Last week, we posted Part 1 of our interview with several members of the Otakorp, Inc., the organizers of Otakon, one of the largest conventions of its kind on the East Coast of the United States and a fan-favorite convention for the past 25 years. In Part 2, Ethan Kick, Division Director of Guest and Industry, Brian Cutler, Programming Director, and interpreters Darius Jahandatire and Maho Azuma talk about Otakon, its history, challenges, and future prospects.
Moving on to your event, could you tell us how Otakon started? Can you tell us more about its history, and so on?
Brian: The con started in 1994 at the Pennsylvania National State Anime Club, it was approximately 4 people who got together and decided that they want to hold a convention. So out in the middle of Pennsylvania, they had a 3 to 4 room event. They had one room for selling bootlegs another room where they were selling a few things and a one-room where they were talking about anime. From that 100-person event, Otakon grew to about 35,000 attendees.
So it started out as a university event?
Brian: Not us, but the organization.
I see. So about your team right now, how many people do you currently have? How many volunteers?
Brian: We have about 800 dedicated volunteers for our event and there around 50-75 people that work all year round just for the event.
And this is on top of their own day jobs. Are you aware of any difficulties they had when they first held the convention?
Brian: I think as we grew, we had to change venues every time. We changed venues a few times over the years before we got where we are now. We were really trying to connect to the local population and it has been challenging at times. We know that the market is out there but reminding the people who live nearby, like “hey, you can come to our event. We’re just a stone’s throw away or just a taxi ride away!” That’s been the most difficult part every time that we moved.
Is it a big move? Like from state to state?
Brian: The last time we moved was from Baltimore, Maryland to Washington DC, which really isn’t too far but to our attendees who lived in Baltimore, they were vocal about the move. A lot of them still continued to come to our event. We had to move the venue because we needed a bigger one.
What part of the event has grown over the years as well, besides the attendees?
Ethan: One of the things that did grow was our exhibitors’ hall. Distribution in the US used to be really scarce and the only options were bootlegs but now a few major distributors come and sell their products at the event. We also have more guests that are able to come to our events, which is great. Very often in the United States, Japanese people think that if they come to one part of the US, it’ll just be easy to connect to another, which is not really how it works. For example, if you go to an event in San Francisco, you will see almost no people from the East Coast. Also, our event divisions, as we have grown to have a lot of events throughout the years.
Brian: We have 6 dedicated panel rooms, 4 dedicated video rooms. Each of them can seat around 500 people. Some of the bigger ones can seat up to 1,200. We cycle through our events all day, during our operating hours, until 2 AM. So after around 9 PM, we can present some things meant for mature audiences. We schedule some things that are intended for mature audiences later in the night. Fan panels also continue to operate. There are hundreds of people who want to hold a panel at our show but we have a limited number of slots to put them in, so, unfortunately, we have to turn down so many.
Do you also have manga-related events?
Brian: Sure, we have people who talk about different (manga) artists and there are people who draw similarities between different mangaka.
Which manga titles are trending in America, in your area in particular?
Ethan: So definitely, shonen titles are the most popular. My friends are mostly males in their 20s so they often talk about Shonen Jump titles.
Maho: My friends are mostly Japanese, so if we talk about manga, it’s completely different. But in Boston,at least, I kinda agree that all the Shonen Jump-related titles are pretty popular. If you go in bookstores, I do see that the titles are mostly action-based like Fairy Tail, One Punch Man, and My Hero Academia.
Ethan: But there’s a big community for slice of life manga, female-oriented manga as well.
Is it because of the anime that these manga are in bookstores?
So they watch the anime first?
Brian: Then they’ll start reading the manga and then hope that it passes the story where the anime ended so that they can read ahead. [laughs] If the story in the manga is ahead of the anime and if they really like it, they’re going to read the manga.
Maho: I have a lot of friends that told me, when Attack on Titan came out, a lot of people that I talked to didn’t particularly like the art style, but they read it because they wanted to know what happened past the season.
What are the differences that you might have observed between Japanese anime/manga fans and American fans?
Ethan: I think that the biggest difference is how big anime/manga is part of the culture here. Just that everywhere you go in Japan, there are characters that are promoted. In the United States, it’s not as readily available. In Japan, it’s easy to go to an anime/manga store to buy what you’re looking for.
Brian: In Japan, I can see that they’re selling manga in the train station stores. In the US, even for our comic books, you may not be able to buy many comic books at a newsstand. It’s still not part of the mainstream culture in the US yet.
