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Comic Market–or Comiket for short–is a biannual event in Japan, happening once in the summer and once in the winter. Mainly an event for manga artists to sell original indie or fanmade works, the three-day event has otaku fans coming by the thousands. It’s a great place for fans to get a chance to interact with the artists they love and vice versa. As someone who has been on the dealer’s side of the table for the past five years, I can attest that it’s a fascinating experience every time.

This year, summer Comiket clocked in at 530,000 people over three days. While Comiket is also a great place for cosplay, the focus of the event has always been the original and fanmade manga–better known as dōjinshi.

Each day of the event focuses on different genres of manga. Generally, the first day is for works based on franchise material like manga based on Jump Comics series as well as a few popular franchises like Gundam, etc. The second day focuses on manga based on video games. The third day is mainly for the adult material. Obviously there is some overflow with certain works falling into multiple genres, but the coordinators of the event go to painstaking lengths to try to maintain order and put sellers in the correct categories.

A good friend of mine has been selling dōjinshi for well over a decade now. Shortly after we first met, he asked me if I’d like to help him sell dōjinshi on day three of a winter Comiket. I agreed and took my first step into the underside of Comiket.

For those who have experienced Comiket before, a lot of it is waiting in lines. It starts long before the doors open. The first trains to the local train station of the Tokyo Big Sight event hall–where Comiket is held–arrive jam-packed with people who all make a mad scramble to be first in line. Comiket frowns upon it, but there are always a few hundred people who line up from the previous day and wait overnight. There, the waiting begins. It’s about five hours from the first train arrivals to when the doors open. Of course, being on the sellers’ side, people like me get to bypass the massive lines of waiting. I usually arrive at around 8 a.m. with my friend. We get some breakfast and relax for a while on a nearby patio until around 9, when we go into the hall.

Each artist or artist group–called “circles”–is given half of a table. The tables are about six feet long and about two feet wide, so each circle has a precious 3×2 foot area to set up their wares. This means some creative layout work for circles that have multiple different dōjinshi to sell. Some more popular circles with more spare change purchase two side-by-side spots to give themselves elbow room and make things easier.

Setting up takes about thirty minutes: lining up new books and previously released ones. After that’s done, artists often use the time they have until the halls are open to the public to visit with other friends to say hello. As being a manga artist makes one a bit of a shut-in, many people end up seeing each other only twice a year. Artists exchange books and pay their respects to each other. The event has the atmosphere of a festival with everyone ready to show the world what they’ve been working on. There’s excitement and giddiness in the air.

When 10 a.m. rolls around, the halls are immediately packed with thousands of people rushing to get to the really popular artists’ tables before the lines get too long. One of the benefits of Comiket is that buying directly from the artists costs less than purchasing dōjinshi at a store.

The tables that line the hall walls are generally filled with the extremely popular artists because the wall tables allow for more room for more stock, more staff, and more customers. Called “Kabe (wall) circles,” these spots are pretty much the envy of every artist. Most people who sell dōjinshi at Comiket dream of one day being placed in a Kabe spot. Some will have lines of hundreds of people, and by the time the day is done, the heavy hitters will have sold thousands, if not tens of thousands of copies of dōjinshi.

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During Comiket, the halls of Tokyo Big Sight become a veritable sea of people. At the most crowded, it can take literally half an hour to get from one side of East Hall 1 to the opposite side in East Hall 6–I speak from experience.

Once people start buying books, one has to be focused and quick on their toes. There isn’t any room for cash registers, so people have to be able to do quick calculations in their heads. The prices of books are set by the artists, but they usually range from around 500 to 700 yen (a little less than USD $5 to $7) for your average 16- to 24-page dōjinshi, to 1,000 yen (a little under USD $10) for large, sixty-plus-page ones. Most people come for the latest dōjinshi that the artists have made, but every now and then someone will like what they see and purchase older, previously-released books as well.

Many artists will also draw up quick four- to eight-page bonus books that they will make available only at Comiket. They will throw these in as a thank you to people who have come to Comiket just to buy their latest books. These also act as an incentive for fans who want to gobble up every bit of media an artist will produce.

With more bodies comes more body heat. During the summer, depending on where you are in the hall, the temperatures can rise to excruciating levels. I was there one time when it was so bad that the combination of heat and humidity caused a mild cloud formation within the hall. The halls are equipped with air conditioning, but it’s pretty much rendered useless as the hall shutters leading outside are left open, letting in sweltering air. Winter isn’t much better with cold ocean winds from the nearby bay biting to the bone through the open shutters.

Most small-to-medium circles are staffed with two, maybe three or four people. This makes things interesting when you have multiple people and so limited space. Kabe circles have the room for more people, but they also usually have more dōjinshi to sell which makes more staff necessary. All in all, while the halls are pretty packed with customers, behind the tables isn’t exactly a picnic either.

It’s pretty fascinating to watch the assortment of people who come and go. Some people have got navigating Comiket down to a science and work in groups, buying dōjinshi in bulk with people using walkie-talkies to communicate their locations and what they’ve purchased for each other. There will also be the people who have come specifically to buy an artist’s dōjinshi and take a moment to say hello to the artist. Some will even bring gifts or ask the artist to sign something for them. Then there are the drifters who are just browsing. Sometimes they buy, and sometimes they don’t. It’s important to take it as a compliment when they do and not to take it personally when they don’t. Of course, there is always the occasional foreigner–which is where my English comes in handy.

Usually the crowds begin to thin–relatively speaking–at around 1 p.m. Some of the more popular circles will begin to run out of inventory, and usually by 2 p.m., there will be announcements on Twitter from artists saying they’ve sold out and are packing up to leave.

Things really begin to die down at around 3 p.m. Most of the big circles have already packed up and left early to beat the rush of people leaving. Most of the people remaining have already gotten what they’ve come for and are just wandering the halls looking to see if there are any hidden gems they’ve missed. As 4 p.m. approaches, most of the remaining people begin cleaning up so that they’re ready to leave the minute Comiket is over. People take trips to the dumpsters out back to toss out empty plastic drink bottles, flyers, boxes, tape, etc.

At 4 p.m. exactly, an announcement is made over the speaker system bringing Comiket to a close and the halls erupt in thunderous applause. After that, the people that are left quickly pack up and head off to go home to rest or to celebrate another successful Comiket with friends and colleagues. The halls are quickly emptied and tables are folded and stacked to be taken away.

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Leaving the Tokyo Big Sight behind as the sky gradually darkens makes me feel a little sentimental every time. It’s an event that happens only twice a year; it’s magical while it lasts. After a day of standing and selling countless doujinshi to countless people, I’m worn out. I’m hungry, and my feet are aching. The party’s over, and the real world awaits.

I can’t wait until next time.

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