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Manga becomes a major draw at Toronto Comic Arts Festival

by Roland Kelts

Special To The Japan Times

The 11th annual Toronto Comic Arts Festival (TCAF) kicks off May 10. As its title suggests, it’s less a fan-focused pop convention than a platform for comics and graphic novels as art, and for the artists who create them. It has also emerged as a great friend to manga over the past few years.

Toronto is often cited as one of the most culturally diverse cities in the world, and one of the safest, with crime rates far lower than in neighboring U.S. metropolises. Half of Toronto’s population were born outside of Canada, a good portion of them in Asia. When I visited the city a few months ago to take part in a week of readings and presentations at the behest of The Japan Foundation, I was surrounded by Asian cuisine and culture on nearly every block. My audiences were large, deeply engaged and multi-ethnic, looking less like a hockey team than a Benetton commercial.

“Toronto has become a great place for fans of Japanese pop culture,” says the festival’s director and co-founder, Christopher Butcher. “We’re fortunate to have a large Japanese population and other ethnic communities here. And even our French community has a great native appreciation of comics culture.”

Butcher and co-founder Peter Birkemore launched TCAF in 2003, modeling it after the veteran biannual comic market and exhibition Stripdagen Haarlem in the Netherlands. Attendance has grown from 600 to an expected 20,000 this year.

The festival’s first Japanese guest was Yoshihiro Tatsumi, author of the manga memoir, “A Drifting Life.” Tatsumi appeared in 2009, the same year “Drifting” was awarded the Tezuka Osamu Cultural Prize in Japan. (The title won two Eisner Awards in the U.S. the following year.) It was only his second venture outside of Japan, and his first time ever in Canada.

Tatsumi’s presence at TCAF was both a surprise for attendees and a big success, according to Butcher. Fans were thrilled to meet an artist from so far away.

“We’d had guests from France and the United Kingdom previously, but five or six years ago, the manga publishing industry in Japan seemed impenetrable,” he says. “We strive to have authors on hand and have their (own) stories be a part of a book’s release. Having an artist come from Japan seemed like a once-in-a-lifetime event.”

Fortunately for TCAF, it wasn’t. Tatsumi’s positive experience spread via word of mouth through the manga industry in Japan. In 2011, authors Natsume Ono and Furuya Usamuru attended TCAF with representatives from Ohta Publishing Co., one of Japan’s more provocative manga publishers. The next year, Kodansha and Kanata Konami showed up.

And last year, Butcher scored something of a coup: Taiyo Matsumoto, critically acclaimed artist and author of “Tekkon Kinkreet” and “Sunny,” among others, appeared at TCAF alongside his friend, American filmmaker Michael Arias, director of the award-winning anime adaptation of “Tekkon.” Matsumoto even produced an original illustration for the festival’s poster.

“TCAF was very warm and intimate, without all the bustle and chaos of the big American conventions,” says Arias, who has lived and worked in Japan for more than 20 years. “(The festival) had such an interesting mix of artists. Some were very edgy. Taiyo was very visibly thrilled at the chance to mix with so many of his contemporaries and see so much of their artwork up close. He’s a serious comic fan, so he ended up going on a very serious shopping spree.”

The festival hosted a screening of Arias’ “Tekkon” and a career retrospective of Matsumoto’s art featuring a few hundred original illustrations. (Matsumoto’s originals had never before — or since — been exhibited.) “Attending with Taiyo was a blast,” Arias says. “We spent much of our time just browsing, speaking with other artists and meeting his fans.”

This weekend’s TCAF boasts the festival’s largest manga presence yet, with four artists flying in from Japan: Moyoco Anno, est em (Maki Satoh), and the creator duo, Akira Himekawa (S. Nagano and A. Honda). Among the scheduled events is an interview with Yohei Sadoshima, the charismatic CEO and founder of Japanese literary agency Cork Inc., on the future of manga publishing, and a conversation with Himekawa, the team behind “The Legend of Zelda” and “My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic.”

Manga artists are notoriously reclusive, and the industry overall is still parochial, focused mainly on the domestic market in Japan. Overseas requests are often denied or ignored. Butcher stresses that the TCAF team makes plans years in advance and works very hard to obtain Japanese guests, and he cites the support of local organizations and the festival’s devotion to art and craft as crucial pillars of its success.

“The Japan Foundation has been very supportive of our efforts, as has the French Consulate. They’re just as happy to have a manga author (visit) as they are to have a literary author or a musician. There is a basic level of respect for the work being done there, and Toronto has one of the strongest contingents of comic book stores in maybe all of North America.”

Still, he admits, the North American comics industry is no match for the decades-old world of manga in Japan, which, he says, “may be 100 times bigger. We could devote all of TCAF, the whole show, to Japanese artists. I could choose 100 or more I’d love to have here and still not scratch the surface.”

Roland Kelts is the author of “Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture has Invaded the U.S.” He is a visiting scholar at Keio University in Tokyo. For more information on the Toronto Comic Arts Festival, visit www.torontocomics.com.