What’s in a Name: Conventional Oddity

Names have representative and constitutive power, and the name of the convention tells it all: “Anime Central: the Midwest Anime and Manga Convention.” At once, it recognizes the regional significance this event has for anime and manga fans in the Midwest United States; at the same time, it embeds itself in a national and, by extension, global nation of fandom through explicit “glocalization.” Anime and manga are transnational commodities now, both in their material commercial manifestation and as a social consumer lifestyle that includes all sorts of standards of behavior. These behaviors are mediated and recycled through the convention, a word stressing the normalization of action, or an interface through which normalized individuals can reaffirm their homogenous normalcy. To this extent, a convention of anime fans (“otaku,” to use a purposefully othering term) seems like a contradiction, but the continuity of ordered society, however far it may fall from the beaten path, calls for the maintenance of conventions of normalcy.

I begin by approaching a woman who appears to be out of place — maybe out of a sense of fraternity. She sits completely exhausted in a chair on the second floor of the hotel, tired from the “visually rich” convention atmosphere playing itself out around her. All over, teenagers dressed in costumes handmade from fabric and cardboard mill about snapping photographs and posing with new found friends. Julia is the mother of a sixteen-year-old fan and although they live in Chicago, she has come to stay at the hotel with her husband in order to give their daughter better access to this Mecca of Midwest fandom.

Julia suggests that the anime style, although derivative, in “imitating” what has already been done allows young people a certain “liberty in interpretation” by playing a sort of pastiche with the characters. “Some people on the fringe in other situations can ‘adorn’ themselves here to be unique.”

Julia is a painter and her husband is a photographer. She has seen some of the anime her daughter watches, in order to “stay in touch with what she’s watching.” Although Julia does not dislike it, she becomes physically tired of watching it after a while. But she is interested in how anime fits into a longer Japanese film tradition. Having seen Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai only a week before, she notes that anime engages many of the same themes and uses many of the same basic characters — Toshiro Mifune’s buffoon character, for instance. Themes of protecting villages, fighting demons, and always the use of an epic hero on a quest for redemption are very popular.

Entering the convention as an outsider for the first time, although disconcerting, provides some sense of relief and security. The people here seem transparent. From the grown men wearing girls’ school uniforms, to the women walking around with yaoi bull paddles [for spanking], the labels “otaku,” nerd, weirdo and fanatic seem uniquely applicable. Behaviors of consumption, sale, obsession, love, frustration and transgression — all familiar actions — seem to play themselves out in a community of individuals who have been given a place to “be themselves” away from an overly critical society.

The sales floor is separated into two vendor areas, the vendors’ area proper and a smaller place called Artists’ Alley. Although these areas are, ostensibly, divided by function — retailers go to the vendors’ area and independent artists go to Artists’ Alley — effectively, it is divided through economic production. Jessica, a girl minding her friend’s stand in Artists’ Alley says he usually makes his money on the convention floor selling comics but this year was not able to get a booth and was stuck selling his books where “less people pass by.” The artists on the convention floor are generally published through self-publishing companies like ComiXpress or Lulu and have relationships with the publishing industry.

In Artists’ Alley, some people have printed large signs for their booth and enjoy some measure of fame, but most of the artists are either publishing their first productions or selling smaller, hobbyist, artistic creations. Even in Artists’ Alley, work is clearly separated by the economic bases of the artists. Dirk, an artist of eight years who publishes a popular and widely read web-comic about Chicago, Paradigm Shift, draws sketches signs his books which are available on Amazon and though his self-styled company DynaManga. A few stalls over, a young man Robbie sits in front of a wall of InkJet-printed hobbyist artwork stuck in plastic covers selling art at his first convention, obviously hurting for business but enjoying every minute of it. For one artist, the convention is one of a series through which he gains commissions and earns a livelihood, for the other, it is an opportunity to show off the artwork he creates as homage and to make a quick buck or two. Some artists come to the conventions to get the word out about newly completed projects and network with other artists. In a way, the Artists’ Alley avoids all sorts of classification that the convention structure attempts to impose.

Speaking with the artists, one theme emerges: “manga” is a relative term. Older artists such as Dirk, although they recognize the visual preferences of their fans, are hesitant using the term to describe their artwork. The influences they cite for their art style are Battle of the Planets, Stargazers and Speedracer, but while they were watching those programs as kids they were not even aware that those were Japanese programs. Their styles meld these Japanese influences with influences from American realist comic styles such as X-Men or Excalibur (in the case of Dirk). Both Dirk and his friend Brian explain they are American authors writing a comic book story in Chicago — manga may not be the best term. And yet, we call convention goers “otaku,” consumers of Japanese pop culture. Are the labels of manga and anime applied by fans, following an aesthetic association, or are they instrumentally used by authors in order to create demand? To some extent, it seems like both may be true at the same time — on one hand, the willingness of manga fans to consume “inauthentic” goods points to a loose affiliation with the Japanese national character of the art form, and on the other hand the physical presence of the artists proves that they see an anime and manga convention as a relevant opportunity. How can we reconcile the consumer of Japanese culture and the producer of American comic books at a “manga and anime convention”?

