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Piromania -- Leah Fitzgerald interviews MegaTokyo's Fred Gallagher

MegaTokyo blew up almost immediately when it appeared on the webcomics scene three years ago. Fred Gallagher, the creator behind the strip, goes by Piro, a nickname he took only temporarily. A former architect, he now lives on the spoils of the site's merchandise.

Comixpedia: How did you start doing MegaTokyo?

Fred Gallagher: Well, the roots of where MegaTokyo came from go back years before it actually started. My first webpages were actually anime websites about specific series.

I had a small art page attached to them that had scans of my own work, and I called it Fredart. After a while, I started to discover that Japanese anime fan pages tend to concentrate on fan art, rather than just posting of existing artwork from a series. I really liked the idea of providing new content to the web rather than just digging up stuff from others and reposting it. Fredart was my art site, and it did fairly well for a while, and people seemed to like seeing what I was drawing.

A friend of mine, Rodney, who was a fellow member of one of the IRC channels I hung out on, liked the site enough that he offered to host it on his server. He really thought that we could do some fun projects together - and he had a domain name that he really wanted to do something cool with, but wasn't sure what - megatokyo.com. He tried a few things, initially we were gonna do a anime news site, but it didn't go very far.

 

CP: Where did the idea for the strip come from?

FG: After a while I was working on my little doujin story 'envelope', one of the first sequential projects I'd ever tried and Rod was starting to get into webcomics like Penny Arcade, Sluggy, PVP Online etc. He used to bug me saying 'dude, we could so do this!' Me, I wasn't interested in webcomics because I was more interested in doing manga and things like that. But after a while I started reading a lot of these webcomics myself, and enjoying them.

The actual idea behind MT was pretty plain, and had almost no development. We bounced around the idea of doing a strip about two gamers who get kicked out of E3 and go to Japan. Similar to the way Tycho and Gabe were the two real life guys in their comics [Penny Arcade], we put ourselves in using our nicknames, Largo and Piro. Sad thing is, the Piro nick was a temporary one I had just taken on. Now I'm sorta stuck with it.

I did the first two strips basically to get Rod off my back about it, and I didn't think it would go anywhere. After a few months, I started to take the idea a little more seriously, thinking that perhaps I could do more than just the standard joke type comic, maybe something with some story.

So I decided to not do them in ink, redid the first two in pencil, redesigned the website, giving each of us rant colums (Rod figured he could do game reviews and stuff) and we put it up. Penny Arcade linked us that Monday, and, well, I've been trying to catch up since.

The develompent for MT really has been on the fly, but over time it developed into what it is today

CP: When you say you had to catch up, were you falling into the webcomics trap of putting strips up the night before?
FG: Well, if you do comics for magazines or the newspaper, you are usually six weeks ahead or so. I tend to finish the comic about 5 minutes before it goes up. I've been trying to get ahead and do them ahead of time for 3 years now, but I have sorta given up on that. It makes the production of the comic sort of like a performance art.

CP: How do you find being as well known as you are in the webcomics circles?
FG: Well, honestly, I don't know. I don't like to elevate myself above others who work just as hard or harder on their comics. And I think it's pretty common for webcomic artists to be pretty focused on their own works. The popularity of MT never ceases to amaze me, and I think that there are a lot of professionals who would kill to have the kind of loyal audience I have. They mean a lot to me, which is why I will always do my best to make sure they are happy.

CP: How did you find putting manga on the web?
FG: Well, putting manga on the web is tricky. For starters, most manga in Japan are either monthly or weekly. Weeklys can be 30 pages per week that come in phone book sized periodicals. We don't really have a system like that in the states. I don't think 'monthlies' (standard comics) reach more than the specialized audience that reads comic books. The web reaches everyone, so it's an ideal place for it.

The problem is the web is not well suited to once-per-month releases. If you don't have something new several times per week, people will forget to come back. So the 3 per week comic is ideal for the web, but not ideal for telling a manga-style story, because each page has to stand on its own. I think I've become fairly adept at making each page stand on its own, yet letting them stand together as a group as well. MT comics are read two ways - as they are released, one at a time, and as a group as people either find the comic and read the archives, or they go back and re-read them.

It's an interesting media to play with, and I think I've done ok at working with it.

CP: How do you feel about other manga-influenced comics on the web?
FG: The more the merrier. I think that when I started there was some reluctance to mix humor strips with drama and stuff. In fact, the Piro and Kimiko railcard scene got me in trouble with some readers - they wanted to know what the joke was. I told them there was no joke. Life is usually funny, but not always. Since then, MT readers take the funny with the non-funny without problem.

