New York Comic-Con 2023
New York Comic-Con 2023 | Photo: Deb Aoki

Continuing a trend that has marked the 2020s so far at New York Comic-Con, manga, anime and webtoons dominated the 2023 show floor at Javits Center in New York City in mid-October.

In addition to the giant One Piece Luffy in Gear 5 mode balloons, there was a huge inflatable Goku poised to set off a Kamehameha blast, alongside other characters from Toei Animation’s  Dragon Ball Super dominating the first few rows as you entered the show. As you wandered in further, you might see Mobile Suit Gundam model kits; Bandai Namco and Toho Entertainment’s Godzilla displays; VIZ Media’s ZOM 100 shark; Crunchyroll’s Jujutsu Kaisen anime orb; Yen Press/Kadokawa World Entertainment’s mega booth; Shueisha XR’s eye-popping Manga Dive immersive multimedia video experience; and Shueisha’s Manga Plus exhibit for their digital manga service featuring replica art pages and displays from 3x Harvey Award-winning series Chainsaw Man by Tatsuki Fujimoto, My Hero Academia by Kohei Horikoshi and new fan fave Oshi no Ko by Aka Akasaka and Mengo Yokoyari

Manga Plus by Shueisha booth at NY Comic-Con 2023
Manga Plus by Shueisha booth at NY Comic-Con 2023 | photo: Deb Aoki

In the Javits Center atrium past the security check area, there were rows of gatchapon toy vending machines. If you looked up, there were huge banners for perennial tokusatsu hero Ultraman and the latest Naruto Shippuden game from Bandai Namco. New anime hits like Bocchi the Rock and Frieren: Beyond Journey’s End outnumbered adverts for the return of Chucky on SYFY and The Walking Dead on AMC. Heck, the overflow line for Foot Locker’s booth featuring special Demon Slayer Crocs was a clear sign that it was one of the most popular merch offerings on the NYCC exhibit floor. People lining up to buy CROCS! At a comics convention! Go figure!

Demon Slayer Crocs at the Foot Locker booth at NY Comic-Con
Demon Slayer Crocs at the Foot Locker booth at NY Comic-Con | Photo: Deb Aoki

With so much manga, anime and video game exhibits bombarding the senses upon entry to NYCC, you could blink and think you stepped into an anime convention, not one of the East Coast’s biggest American comics conventions. 

 Sure, there were people dressed up in Spider-Man and Deadpool outfits, but they were far outnumbered by the anime and manga-inspired cosplayers. And those cosplayers and fans lining up for Demon Slayer Crocs, One Piece t-shirts, Gundam model kits and Bleach skate decks? On average, they were probably 10-20 years younger than their fellow con attendees there to buy superhero comics, fan gear and memorabilia. But that’s where we are now. We’re seeing a generational shift in comics fandom, and it’s largely driven by manga, anime and webtoons. 

Demon Slayer cosplay family at New York Comic-Con
Demon Slayer cosplay family at New York Comic-Con | Photo: Deb Aoki

Possibly thanks to the popularity and wide availability of anime on streaming channels like Netflix, Hulu and Crunchyroll, alongside an explosion of online manga and webtoon apps, it’s now easier than ever to discover and enjoy manga, anime and webtoons from Japan, Korea and even China in English.  

This is reflected in the current sales trends for comics and graphic novels, too. As this year’s ICV2 whitepaper presented on Thursday confirmed, manga from Japan (along with the growth of webtoons from S. Korea) are outselling American comics and graphic novels by a significant margin. 

According to the statistics presented by Milton Griepp, “Manga extends its lead in 2022,” by representing 45% of graphic novel sales in N. America, up by 9% compared to 2021, while Superhero Comics represent 14% of the market.

Longtime comics industry watchers are justifiably skeptical about this latest “manga boom.” After all, the last period of manga’s sales success in the early 2000s was deflated with the “bust” cycle set off by the 2008 Recession and the closure of the Borders Books and Music chain in 2011. But while manga sales have leveled off in 2023 after a few years of explosive growth, they’re still over 300% higher than pre-2019 levels. No one knows what will happen next, and no one can guarantee that manga and anime’s sales strength in the North American market will continue at its current pace. But if NY Comic-Con is a leading indicator of where the pop culture entertainment industry is now, it’s fair to say that manga and anime can’t be dismissed as just a trend or a niche category anymore.

