Sunday, June 29, 2014

Revisiting The Notion of the OEL Mangaka

Almost a year ago, I had a discussion on Twitter with several artists whom I greatly respect on the topic of OEL Manga, manga influenced styles, and how this works (and doesn't work) in the American comics marketplace. After this discussion, I sat down and wrote a post (link) while still heated that's gotten me a fair amount of attention and a larger helping of flak than I'd counted on.

Since writing that post, I've published my comic, 7" Kara, in a perfect bound form, and offer it at two price points- the $20 combo that includes a sketch, and the $15 bare bones edition that's just the book. I've taken my comic to several conventions and have mixed success, and so it's from that position that I'm writing this post.  I also offer my comic online in my shop, and I've sold a few copies on consignment to comic book shops, an option I need to better explore in the future.  Recently, I sold out of the first order of fifty I placed right before MoCCA-fest in April.

When I wrote about selling American comics with an anime aesthetic at anime artist alleys, the comics I'd offered up until that point were all garage print minis, or the large, full color garage print issues of Chapter 1 and 2. I suppose I was still a bit bitter that I hadn't yet found my convention groove yet, and I really wanted my comics (the thing I'm passionate about) to be what I did for a living.   Then, and now, my biggest sellers were $5 sketches and mini watercolors, and I really wanted to see my comics move more.  At the time, I had some difficulty even getting people to pick up and flip through my comics at anime conventions, which I found frustrating and humiliating at the time.

Comics will always be a difficult sell at anime conventions, and part of this is that some of those kids don't even read manga. Many of them won't read subtitles.  A lot of the audience aren't comic fans, and those who are tend to read webcomics and scanlations.  The thought of spending money on a printed comic in person, especially when it's available for free online, is out of the question for many of these kids.  This makes anime conventions much different from indie cons, where most of the people there do consume comics, if not draw comics.  This is also what may make anime cons a better market place for original work- you are not selling just to the vendors around you, but you're potentially selling to a huge audience you've never met before, an audience that isn't busy trying to shill their comic back at you. The vast majority of my sales at anime cons are commissions- $5 sketches and mini watercolors, and I'm happy with that. People are still avidly consuming art I've created, they're becoming fans of the same aesthetic that I draw Kara with. They love my watercolors, my goofy chibis, and they're becoming familiar with who I am as an artist. I'm slowly building an audience of people who love the same things I love, and that's pretty exciting.

So far this year, I've had more luck selling 7" Kara at anime cons than I've had selling it at indie comic cons like MoCCA-fest or SPACE.  Part of this is better crowd control- people can actually get to my table and feel comfortable flipping through the book.

Hard at work at MTAC 2014.   Even with this crowded half table, I still give 7" Kara the price real estate.

Of course, I have to splay the books out, make signs encouraging people to read, and vocally encourage people to pick up and flip through anything on my table.  I'm still working on my Kara pitch, trying to find that 'short but sweet' spot that at least gets people to look at it.

 After some table adjusting, I had a much easier time getting people to pick up my comics and read them, but this meant devoting A LOT of table space to the comic.  Since it's currently my most expensive item, and the item I want to see move the most, I have no problem devoting the space, but artists who make their money selling prints may not feel like they can justify that much real estate. I can't owe uptick in sales just to this increased table space though.

 Part of  why my comics seem to sell decently at anime cons is the fact that the people at anime cons are there for the anime aesthetic.  To them, I'm not so much a copycat wannabee artist who can't get her act together and find her 'own' style, as another artist offering something we both already like.  At MoCCA-fest, I had a hard time getting strangers to come over and even LOOK at the book, because they'd already decided that it was a bad manga clone (I overheard this comment time and time again at MoCCA-fest), and rather than give me the benefit of checking it out, they'd just sneer and walk on by.  At MTAC, people eagerly looked at the book, even if they didn't necessarily buy it, and expressed an interest in the art and the content. I also found that when I stepped up my offering from garage prints to more professional (and expensive) perfect bound books, I attracted older customers who had the money to spend on comics.  By focusing on creating comics for kids, I was able to attract parents as customers, and parents are the ones with the money, not the kids.

