Comics stores … feel different in Tokyo. Life changing, even. Just one store of many pop-culture and geek-related retail outlets in Akihabara, Animate feels like walking through a carefully-curated natural foods supermarket: People both want and need the culture in this place.
Packed with customers of all ages, with narrow aisles and multiple floors, Animate is fun and inspiring place to be instead of a shady alt store kicked to the outskirts of acceptable society. Even though it was packed on a weekday afternoon, I never felt awkward or like anyone was ogling me, even as a 5’11 tall blondy-redhead former pageant contestant from a foreign country. Like the grocery store, Comics were just normal, and everyone could like them!
What a concept.
Even outside of Akihabara in neighborhoods like Shinjuku, the multi-floor bookstores were frequented by many more people and stocked with many more comics than I thought there would be. It seemed everyone was reading everything they could get their hands on. Aside from the DC metro where there is no cell service, I’ve never seen so many people reading in public. Both Animate, and reglar’ old book stores sure had a lot of comics.
Animate offers more than just comics, anime, and magazines. You could turn around after browsing character cards and keychains, and art supplies for making comics would be right behind you. The store’s managers and buyers are in your corner, saying “Hey, you know the manga you’ve been reading for years and you can’t wait for the next one? You know that acrylic keychain you bought for your sister? You know —- just all of the things you love? You can DO this!”
The mentality at Animate is that you can be a consumer and/or a producer of work, which is the most optimistic message I’ve ever seen at a media retail outlet of any kind. It would be like going to your local bookstore and an author doesn’t just talk about their book - instead, the author gives a small writing workshop to anyone who is interested. It would be like going to a Smash tournament and seeing a game developer giving a talk on creating the game, and maybe not everyone would care, but there would be at least a couple people listening to the available message: You can DO this!
Art supplies in a comic shop is something you never see in America (Or at least, the last 15 American retail stores I’ve been to in Colorado, California, Texas, Maryland, New York, and Washington DC - Please show me an indie shop that proves me wrong!). There are never any pens or pencils of hope in American comics retail stores. There aren’t even any computers, iPads, digital art tips books, or classes. All of the art and production for comics happens somewhere else, like on a milk farm run by some unscryable person, somewhere - and it doesn’t happen with you, the comics fan, who buys the Captain America hoodie then GTFOs. The comics, like the carton of milk, show up at the store one day, and you buy them or pirate them, and you don’t really think about how it’s made or where it comes from. Maybe there’s a picture of the artist or writer, somewhere in there, and you kind of think about them and how they approach drawing or writing, but you don’t really know. Sometimes you find out who makes the comic and you go harass that person on Twitter because that’s much easier than picking up a pen or writing a script. Twitter is right in front of you. Trying to make art, the entire thought of trying, sleeps in an alternate universe.
So what? So what if there aren’t pencils of hope in American comic stores? Americans have the internet, we have online classes, we have the tidy little quarantined comics aisle at Barnes and Nobles, and there’s always Michaels down the road, right? Yes, but, you can’t expect all people to make quantum leaps to production or expression without easy access to both tools (pencils) and ideas (the media, the internet). Encouragement and possibility and availability is everything. It doesn’t matter if the art you want to make is dreamy-ass fantasy or Spawn or Pokemon fan art, or if it doesn’t look like The Amazing Spider-Man right away. As long as it’s something, because there’s already everything.
On one of Animate’s floors, there were large displays set up which were dedicated solely to character art and cells for an upcoming anime. Taking concept art, enlarging it, and displaying it on a wall like paintings or drawings in a museum or indie show is a great way to bring fans closer to the art creation process. And it’s just fun! It’s like looking at the bones of a T-Rex, only the T-Rex still exists today.
In Animate and the rest of Akihabara, I felt something that was a little foreign to me. I felt proud to be an artist. After years of hiding my art skills to people I know, like a less cool Batman or something, I felt like I could finally ‘come out’ to the entire world as an artist and it wouldn’t be a bad thing (read my comic!). I thought about why I felt this way - why was I afraid of people finding out I was a - gasp - artist all along?
My own feelings of shame about art don’t emerge from a mean critic or someone who said I was a bad artist. CEOs have loved my art, millionaires have bought my art, people who live in vans love my art, my mom likes my art! I still keep up with my art teacher from high school and college, and my art friends, and I love my little network of artists on Twitter. Despite all of this encouragement and approval and love, why do I still feel so very bad about … making art?
The shame emerges from how punishing and segregated art and illustration are as a whole in the States. The art world is for special rich people only. There are art openings and art fairs, fine art isn’t exactly in your livingroom unless you have disposable cash and are maybe tinged with an unhealthy give-no-fucks edge, like a cigar connoisseur. The comics world is for weirdos and perverts. You don’t read comics unless you are weird - you watch the Marvel movies, sure, but comics? There are plenty of other, more adult things to read. You can’t be a lawyer and a comics fan on the same Instagram account, unless you are a fucking badass. There’s also a sticky hundred-plus-year stigma of art being something created by the mentally ill instead of by the mentally strong. This, on top of non-artists fearing shame for not understanding art, and it’s easier to just forget about art, kick it to a corner, and shuffle through life believing that artists are magical but tortured people like van Gogh. You can buy the print from IKEA.
So, what happens when suddenly, cartoons and art are everywhere, and they’re all together, and everyone likes them? You feel normal, good even.
In these animation cells, its easy to see the humanity of art that looks otherwise unreachably perfect. Someone drew this, and they are alive in the world! All of this art doesn’t just spring from the head of Zeus fully-formed like Athena. It takes time. It doesn’t look perfect at first. There are bones in this T-Rex.
In addition to pens and markers and pre-lined comics sheets, books on Clip Studio Paint techniques were available at Animate. Pens, paper, or computers, many gateways available.
While riding the omni-available metro of Tokyo and walking to accessible grocery stores with inexpensive natural food, I thought to myself: “This country is great - they have healthy food everywhere, infrastructure, no theft and no bike locks, cherry blossoms, amazing comic shops … what are Japan’s problems, then?”
If this comic store in Japan is so damn perfect and I going off about it for 3000 words, like fawning over a sexy racing Honda into the blue horizon, what are the problems with Japanese comics?
Maybe the planets of Manga swarm with grievously clashing online fandoms which were entirely invisible to me as I pirouetted like Cowgirl Sailor Moon through sparkly manga heaven (please school me if you know). But what I can’t get out of my head is that there were crowds of people buying comics and keychains on a weekday, all of whom were not at a convention. And everyone there seemed pretty cool.
Overall I loved Animate in Akihabara, and spent way too much (or just the right amount) of money there. I went twice. I thought it was so great I went back for a second day. If you plan a trip to Tokyo and you like comics or even comics movies, go there and see what you think. Even if you’ve never read comics, but you have a friend who likes comics you have no idea why she’s so bananas about comics, go to this store.
I was buying books, keychains, cards, and pens to just geek out, but what I was really buying were small tokens of the spirit of this store to bring back with me to the states and share with whoever would let me. You can DO this!