Where are North American comics showing strong sales? Mostly in kids/YA graphic novels, which represent 26% of overall graphic novel sales, largely thanks to the unbeatable Dog Man along with tween-friendly comics by Raina Telgemeier (Smile), Alice Oseman (Heartstopper) and Kazu Kibuishi (Amulet). This is compounded by the relative scarcity of manga and superhero comics that are suitable for readers under age 12, plus the popularity and accessibility of video and online games for this age group.

Giant Goku from Dragon Ball at New York Comic-Con 2023
Giant Goku inflatable at New York Comic-Con 2023 | Photo: Deb Aoki

That’s not to say that the North American comics scene lacks the talent or creativity to evolve or keep up here. The vibrant and bustling NYCC Artists Alley was full of talented artists and storytellers who did brisk business all weekend long, selling prints, original artwork and signed books. But what if more of them had the freedom to make, control, own, and profit from their original creations as Eiichiro Oda does with One Piece or Tatsuki Fujimoto does with Chainsaw Man, instead of playing in the superhero sandbox year after year? New, original comics stories and characters are constantly being created in North America,  but what keeps most of them from reaching the level of exposure and enduring worldwide success that is more common for new, original series that are being created now in Japan and S. Korea?

An intriguing bit of news that perhaps got overshadowed a bit by NYCC was the announcement that Hisashi Sasaki, the former Editor-in-Chief at Weekly Shonen Jump would be part of a new program designed to help new comics creators publish their original one-shot manga stories through VIZ Media’s VIZ Originals initiative. This is just the latest attempt to replicate the star-making comics creation structure that has made manga so successful worldwide, so this will be very interesting to watch over the next few months.

VIZ Originals

I know that it’s probably not fair to compare the Japanese manga publishing ecosystem with the N. American comics biz. It’s not like Japanese manga publishers don’t have their own set of challenges and shortcomings, as they deal with a shift toward digital publishing (which is now over 50% of manga sales in Japan) and a much smaller overall population of young people reading manga today. 

Back in 1995, Weekly Shonen Jump hit its all-time sales peak of a whopping 6.5 million copies sold in a single week. Sales of the print edition of this popular shonen manga magazine currently average about 1.2 million/week in Japan, which is still pretty good, but a far cry from its glory days. Also, what are some of the most profitable, popular comics apps in Japan today? Piccoma, owned by S. Korean content/tech company Kakao (which also owns Tapas Media) and LINE Webtoon, owned by S. Korean tech giant Naver (which runs WEBTOON / Wattpad in N. America). 

New York Comic-Con 2023
New York Comic-Con 2023 | Photo: Deb Aoki

But by any standard, the rapid growth of the manga/anime presence at NYCC in the past three years has been stunning. It’s an incredible about-face from prior years, when the “anime stuff” was treated as an afterthought or at worst, shunted away in a drafty waterfront warehouse several blocks away from the convention center.

The reps from Japanese manga publisher Shueisha that I spoke with at NYCC mentioned the show is very different from what they remembered when they last came seven years ago, when it was much more focused on American comics, movies, toys and movies. Even they seemed surprised at the shift toward manga and anime culture at the show, and the enthusiasm from fans that they experienced this time around.

My Hero Academia display at Manga Plus booth at New York Comic-Con 2023
My Hero Academia display at Manga Plus booth at New York Comic-Con 2023 | Photo: Deb Aoki

Why is this shift toward manga, anime and webtoons more apparent at New York Comic-Con than at San Diego Comic-Con, which is arguably the other major N. American comics event? Well, possibly because of showrunner ReedPop’s policy about selling booth spaces to companies and passes to attendees compared to non-profit Comic-Con International.

For companies to exhibit at San Diego Comic-Con, they need to have a booth space already. If they want a bigger space or if they don’t already have one, well, they’re out of luck, or have to wait for another exhibitor to give up their piece of the floor. SDCC is a big show and San Diego Convention Center is a large facility, but it’s pretty clear that demand for exhibit space is far greater than its capacity.