Can you buy manga if you go to a bookstore or comic book store?
Brian: The comic book store carries both comic books and manga if they’re good about it.
In terms of ratio, are there more American comics than manga?
Brian: Yes, there’s more of American action comics.
I see, so manga in your area is not that easily accessible?
Brian: Yeah, I don’t think it is.
Maho: Growing up in Japan, I used to go to second-handbook stores, you can actually buy a manga volume for around a dollar a book, so it’s very simple to do. In America, I’ve looked at my friends’ books and they were like $10. So if you’re a child, I think that it’s difficult to get them because they’re expensive.
Brian: We don’t have a second-handbook store model or cafe to read those.
So it’s all brand-new manga? There are no reseller store or something like that?
Ethan: We sort of can buy second-hand, but the tricky part of that is you never exactly know what kind of condition it is. Some of them are used, that’s acceptable, it’s fine but there are somewhere it’s damaged and it’s so upsetting.
In America, is anime/manga still seen as something that is for children?
Maho: I think mainstream, yes. I don’t know about actual con-goers or people who are interested in that. For example in Florida, if there’s something hand drawn and even if the topic is definitely not for children, they’ll think that “Ah. That’s for children.”
Brian: I think that it’s a little less in my area of the country, with the rise of things like the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it’s becoming a little more mainstream.
Moving on, how was your event this year? I see that it was held this August.
Ethan: Otakon this year had been really successful. It was a lot of fun. We grew a little bit. It wasn’t as huge as other years but it was still positive. It felt like for the first time as well, since the move to DC, we’ve become a bigger part of the community and we’ve been accepted a lot.
When did you move to DC?
Brian: It’s our 4th year there.
What about the growth in terms of percentage?
Brian: There was about 1,500 more than the previous year.
In terms of inviting manga artists, how was the audience’s reception?
Ethan: It has always been very positive. It’s very seldom that foreign guests come to the US for an event like ours and if they don’t get a good reception I think that’s mostly due to marketing. People just don’t know that they’re there or what the schedules are. That’s always the problem with events. With only 3 event days, there are so many things to do, sometimes people get lost.
How do you choose which guests you invite to your event?
Ethan: There should be a combination of factors when choosing guests. Sometimes it’s availability, sometimes they are part of a promotion for a title, sometimes their friend is coming to an event and they would like to come to the event, too. We had a case this past year where one of the guests really likes Spiderman and Marvel, and a big part of it was in Washington DC so that’s why they wanted to come and also see their fans as well. So it varies.
Do you work with the local distributor of anime, like Sentai Filmworks, Crunchyroll or Funimation?
Ethan: Yeah, we work with them, at times we promote some titles with them. That’s always been a lot of fun but sometimes we’ll actually work directly with the Japanese company. There’s no single route that we go for getting guests to Otakon, it’s always a combination of factors. Sometimes it’s multi-level and there are several corporations involved.
What is your future vision/mission for Otakon?
Darius: I think it’s just continuing to grow and continuing to adapt to new markets. The people who came to our first convention is a very different type of audience from the ones coming this year. Being able to adapt to them is very important.
Ethan: For our team, it’s very important that our guests meet their fans in the United States and know that their work is appreciated. So when we get the opportunity to bring someone in, and that someone hasn’t been able to due to several factors, that’s something that my team works hard for. The ability to keep doing that and the more people we give that opportunity to, as long as we’re doing that, I’m happy.
Lastly, what is manga for you?
Ethan: I would say creative.
Maho: I read a lot of manga but I don’t know how to summarize that in just one word. I think it’s a creative outlet like art. It’s a great way to show history in different ways. Worlds you can introduce by showing it. If I had to say it’s art.
Thank you so much for your time!
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If you’re interested in reading more of Manga Planet’s interviews, be sure to read our exclusive interviews with Directors of San Japan, LLCDave Henkin and Tanya Arguijo, K-BOOKS Akihabara Hon-kan Manager Mr. Moritsuka, K-BOOKS Ikebukuro Chara-kan Store Manager Mr. Natori, Chairman of DoKomi Andreas Degen, former Production I.G. scriptwriter Yasunori Kasuga, The Golden Age of Decadence artist Yutsuki Inumura, After School! artist Umiharu, Kou Oushirou of MANGA.CLUB, and the RAYZ OF LIGHT Rōdoku Geki Cast.
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