There are few countries that seem to have the universal allure of Japan, especially in America, where the foreign nation has earned a reputation for diverse experiences, the hottest trends, and beautiful women. Japan is especially enticing for those fans of Japanese comics and animation, manga and anime respectively, frequently labeled "otaku" and who can often be found majoring in Japanese at your local university. It's hard to imagine that any of these otaku would really mind being in Japan for an extended amount of time, casually walking down the streets of Shinjuku or admiring the costumed creatures at the Shibuya train station. But in DC/CMX Manga's "Megatokyo," two of those very devoted fans find themselves stuck in Japan and they find out that it's not quite as they imagined, but just may be what they needed. Originally serialized as a web-comic, then collected by Dark Horse, "Megatokyo" is writer/artist Fred Gallagher's first big manga series and with Volume 4 in stores as of last Wednesday from CMX, CBR News caught up with the creator to learn about the series' nuances.
"'Megatokyo' is the story of two Americans who fly to Japan on a whim and get stuck there, unable to afford tickets home," he explained. "The story should be about them and their efforts to find their way home, but for some reason each of them finds themselves wrapped up in situations that reflect their own unique - and drastically different - views of Tokyo," Gallagher told CBR News. "Piro is a quiet, shy anime/manga fan while his friend Largo is a boisterous hardcore American gamer. Between Piro's interest in a girl he finds himself growing close to, and Largo's quest to save Tokyo from destruction, the quest to earn enough money to buy tickets home seems almost to be forgotten. I think it's been categorized as a action / comedy / romance / drama / fantasy / big long complicated story, but I'm not sure even that covers it.
"The characters are based roughly on myself and my former partner and co-creator of the series, Rodney Caston. Rodney and I collaborated on Megatoyo until 2002, but I have been writing and drawing it solo since our split in 2002."
It's not hard to see how Piro and Largo were originally idealized versions of Caston and Gallagher, but with a series this complex and long running, it's easy for the characters to grow far beyond the original template. While Piro and Largo aren't quite exactly their creators, there's still a lot of Gallagher in the comic strips. "I think that anytime you create something you tend to put a lot of yourself into it. I put a lot of myself in 'Megatokyo,' and not just the Piro character. I can see elements of myself in many of the 'MT' characters. The line between myself and my characters is a gray fuzzy one, and I like to keep it that way. I often say that Piro is an idealized version of my younger self (which in and of itself is kinda sad if you think about it), but Piro is his own character. There are things he'll do that I'd never do, and vice versa."
Back in 2000, Gallagher brought "Megatokyo" to fans with his online webcomic, released Monday, Wednesday and Friday, allowing for fans to find frequent updates, and for Gallagher to quickly grow the series' mythology. Dark Horse Comics has collected the first five chapters (0-4) into a three-volume collection, and the move to CMX has yielded the strongest volume to date, Volume 4. "It contains Chapter Five and Six of which Chapter Six is some of my best work to date," contends Gallagher. "The book also contains many of the drawings, sketches and extra comics that appeared on the Megatokyo site during these chapters, as well as extra commentary and translations. The big extra in the book is a revised and expanded version of the short story 'Circuity' which originally appeared at the end of chapter 6. At 240 pages, it is the longest Megatokyo volume yet."
If you want to sample the comic in graphic novel form, and you've liked what you've seen on the website, then Volume 4 might not be a bad starting point for you, the new fan. Sure, it's nice to start from the first tale, but fans can easily fill in the missing gaps by reading the series online. "Actually, I think the material in Volume 4 is not a bad place for people to pick up and start reading Megatokyo," said Gallagher. "Much has happened since Piro and Largo arrived in Tokyo, but in Volume 4 it starts to really focus on the main characters and their stories. In much the same way that I started working on 'Megatokyo' to improve my art skills, I've also used it to learn how to write a long and involved story. It is in this book that I really started to pull things together."
Many fans were surprised to that the series was moving to CMX and wondered if there were problems at Dark Horse, but Gallagher is quick to praise Dark Horse as a great ally and good publisher. At the end of the day, it just came down to Gallagher feeling that his creative direction didn't quite fit Dark Horse's future goals. "I've had the privilege of meeting and getting to know a lot of people in the publishing industry," he explained. "Many publishers have talked to me about the possibility of working with them over the years. In talking with the folks at DC Comics / CMX, I really got a sense that the kind of work they wanted to produce was very much in line with the kind of work I want to create. Since I was on a book-by-book contract with Dark Horse for the 'Megatokyo' books, I decided to move to CMX / DC because I felt it would be a better home for my future projects. As I've said before, it was a very difficult decision to make, but now that volume four is out and I've had a chance to work with the people at DC / CMX, I feel I've made the right choice and am very happy with the results."