Same goes for attending SDCC. If you’ve attended the show in the past, you get first crack at buying a 4-day or single day badge. If not, well, take your chances and hope you get lucky in the lottery for the badges that remain. After getting your badge, the next challenge is to get a hotel room – and those can be hard to come by or are very pricey. It’s not cheap or easy to attend San Diego Comic-Con nowadays, and that eliminates most casual, budget-conscious, or younger fans who want to check out the show but might not have the resources or the patience to deal with the preparation and procedures required here.

As a result, in recent years, most Japanese and S. Korean manga, game, toy/merch and media companies have shifted their focus (and promotional budgets) toward Anime Expo, which happens every 4th of July weekend in Los Angeles, generally two weeks or so before SDCC. 

I attend both shows every year, and have noticed (even before the pandemic)  that the anime and manga publishers’ booths at Anime Expo have gotten bigger and bigger, while fewer and fewer even bother coming to San Diego, much less having a booth to showcase or sell their stuff. And the demographic difference between the attendees at both shows? It’s not surprising that AX tends to attract a higher percentage of teens and 20-somethings than SDCC.

Meanwhile, it seems like the booth and badge situation is a bit more fluid at NY Comic-Con. While tickets for attendees were sold out weeks in advance and it looked like almost all of the exhibit hall spaces were sold, I saw many more new exhibitors, large and small, on the show floor (which was packed all weekend), including a large booth for newcomer Penta Comix, which is debuting a new Spanish webtoon app later this year, and a table for Aloha Comics, which were promoting their Kickstarter for manhua, or comics from China.

Jenny Han and Kay Lim from Trulite / Penta Comics at NYCC 2023
Jenny Han and Kay Lim from Trulite / Penta Comix at NYCC 2023 | photo: Deb Aoki

The two huge Shueisha booths on both sides of the exhibit hall were pretty astonishing to see too. By most accounts, they finalized their plans to be a part of NYCC within 3 months prior to the show. Both booths had nothing for sale, but if their goals were to introduce what they had to offer to new fans, and to feel the pulse of the N. American fan community for themselves, it’s pretty clear that their efforts paid off.

Spy x Family at Shueisha XR booth at NYCC 2023
Spy x Family at Shueisha XR booth at NYCC 2023 | Photo: Deb Aoki

While anime, game and toy companies like Bandai Namco, Good Smile, Konami, Tamashii Nations and Toei Animation had huge exhibits (including some displays that were carry-overs from trade show Toy Fair, which was held at Javits a few weeks earlier), it was a little surprising that relatively few manga publishers had a significant presence on the show floor. Kodansha, Square Enix Manga and Books, Dark Horse and Udon Entertainment didn’t have booths at NYCC this year, and Seven Seas Entertainment was absent from both the Anime Expo and SDCC exhibit halls in 2023. But several companies that opted out of NYCC are perhaps saving their time, energy and resources for Anime NYC, a more manga/anime-focused show scheduled for Nov. 17–19, 2023 at the Javits Center.

Some companies, like toy/collectible figure company Tamashii Nations, have opted to expand their footprint in N. America by opening their first retail store in NYC, near Times Square at 1500 Broadway. 

Kadokawa Worldwide Entertainment had a soft opening for their first retail store, Manga Spot, a manga-centric bookstore located at Turnstyle Underground Market at Columbus Circle in Manhattan, with former Barnes & Noble graphic novels buyer James Killen at the helm.

John D'Esposito from VIZ Media, David Saylor from Scholastic Graphix, Mark de Vera from Yen Press, Jillian Rudes from Manga in Libraries and Ben Applegate from Penguin Random House
John D’Esposito from VIZ Media, David Saylor from Scholastic Graphix, Mark de Vera from Yen Press, Jillian Rudes from Manga in Libraries and Ben Applegate from Penguin Random House | photo: Deb Aoki

The professional programming track at NYCC devoted all of Friday to manga, with panels featuring representatives from Kodansha, Scholastic, VI]]

VIZ Media, Yen Press and Saturday AM, organized by Jillian Rudes, NY public school librarian and author of Manga in Libraries: A Guide for Teen Librarians (ALA Editions).

While manga and anime had a huge presence at the show, NYCC 2023 didn’t have the kind of headlining, featured guest from Japan that have come to the show in prior years, such as Masashi Kishimoto (creator of Naruto) who came in 2015, and Hiro Mashima (creator of Fairy Tail) who came in 2017.