As for other webcomics that are manga inspired, that's great – it's a popular 'style' - but in the end, it's not about 'style' - each comic artist has his or her own style. I say that my work is influenced by manga and anime, it's not a copy of the style. I've gone to great lengths to try to understand *why* I like some of the things I like as much as I do and I think it's because manga and anime has some subtlety to it that American comics often lack. And often, American comics that mimic Japanese comics copy the style, but have none of the subtlety.

CP: Are you crazy about other aspects of Japanese culture?
FG: Well, not so much crazy about it - Japanese culture is quite interesting, and I think that its fun for us to consider life in surroundings that are different than our own. One thing to remember about anime and manga is that these are Japanese fantasies about their own culture, and don't totally reflect reality. Piro discovers this himself when he goes over there.

CP: Do you find some people confuse the two?
FG: Uh, yeah, American fans think that Japan is the best place in the world to be. It's a great place, I had fun there when I was there 8 years ago, but there are things about it you don't understand 'till you've been there. Much of MT is based on my experiences, or more precisely, how I 'felt' when I was there. There are things we take for granted that you forget are important, that are real luxuries there.

Space, for instance. You have no concept how cramped things can be in Tokyo. Living in the midwest like I do, I never realized how compressed I would feel after two weeks in a dense urban enviroment like that. Also, people are far friendlier outside of Tokyo. It is a great place to visit, though. I make it sound like it's not - but what I am saying is that it IS different than anime and manga would lead you to believe, in subtle ways, and discovering that is actually sort of fun.

CP: How did the Book 1 of MegaTokyo fare for you?
FG: Well, aside from some glitches in printing, and some supply problems, it's done far better than anyone expected. Right now it's in its third printing. I'm kinda humbled by just how many people seem to want copies.

CP: What do you think of self-publishing?
FG: Well, self publishing is fine, and I could have done that, but I wanted to find a publisher who could help bring the book to a broader audience, help get it into book stores, etc. Since all the comics are availible online, it was important to me that there be some real value added stuff in the books that make them worthwhile for fans, while helping attract new readers - people who might just pick it up while browsing.

CP: Are you selling to the direct market or more widely than that?
FG: Oh, no, it's just like any other book. My store has copies, and you can buy them directly from IC Entertainment, but you can also find them on Amazon, Borders, Barnes&Noble, etc, and most comic book shops.

CP: What do you think about pay-for-content sites?
FG: I don't think they work, honestly. Power to them if they do it, but it seems to me that if you have to pay for the content, it better be damn friggin good :)

CP: Do you think there's any money to be made on the net?
FG: Sure. It's like anything, the net has a lot of potential. The problem was everybody thought that just because you had lots of people visit your site, that you could make millions off of them. They thought you could have a flashy idea and sell people a bill of goods. Well, what they forgot was that content is just as important on the web as it is in real life. I think I've done pretty good because I never say 'this is gonna be the best comic ever! Come and see, you'll see! It's great!' and then try to deliver. I just quietly do my comic, and let people decide for themselves.

People are tired of being sold crap, of being felt like they are taken on a ride so that people can take their money. They like being treated fairly, and like real people, and that's what I do. I figure it this way - I provide free entertainment on the net because, well, it's easy to do. I get a lot of readers, who if they want to support me, or if they want MT-related stuff, they go buy some from the store. Enough people do that, because you have enough readers, that you can keep the site going, pay for bandwidth, pay rent, feed the cats, and all is good.

People are used to properties being so oversold by the media companies that they are sort of sick of it. I think that my approach is a little refreshing. I could make so much more off of it if I milked it, but I'd rather not do that. I feel that if something is good, it will earn a reasonable, natural return and keep itself alive and the people who do it happy. And ya, so far I can pay rent. ^_^ If some day I can't, it means that people aren't reading, I go back to being an architect.

CP: Any future plans for MegaTokyo?
FG: Sure, gonna just keep going. MT has grown steadily over the past three years, slowly but constantly. I like that. It's not full of hype. I like to feel it has a long life in it. Too often we have these huge things in the media that explode onto the scene and then shrivel away into the past. I so hate the way that is done with things. Good shows too – it happens all the time. I think it kills things. It's like stripping all the leaves off a tree - take some, tree still grows. Take 'em all, it dies.