A little over a week ago, I and 550,000 others took the train to Tokyo’s Big Sight convention center for the largest comic book-related event in the world. But what’s sold there isn’t back issues of X-Men, or even Shonen Jump for that matter. The three-day Comic Market (shortened to Comiket or even Comiké if you prefer) is the country’s — and consequently, the world’s — biggest market for self-published comic books and magazines, called doujinshi. This year, some 45,000 independent publishing groups or "circles" were lucky enough to get half of a folding table from which to hawk their works — amateur books, many only a few pages, spanning every theme you could imagine.

Non-commercial publishing is big business

The country's enormous appetite for comic books is well documented. In 2009, North Americans spent roughly $2 per person on comics, while in Japan that number was closer to $35. But that figure doesn't include doujinshi, a largely untaxed and (until recently) unregulated industry estimated to be worth 25-30 billion yen in 2007, which translated to roughly $225 to $270 million in US currency. Comparisons to indie rock are easy to draw, but the inclusivity of doujinshi distinguishes it from more male-dominated pursuits. "As far as I know, there is no community-based creative endeavor in Japan that captures such a wide spectrum of society," says Japan-based translator Dan Kanemitsu, a 25-year veteran attendee. "We have grandparents publishing books with their grandchildren. The sexes are roughly balanced, and the occupational diversity is breathtaking."

I'm at the event shortly after the 10:00 AM opening, and although I was warned about the crowds, I'm not prepared for the waves of shoppers crashing into me in the exhibition halls. People are packed as densely as any rock concert I've been to, the only difference being the crowd's slow flow down aisles and around corners; intersections turning into whirlpools as people try to force their way over to the next aisle. A few seconds of wading through the mayhem and I’m drenched in sweat, not all mine, and the breeze from the open aircraft-hangar-sized doors does little to take the edge off the heat.

Twenty minutes in, I learn that if you want to do Comiket right you need to be prepared. Finding what you’re looking for amid the thousands of tables requires a ¥2,000 (about $25) phonebook-sized catalog full of thumbnail ads for the different books, broken down by date and category. The catalog also advises shoppers to stay hydrated, to come in the afternoon to avoid the crowds (whoops), and to steer clear of the event if they’re in poor health. Good advice — the most determined fans spend hours shoving through vacuum-packed crowds, mopping up sweat with handy towels, and checking the day’s shopping lists from light, sturdy clipboards.

"If people don't form circles and publish it themselves it won't get made."

When I ask one of the attendees why anyone would go through all this just for comics, he explains, "everyone wants stuff that you can’t buy commercially. The things people want, original books — there’s a lot of niche stuff. Publishers won’t put it out, so if people don’t form circles and publish it themselves it won’t get made. Here, at Comic Market, a lot of those kinds of people are together offering their books in one place," the implication being that no matter what you're looking for there's a good chance you're going to find it.

The day isn’t much easier for the authors. The heat in the most crowded areas is stifling, and moving out from behind the tables is impossible without getting swept away in a torrent of people. But for someone looking to make the transition into producing manga (comics) professionally, Comiket is a place to make your mark. The big publishers are known to scout the event for talent, particularly since many of the artists in attendance are drawing parodies and remixes featuring those same publishers’ characters. Copyright issues aside, Comiket provides the big companies with a pool of fresh artistic talent to draw from, and in recent years those same companies have built their own presence at the event, piggybacking on the enthusiasm it's built.

Some 10 million books are sold at the three-day event

Surprisingly, despite the spread of the internet and everything that goes with it, Comiket has only gotten larger. Combined, publishers sell on the order of 10 million books at each of the biannual events, and demand to participate is so high that some 30 percent of the publishers that apply get turned away. The growth continues despite scores of similar events across the country and the increasing market share taken up by consignment shops and mail order.

Kanemitsu says that while the doujinshi world is changing in some ways, in others it's remained largely the same since its early years. "I'd say diversification has increased, the velocity of how fast fads come and go has increased, piracy has become somewhat of a problem, but the networking of information has also been a boon to doujinshi publishers," he explains. "But all in all, I'd say the world of manga doujinshi has not been radically altered compared to many other entertainment mediums. The physical act of meeting the authors and buying something special from them has yet to lose its luster."