What helps Kara sell at anime cons
  • It's obviously anime inspired, but it leans more toward 'post anime', especially with the fact that I use a traditional, time consuming media like watercolors and lean toward a muted color palette, which is more common in traditional children's books than in anime
  • It's aimed toward children although it also appeals to young women who dabble in nostalgia. It's not trying to be cool, and it's not trying to be American manga.
  • It's set in a location that is deeply personal to me, a place that's uniquely American- Hahnville, Louisiana.  It's not set in Japan, nor in a place I've never lived.  By setting in an authentic location from my life, it helps the story seem more real.
  • It looks really inviting as a large format perfect bound book, and makes me seem more professional, since I've gone to the trouble of sending it out to be printed
  • It's a niche that I personally care a lot about, and this allows me to connect with other people who really like this niche

What I had to change

  • Offer something that appeals to them while still showcasing me- the mini watercolors are fanart of characters that I like that the audience may already be familiar with, at a very affordable price point that lets them enjoy original art. Once I started offering these, I saw a huge uptick in sales, since it drew people in.
  • Having a wide, rotating selection of examples for my $5 sketches demonstrates that I'm able to do in a short amount of time, and has definitely increased the number of people interested in commissioning me
  • Including promotional material like postcards and business cards in my packaging helps people remember just WHO they bought that commission from
  • Attending conventions that better reflect who I am and where I'm from.  Southern cons like Mechacon, AWA, and MTAC are GREAT for me, because this audience is predisposed to 'get' me, and they're typically a nerd audience that's been denied access and acceptance.  The feminine anime aesthetic is popular in the south, although it isn't necessarily catered to.
  • Stop trying to cater to the general anime fan and just focus on catering to the sort of fan *I* am.  This shift in focus has brought in customers who are more attuned to the sort of work I want to sell.

Sales Figures

This is what everyone's reading for, right?  While I'm not necessarily going to bring up sales figures, I will share a few numbers.

At MoCCA-fest, a large indie con in New York, I debuted Kara at the $20 pricepoint.  I sold 12 copies, almost entirely to friends and fans. 
At SPACE, a small indie con in Ohio, I think I sold maybe 4 copies total, two of which I sold wholesale to a local comic shop to sell in their store.
At MTAC, an anime convention in Nashville, TN, I sold around 5 copies, most of which at the $15 pricepoint.
My fantastic mother bought 6 copies for her nieces.  She wouldn't let me cut her a deal.
I've had about 6 online sales, to both far away friends and fans, at the $20 pricepoint plus shipping (thank you guys so so so so much by the way)

At smaller anime conventions with younger demographics like Hamacon and LouisiANIME, it's much harder to sell 7" Kara.

So does OEL manga and manga inspired comics sell to anime kids and anime fans?  Yes and no.  Being an unknown artist, it's a little harder for me to push my relatively expensive book when customers can purchase a custom sketch of themselves for $5.  And I've had to work harder to move the book since it's self published- I don't have a publisher to promote it for me.  But I think selling 50 copies of an unknown comic is pretty fantastic, and I have enough faith that I ordered another 50 copies.  And the strong positive reaction I've gotten from people who've enjoyed the comic definitely encourages me to keep working on it. 

So why am I revisiting this?

Things've changed, both with me, and how I approach the audience, so I thought I'd share that for other anime-inspired artists who've had difficultly selling their comics at anime conventions. The reason I thought critically about this topic was Queenie-chan's recent post in a long series of most excellent posts about OEL manga.  This newest post happened to mention my original article. Her additions are really spot on in a way that I was too emotionally attached to hit on calmly at the time, and something that really struck me was that she mentioned that we don't decide whether we're OEL manga or not, the publishers do.

Until you guys've tried to present your work to editors, you don't realize how true this is.

When I started SCAD, I'd tried really hard to divorce myself from manga and make myself more indie. I was working on a slice of life webcomic about a college girl, and though I kept current on favorite manga titles, I read many more indie comics. I'd spent two years hating on anime in that way that only an ex-weeaboo can do, and I really didn't consider myself to be manga-styled at all. For the first year of SCAD, I did what my professors told me to, pushing my aesthetic in some ugly directions in an attempt to be someone I wasn't. My first Editor's Day was pretty surprising, since my work was still overwhelmingly manga to every editor who saw my work, despite how far I'd pushed away from my orignial aesthetic.

