Fred Gallagher did not set out to become the biggest name in American manga, a form of comic art originating in Japan. In fact, he had to be pushed and prodded into posting his first comic on the Web by his friend and early collaborator, Rodney Caston. Within a few comics, however, Gallagher's strip, called Megatokyo, had been linked by a major Webcomic site, Penny Arcade, and it began to draw first hundreds, then thousands, of visitors. Soon, Megatokyo became one of the most popular Webcomics. (A Webcomic is like a daily comic strip in a newspaper, only it is posted to a Web site.) Though he later broke from his early collaboration with Caston, Gallagher has posted Megatokyo continuously since August 14, 2000, and published three collections of the strips as graphic novels.
"I think that there is a lot of subtlety to manga and anime that American artists tend to gloss over when trying to mimic it."
Megatokyo begins when two twenty-something American young men named Piro and Largo fly to Japan on a whim. Piro—based on Gallagher himself—is a sensitive soul who is obsessed with Japanese manga, and with its animated counterpart, anime. Largo—based on Caston—is a computer-gaming addict who swills beer and sometimes confuses the line between reality and the virtual reality of his game worlds. Neither brings much money to Japan, so they find themselves stranded there. Megatokyo tells the story of their many adventures in Japan as they seek to earn enough money to make their way back home. With multiple story lines, imaginary characters embodying the consciences of the main characters, and occasional appearances by a quirky character named "Shirt Guy Dom," Megatokyo deftly combines insights into the worlds of gaming and computer hacking with romance and humor in a comic that is unlike anything else being published.
Megatokyo 1 (2004).
Megatokyo 2 (2004).
Megatokyo 3 (2005).
All strips in the Megatokyo series are available at no cost at www.megatokyo.com.
Early career as an architect
Fred Gallagher was born in 1968 in Long Island, New York, where he spent his early years. By the time he was seven years old, Gallagher's family moved first to Ohio, then to Michigan, where he has lived ever since. Unlike many popular American graphic novelists, Gallagher did not have an early interest in American comic books. But he did have a real love for both drawing and writing, he told Graphic Novelists (GN). "All kids draw; I just never stopped. I think that a lot of young people stop drawing at some point, because it is just one more thing that other kids can pick on. Art is a kind of exposure of your inner feelings, and I think it's a shame that so many kids stop drawing and creating things because of the critiques of others." By high school, Gallagher had gotten a computer and began writing stories as well. "I always had stories of some sort running through my head," he told GN, "but getting them into some sort of format from which I could communicate them to others was always difficult, if not impossible. It's through my art that my ideas came clearest."
During high school, Gallagher dreamed that he might one day become an animator. "Unfortunately, this was back when animation in the United States was completely dead," he told Joe Curzon, who interviewed him for the Anime Digital Web site. Gallagher decided instead to pursue a career as an architect. He studied architecture at the University of Michigan College of Architecture and Urban Planning (now called the University of Michigan Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning), earning his bachelor's degree in 1990 and adding a master's degree in architecture from the same school in 1992.
While in graduate school, the Disney film The Little Mermaid (1989) was released, and Gallagher experienced a pang of regret that he had not followed his dream of becoming an animation artist. Instead, he built a career as an architect. He worked for an architectural firm near Ann Arbor, Michigan, for several years, working on a variety of projects, mainly hospital renovations. In 1998, he finished the last portions of his architectural licensing exams and officially became a licensed architect in the state of Michigan. After moving to Atlanta, Georgia, in 1999 to work as a project manager for an Atlanta firm for a year, Gallagher returned to Michigan in 2000 to work for an Ann Arbor-based firm. It was upon his return to Michigan that he first started work on Megatokyo.
Making the transition from being an architect to an author/illustrator may seem like a stretch, but for Gallagher it made a great deal of sense. Gallagher told GN that his work as an architect constantly forced him to suppress his more creative side. "You find that your ideas and your creative efforts are tempered by so many constraints—budgets, the wishes of the client (who often doesn't want to do anything 'unusual'), code requirements, existing conditions, alternatives offered by contractors … sometimes, the only real creativity you can manage is tile patterns on bathroom walls. You had to learn to quell your creative side more often than not, and drawing and writing was my creative outlet—the thing that I could do and have no one question it or make me change it."