On the floor, too, things are not quite as they seem. First impressions lead many of us to call it a complete orgy of consumerism — the victory of American market capitalism over the romantic image of fan involvement in Genshiken. While the act of sale and purchase certainly characterize much of the social interaction here, I feel like it is also important to highlight the ways in which this consumptive action fits into other forms of sociality. Firstly, consumption on the floor is not homogenous; some stores, such as the Sasuga Japanese Bookstore and Hendane (a Yaoi doujinshi shop), sell import items to fans, who would otherwise have to buy them online with shipping and handling fees. Others are American outlets that bring large collections of comics, domestic and foreign collectibles and American-release anime videos. Then, there are representatives of American production houses like Bandai and Geneon, seeking to promote their products to the seas of fans. And finally, fans who seek to fill a space in the American market for products relating to Japanese pop culture like Okashi Studios, a California-based Ren’Ai game programming start-up, or the multitude of costume designers and accessorizers. All these sellers interact with buyers in different ways for different goals — not always with the intention of making a quick buck.

For cosplay designers with their own studios, financial independence can be difficult and showing off your designs at conventions is the most direct and effective way to reach the market for their designs. But essentially, the goal is to keep living an artistic lifestyle that would otherwise be financially unsupportable. Large company representatives also come for the face time and in order to get fans into their products — profit is not central as evidenced by the way they slash DVD and game prices in order to entice fans. For domestic retailers, the convention is a mixed blessing; one man I spoke with, Stan, described how he needed to make a $4000 profit in order to break even with costs for travel and renting his stand at the convention. Coming here gives him a wider market in which to sell his products, but the presence of large companies like Bandai make it very difficult because they undercut their distributor prices at the convention, and small domestic retailers are forced to sell at a loss if they want to attract customers.

Julia’s husband takes out his new digital camera, through which he has been viewing the convention spectacle. As an artist, he has paid particular attention to the artistic creations of young cosplay costumers. He begins to flip through the pictures, including a couple of me biting my pen taking notes. He has taken some great pictures of the cosplayers and their outfits; one woman he composes in her kimono with the wooden frame of a red parasol taking up all of the background. In another picture, he has surreptitiously photographed an obese woman resting a few seats over from us; the photograph is composed from behind and above, avoiding her gaze. He quickly flips past that image, embarrassed the woman might catch sight of it. To me, she appears to be sleeping.

One thing painfully clear to me throughout the convention was the ever-present dichotomy of gaze subject and object, and the ways that the subjective identity of objects of gaze seemed to overpower and set the tone of the convention. The example of Julia’s husband, the photographer, shows how the gaze of the observer is not always (or ever) equal. That there is an implicit classification in his photographs — this much is clear — and by unpacking the valuations made by the gazer, we can explicate some of the assumptions made about the identity of gaze objects. He has made a separation between photographs taken as art and photographs that are not taken as art — photographs taken as part of a chronological visual record. These two types are accompanied by, respectively, pride and shame (on the part of the photographer), ‘surreal’ beauty and ‘realist’ ugliness (for the aesthetic of the photograph), as well as subjective power and objective victimization (on the part of the object of gaze).

The beautiful cosplayers who figure in Julia’s husband’s photography at the convention come with the subjective role of an object of gaze. They present themselves as objects of aesthetic beauty and the gazer responds to that. As outsiders, we think to ourselves, “there are a lot more beautiful normal people here than I expected,” and take this to support the hypothesis that “otaku” are more normal than we once thought. However, we are unable, then, to conceive of the convention crowd as a single social body. When we encounter people who are ‘strange’ by the normal conventions we have opened to this body, they become a counter-proof that the ‘wild otaku’ does exist in nature. This leads to the fetishization of the aesthetic spectacle of cosplay and the further devaluation of the abnormal otaku. Hence, the dichotomous relationship between objects of beauty that fits into normal constructs of aesthetic appreciation and objects of self-evidencing abnormality that we encounter at the convention — the objects that when we return home, we frame and admire (“she made a great costume and I took a great picture of it!”) and those we will show to our friends while declaring: “the people at that convention were so weird!” And this is most certainly a gendered gaze. The subjectivity of the object cannot be stressed enough however, as this subjective assumption of the role is the driving force behind the normalization of these relationships.

The convention cannot be read as a homogenous social structure of power and consumption. The convention is not a celebration of the ideas of manga and anime, but rather a subjective expression made by of the individual consumptive fans and producers that come and participate in building and reimagining a social body. That is not to say that everyone comes or leaves with the same goals or bounty, but the interactions that happen within the convention are governed by this separation. Normalcy is not effected across individuals, as an emancipatory force, but rather it becomes the method by which individual members of a disparate and wide-spread community reaffirm their social relationships with one another in a gendered and differentially powered way.

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