I tried to fight it for awhile by morphing my style, but the critique was still the same-'too manga'. As a joke, I started including some jellybean eyed characters (the only aesthetic change) in my pages, and those were far better received than the comics that featured characters with larger, detailed eyes. For a long time, I battled with myself over it. I could attempt to change my style, my aesthetic, and what I found attractive in an attempt to woo editors, but it just made my art ugly and conflicted, and I blamed myself for the failure to please. I realized I could either do the sort of art and stories I loved, unabashedly, and publish on my own terms, or continue to change and fail to impress anyone in an attempt to reach some nebulous standards.

Kara was born when I finally decided to do what I wanted to do. All the things I like best- stories about rambunctious children, watercolors, heavy inspiration from children's books, stories about tiny people, stories about girls- all these things went into Kara, even though most of these were things I had been told don't sell. While I'll gladly draw in another style for another story for pay, this is a work that's 100% mine, and will succeed or fail on that merit.  This is something I can live with.

That doesn't mean Kara hasn't been criticized heavily by editors. It just means that it didn't hurt as much. These were people who'd admitted they'd never publish my work anyway, so it's fine if Kara didn't meet their standards aesthetically or commercially. To be honest, these companies don't really appeal to the sort of audience I wanted to cater to, and I was presenting my work to them because that is how SCAD SEQA functions.  At SCAD, you show your work to as many editors as possible, at any occasion possible, regardless of whether or not they publish anything you'd want to work on, and regardless if their advice/criticism is at all applicable to what you want to accomplish.  If you have a manga aesthetic, this is especially true, because they want kids to learn the harsh reality that faces their work.

So as the industry is right now, my long form stories in my house style will probably never see publication by a publishing house.  I had to accept this, become ok with this, and move on.  I'll probably never have the opportunities my former classmates will, because the way I draw is overly girly, overly doe-eyed, and I'm too tied to the aesthetic that first inspired me to draw.  People make assumptions about what I'm capable of with out offering me the benefit of a test first, and assume I'm not as flexible as other artists. If anything I draw will ever reach national acclaim, it will be through my own efforts, not because I had the benefit of an editor, a letterer, a graphic designer, or a book deal, and having self published, I can tell you it'd be so much easier if I had access to those things.  This isn't a surprise to me, just as it isn't surprising to anyone who's in the same boat.

The reason I wrote the original post was that if anyone is going to decide our success, it's going to be the audience we create both online and in person.  And if the majority of the cons you attend as an artist are anime cons, then the majority of your audience will be anime kids.  And most of the anime kids who are interested in the Artist Alley also plan to make comics.  And sadly, most of these kids don't realize that if they don't support the current crop of artists, if they don't help us prove publishers wrong about sales, then the market will be even worse for them.

Of course, it doesn't help that we're catering to a perpetually broke audience.  By the time they reach us, they've already hit the dealer's room and can't even buy themselves dinner, let alone a comic.  They don't have the money to buy comics and commissions online, and have become accustomed to giving artists in the Artist Alley the lowest financial priority, since most of the media they consume is available online either free or rent-able in bulk.

One of the solutions I've come up with is education, but that has its own problems.  Heidi and I have applied and been solicited by numerous conventions to present comic panels, but we have difficulty getting staff to respond, even when they originally solicited us.  We know the interest is out there, as we're both constantly barraged by interested teens at conventions, and I always tell them to let the convention know they're interested in having us present panels on the topic.  Unfortunately for us, many anime conventions don't believe in compensating panelists, choosing instead to benefit from the free content without truly acknowledging the artist's contribution to the convention.  This seems to be a sad trend with many anime conventions- the artist alley, and the artists themselves, are often the lowest attendees on the totem pole for convention staff.  This disrespectful treatment only further exacerbates the problems artists tabling in the artist alley face.


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