Fans have raved about Gallagher's artwork in "Megatokyo," with his attention to detail with both the characters and the backgrounds. Gallagher said that while some people may think he relies heavily on photo reference, the truth is he doesn't use much of it at all. "What I usually have around me are previous comics that I use for reference to keep a continuous feel. I tend to work from my impression of a location and my memories of how a place feels or how I would like it to feel, and use photographs merely to help 'tune' into it. In my previous life I was an Architect, so I've had a lot of experience working with space and the way people occupy it, as well as how buildings and spaces are put together. Usually I build backgrounds from memory, using shapes, textures and details as needed to create the right kind of space to support the characters occupying it. I used to think that my backgrounds were sloppy and way too random, but over time I've found that they have developed an almost impressionistic feel to them and a density that really works well with my character work.
"I tend to look at comics in an almost cinematic way," continued Gallagher. "I draw each frame separately and later assemble them into finished pages in illustrator. The drawings are as much a part of the development of a strip as my preliminary sketching and writing tend to be. My preliminary sketches are usually nothing more than basic scribbles -- I tend to jump right in and work on the final drawings, usually completely finishing each drawing before I move onto the next.
"I tend to look at a comic page as a sequence of views, much like scenes in a movie. Putting the final comic together is sort of like editing a film. I have raw footage (drawings) that have to be cropped and assembled into the finished piece. Often, the dialogue changes drastically once the characters are looking up at me, so I tend to tweak things quite a bit as I'm pulling the final comic together... usually just a few minutes before I post."
Volume 5 of "Megatokyo" is about a year away, but that's all Gallagher is going to tell fans about upcoming events. "What's next? Well, the characters don't know so the readers shouldn't know either," he laughs. "I like to keep the illusion going that I'm really good at keeping secrets about what is going to happen in the story, but there is a good reason to do this -- it helps you keep your options open. I have things planned out right to the end, but it doesn't mean that the characters are going to cooperate with me along the way. Quite often, they tend to decide for themselves what is really going to happen. When you put characters on the page and let them interact, they often surprise you, causing things to go in different directions originally planned. Allowing for this kind of flexibility improves the story and helps give it life. I often enjoy finding out what is really going to happen as much as the readers seem to. With the publication of Volume 4, the print versions of 'Megatokyo' are now much more current with the online versions. I just finished Chapter Seven, which is the chapter that immediately follows Volume 4. The web has been a great medium for releasing comics and building a community for 'Megatokyo' fans, but the books are a convenient and enjoyable way to read 'Megatokyo' and fans seem to enjoy them.
"I'm just about to start 'Megatokyo' chapter 8 next week, which is shaping up to be a very interesting chapter," continued Gallagher. "Now that Volume 4 is out, I'm looking foreword to getting out and meeting fans and doings some book signings. Sarah and I will be at San Diego Comic Con next month, with a booth full of books and 'Megatokyo' merchandise. After that, we'll be on the other side of the country for Otakon in Baltimore, Maryland."
And Gallagher enjoys giving back to the fans so much that he's made the series his priority, eschewing other work till the fans have their complete story. "When I did 'Circuity,' it was an 'omake' or extra that I did at the end of a chapter. I surprised many people by doing something that was very serious as opposed to the crazy humor that omake material usually is. I do like getting away from the 'Megatokyo' story from time to time, and I am very much looking forward to working on other stories. I do feel, however, that it's not fair to 'Megatokyo' readers to just drop things for long periods of time just so i can work on something else. This is the main reason I haven't started any other major projects yet. I don't want to work on them until either 'Megatokyo' is finished or I can produce 'Megatokyo' and that project at the same time.
"'Megatokyo' is really my first work. It's awkward and full of flaws, and I am very much looking forward to staring a new project where I can apply what I've learned doing Megatokyo to another story. To do everything I want to do I either need to work faster or there needs to be more hours in each day. Neither of those are very likely to happen."
The following art is from the aforementioned "Circuity."
CBR Staff Writer Arune Singh Contributed To This Story.