VIZ Media booth at NYCC 2023
VIZ Media booth at NYCC 2023 | Photo: Deb Aoki

Meanwhile, VIZ Media hosted a Naruto Shippuden celebration with Maile Flanagan, the English voice actor for Naruto and offered a bunch of exclusive DanDaDan, Junji Ito and Bleach merch at their booth, along with their ZOM 100 shark photo opp. Just a guess, but VIZ is presumably focused instead on bringing Yoshifumi Tozuka, the creator of new-ish Shonen Jump manga series Undead Unluck as their featured guest for Anime NYC.

The Korean comics / webtoon presence was certainly felt on the floor and in the panel rooms at NYCC too.

Yen Press / Kadokawa World Entertainment brought out their mega booth from Anime Expo to showcase their Yen Press manga, IZE Press webtoon/graphic novels, J-Novel Club and Yen On light novels, and preview their trio of graphic novels featuring K-Pop superstars like BTS and ENHYPHEN from mega entertainment agency HYBE, hitting shelves in Fall 2023. By midday Friday, they announced they were sold out of all their Korean webtoon/graphic novels. By early Sunday, they were completely cleaned out of everything – manga, light novels… barely a few freebie postcards and posters remained for fans to grab to take home.

Kurt Hassler, Mark de Vera, Callista Gonzalez and Satoko Kameshima at the Yen Press booth at NYCC 2023
Kurt Hassler, Mark de Vera, Callista Gonzalez and Satoko Kameshima at the Yen Press booth at NYCC 2023 | Photo: Deb Aoki

The Korean Creative Content Agency (KOCCA) returned this year with a “house of Korean Comics” to showcase series by several webtoon studios and  hand out freebies like stickers and comics samplers to curious attendees.

Webtoon app Manta didn’t have a booth on the exhibit hall floor, but they were there as part of Rocketship Entertainment’s announcement of Dragon King Oath, a new fantasy series by Let’s Play creator Leeann M. Krecic that’s set to debut on Manta in 2024; and to celebrate the upcoming print release of one of their flagship webtoon and light novel fantasy-romance series, Under the Oak Tree, as part of Penguin Random House’s new Inklore imprint.

Under the Oak Tree featured at Inklore booth at NYCC2023
Manta series “Under the Oak Tree” featured at Inklore booth at NYCC2023 | photo: Deb Aoki

The Friday HYBE / WEBTOON panel gave attendees a glimpse into the multi-media strategy behind their graphic novels, published in print by Ize Press and featured online on WEBTOON.

The 7Fates: Chakho story incorporates music by K-Pop superstars BTS  that plays as readers scroll through the action-fantasy story about tiger hunters on their mobile phones or computers.  

The HYBE team also showed music videos that incorporated animated sequences from the webtoons, along with photos and music videos of  Dark Moon, featuring boy band ENHYPHEN as students in a private academy, where the vampire students are pitted against werewolves from a rival school.  

In S. Korea, Dark Moon promos took over Lotte World, one of S. Korea’s largest amusement parks, and a pop-up shop in Tokyo featuring clothing and fan gear inspired by Dark Moon drew over 500 people to queue up before the store opened its doors. From these examples, it was clear that the size and scope of HYBE’s ambitions for their comics creations are so beyond any music x comics crossover happening  in N. American comics today, it might as well be from another dimension … and maybe it is?

For the Japanese and S. Korean companies exhibiting at NY Comic-Con 2023, their ambitions extend far beyond the Javits Center, New York City or even N. America – they’re aiming to reach fans worldwide by offering more stories, in more languages (Spanish, Thai, Arabic, Portuguese, Chinese) and in more formats, (like mobile apps, animated interactive content and AR/VR experiences) beyond just printed comic books. Keep an eye on these trends, because there’s definitely a lot happening on numerous fronts beyond what we’re seeing at shows like NYCC.

Manga Dive at Shueisha XR booth at NY Comic-Con 2023
Manga Dive at the Shueisha XR booth at NYCC 2023

It remains to be seen whether this year’s show is a leading indicator of a larger overall seismic shift in the N. American comics scene. But one thing seems pretty clear: the days of treating the “manga and anime stuff” as an afterthought or second class attraction at NYCC are over, and it’s about time.