and manga industry is contracting, anime and manga are more popular than ever.
The convention was held at the Sheraton Hotel in Dallas. Con panels, the dealers room, artist's alley, and video rooms were held in the 3-story convention center that could be reached by skybridge from the hotel. Air conditioning was malfunctioning or turned off, bringing a new meaning to the term "fan service". Popularity of a given panel or dealer could be approximated by the relative air temperature. Oddly enough, what was hot at A-Kon was the anime industry. The companies themselves were conspicuously absent: No Funimation, despite the fact it's headquartered in Dallas. No Sentai Filmworks from nearby Houston. No prominent anime or manga companies at all, save a small booth from Canada's Udon press. Looking at the convention schedule, however, you'd never guess it.
Panels included: All About Webcomics, Digital Coloring and Illustration, Basics of Anime - Style and Art Appreciation, Cosplay Q&A, Working in Manga and Video Games, Manga Writing 101, Learning Japanese With Anime, So You Want to Be a Voice Over Star, Learning Colloquial Japanese Through Manga, Watercolor in Comics and Cartooning, Character Development, Inking and Basic Color Theory, Writing Unique Heroes and Villains, How to Break Into the Gaming Industry, Anime Auditions, Developing Creative Properties, How to Use Copic Markers, How To Write Anime, and Cel Painting.
To check out and see how popular these panels actually were, I dropped by Manga Writing 101, helmed by Steve Horton and Jason Thompson. The room was packed. "It's a hard time for books," Thompson said, "and Original English Manga especially." The crowd didn't seem too discouraged, and asked for tips on how to best outline stories, and how to improve their dialogue. It was fairly clear that at the same time more and more people wanted to get into the anime and manga industry, fewer and fewer people actually wanted to buy. You could value anime and manga currently at zero dollars, as that tends to be the place where buyers agree to buy and sellers find themselves helpless to resist. Yet, if supply increases at a time when demand stays stagnant or even decreases, it just drives the price down further. It was hard to figure out how the industry would welcome all of this new talent.
However, there were panels on actually existing anime. Philosophy professor T. Scott Ferguson shared his thesis on "Eva and Utena: Love as a Philosophical Problem." As a big academic geek, I thrill at panels like this, where obscure citations and terminology fly like laser beams. I was surprised to see at least 50 people stay and listen to his paper on what the two series, both over 10 years old, said about the human condition. "Loneliness is the only possible space love can happen," Ferguson concluded, as many raised their hands to share their own thoughts. Meanwhile, across the hall, a health professional with a "stamp out syphilis" bag gave a panel on "Sex at Cons." She also gave panels for both "Girls at Cons," on how to be safe, and "Guys at Cons," on how not to be "that guy." After the con was over, I heard her say that she felt the panels were a great success, and she'd be more than happy to hold them next year.
I returned to the hotel bar for a late supper, and got to hear a vendor and professional con worker share war stories. Though this was a weekend of fun for most, this was a job for them. It was fascinating to hear their thoughts, and I was heartened to know that anime and manga were at least making a living for somebody.
I started the next day off with "Translators Assemble!", a panel held by professional translators Sheldon Drzka, Jack Tarbox (both formerly of CMX), Ewen Cluney, and Jan Scott-Frazier. Many questions were about how to best learn Japanese. Tarbox regrettably admitted that, "Trying to learn Japanese in America is like trying to swim on land," and recommended that those serious about the work study abroad. The translators talked about the compromises inherent in all translation, and the necessity of changing meaning due to space and time constraints. They dismissed the charge that their work was often inaccurate, citing examples of known inaccuracies that were never brought up as examples. "It's usually the best work that is most often criticized. Criticism about accuracy is often wrong. Do criticize us if the translation is boring, however, as that is our fault." Each translator also mentioned that they had signed contracts for translation jobs that would be delivered digitally, exclusively. "I didn't think it was coming for years," Tarbox confessed, "but it's coming sooner than you think. In some cases, you won't even be given the option to buy the book on paper."
I moved next to "Using Manga and Anime in the Classroom," held by Helen McCarthy, Marc Hairston, and Shannon Terrill. It was inspiring, hearing the stories shared by teachers and librarians of reluctant readers, many in inner-city schools, some with learning disabilities, who got into reading through manga. "Kids will read, if you give them books they are interested in," a teacher volunteered. A librarian shared stories about how dyslexic students found it easier to read manga, perhaps due to the right-to-left reading, and due to the pictures which provided context to the language. And the reading didn't stop at manga, according to many. Once the students had started reading, they moved on to other books. Libraries were key, however, as many of the students could not afford the $10 for a manga volume, and many wouldn't even have the high speed internet available for piracy. Also interesting to hear was how manga and anime had broadened many students' horizons. A teacher described how a class full of homophobic teenage boys had changed after watching a season of Kyou Kara Maoh! or Fruits Basket in an after-school anime club. Apparently, they'd gone from calling each other "gay" to screaming, "No, Wolfram! Don't let him go! You know you'll regret it."
I stopped by the Komik Market to see the booth of Zero Zigen, a Japanese doujinshi circle, who had decided to premiere their visual novel Koenchu! in Dallas. They had worked to provide both English text and voice-over, and were working on Spanish as well. I asked producer Masashirow why he had decided to do this, and he said it was in part to beat out fan translations and piracy. He also wanted to demonstrate that the visual novel was more than just a form of pornography, and that it was a unique form of storytelling that provided a different kind of experience to the player. Zero Zigen shared their booth with Sake Visual, and international group that had just put out their first commercial visual novel, Jisei. The two groups shared more than a booth, however: members of Sake Visual also provided help with the translation and voice acting for the Japanese circle. It was hard not to see this as the future: people working together, over the internet, with the creators, rather than apart from them, to make their work available to a larger audience. It's what scanlation and fansubbing should be. More and more visual novels have been adapted into anime in recent years, with some of the most famous being Fate Stay/Night, and Higurashi: When They Cry. Would Koenchu! be the next big anime hit in Japan a few years from now, or would it be sadly forgotten on all but a few fan sites? It would all depend on the support from fans.
Waiting in line for Jason Thompson's 18+ panel "Censorship in Manga" made me realize why titles like Ikki Tousen and Queen's Blade were necessary for the health of the industry. Sex sells, and the line that wrapped around the floor twice served as proof of that. To stay within the fire code, only 120 people were allowed to go inside the panel room, and the rest were turned away. Thompson, who had written the Complete Guide to Manga, had a slideshow giving examples of how manga had been censored in America, and in Japan. The titles with the most complaints, he explained, were those with the greatest market penetration: Pokemon and Dragonball were main offenders. More violent and pornographic titles, sold only in comic shops, remained under the radar. As Pokemon became a phenomenon, its manga was sold in more and more stores, including Toys 'R' Us. As visibility increased, so did complaints: Misty's bikini was far too revealing for a kids manga, parents complained, so Toys 'R' Us demanded the manga be censored, or it would be dropped from their shelves. This same phenomenon could be observed in Japan. In polls, which manga were judged to be the most disturbing and controversial in Japan? Surely lolicon pornography, or pornographic comics with rape and torture? According to Thompson, this was not so: It was Sho-Comic, and Nakayoshi, two prominent shoujo manga, due to their "sexual content". The economic urge to censor could be easily explained: The bigger a hit an anime was, the more parental complaints would roll in. Why not cut everything offensive out beforehand, so your new big hit wouldn't cause any controversy?
The next panel seemed a perfect continuation of this theme. Sheldon Drzka's "Lust in Translation" sought to explain how translators had to deal with the censorship guidelines imposed upon them. Some times, a company would license a title without due diligence, and be surprised by controversial content it felt it had to edit out. And editing was a long and complicated process. It could take 3 to 4 months for permission for an art change to clear with the mangaka. Many mangaka cosent to the changes, agreeing with the company's logic that a censored title would simply sell more.
Near the end of the panel, an attendee asked Mr. Drzka what titles he had translated. It was a long list of Raijin Comics and CMX titles that the crowd did not recognize at all. When he mentioned Emma, I had to applaud. It was sad, however, that it seemed that I was the only one who recognized Key to the Kingdom, or Two Flowers for the Dragon. It seemed to bring things full circle, as these two titles were available at my local library, and they seemed beloved by the kids I'd seen reading them.
If a company could take the titles for younger readers that CMX put out, and find some way to profitably deliver them to the "reluctant readers" who had to rely on the libraries for their manga, the potential for growth in the manga industry looked promising.
On the last day, I shared my thoughts with Helen McCarthy in an interview we hope to post soon. She remained upbeat about the future of the industry, despite its many problems. However, she did think it was important to pay attention to the future generation of anime and manga fans. "You need to grow younger kids into the market, or I don't know how it's going to sustain itself," she said.
And the mention of the market was key, as although A-Kon had grown by a magnitude of 47 times in 20 years, the anime industry, celebrated by Project A-Kon, had not.