He discovered Japanese manga and anime, both of which were beginning to be available in the United States in the 1990s. He watched whatever anime videos he could find at video stories and began importing manga books from Japan. "My first 'wow' moment was when I visited a big Japanese book store in New York and was overwhelmed with just how MUCH manga there was … and I brought back a suitcase full of Japanese manga that I couldn't read," he told GN. The style of Japanese comics illustration—clean black-and-white line drawings and characters with large eyes and stylized hair—began to influence his work. He did not attempt to imitate the manga style so much as he used his love for that style to influence his own work. Gallagher also discovered the Internet, which made it easy to buy manga from Japan, read Webcomics, and chat with people using early forms of bulletin boards and instant messaging. It was on the Internet that Gallagher met Rodney Caston, a fellow manga fan.
"The early beginnings of Megatokyo were not the result of some grand plan and months of exhaustive development," wrote Gallagher in the foreword to Megatokyo 1, the first graphic novel collection of the series. "I started work on Megatokyo simply to get Largo (Caston) to stop bothering me about it." (Caston, who liked Gallagher's ideas and drawings, had badgered Gallagher to help him create a comic strip.) What began as a chore for Gallagher soon became a Webcomic phenomenon, as fans flocked to the site. Gallagher and Caston decided that they would update their strip three times a week, on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Caston wrote the strips, and Gallagher created the artwork. By the seventh four-panel strip, Piro and Largo found themselves on a plane bound for Japan, the result of an impulsive decision. (In the print version, in which Gallagher provides a running commentary of how the strip was created below the actual frames of the cartoon, the author notes: "Ah, the days when I didn't worry about setup for directional changes in the plot.")
Not long after they began, however, the nature of the story began to change. "From the start, Rodney was very much mainly interested in doing gag type humor," Gallagher told GN. "I wanted to do story. The thought was we could mix the two, that he could come up with the funny stuff, the crazy wild ideas, and I would layer my story next to it. Over time, as the story started to take root, it became harder for Rod to really come up with gag ideas, and I was bending a lot of things to try to fit in his more wild ideas." Over time, the strip became something more than a series of gags; in fact, it became an increasingly complicated, carefully drawn story of two very different young men exploring a peculiar yet strangely familiar culture.
Cultural differences are in some way what Megatokyo is all about—and what make the series so popular with young people who belong to the subculture depicted in the strip. American manga fans love the series because it renders recognizably American characters in a manga style, and because manga-crazed Piro makes all kinds of knowing references to manga and anime conventions, such as cosplay, in which manga fans dress up like their favorite characters. (Fans of the series do this with Megatokyo characters as well. Gallagher told Lisa Pickoff-White of the Echo Online Web site that "seeing someone wear a costume that you had scribbled together on a couch not six months prior … still kind of weirds me out.") Computer gaming fans embrace Largo, who is so deeply involved in the world of gaming that he sometimes forgets that he is not a hero in one of his favorite Playstation 2 (PS2) games. Largo also speaks a kind of lingo called "1337" or "L33T," a number-based dialect used online by a subculture of gamers (see sidebar). Female readers like the series for its unusually strong female characters, and for being so up-to-date on Japanese fashions. (Gallagher gets reports from friends in Japan on changes in fashion, and he updates the outfits of his characters regularly.)
As of September 2005, there were 760 strips in the series, and Gallagher continued to update the series on the www.megatokyo.com Web site. At first, plot was downplayed in favor of character development and gag jokes. Reviewing the first collected print edition, Megatokyo 1, Publishers Weekly hailed the strip as a "series of deft and sensitive character studies, whimsical portrayals of young people learning about themselves and their emotions." Gallagher has commented that he is interested in exploring the characters' relationships, not directing the series toward climactic moments. "It's the trip that matters, not finding out what happens," he told Applelinks interviewer Bill Stiteler. "I could rush things more, but then it might not be so interesting." Despite the focus on character, Gallagher has tightened the plot considerably over the years. "I realized after about episode #623 that I needed to tighten things up and drive the story forward. I feel that this has really improved the comic. I have a lot of story to tell, and I realized that I was being way too timid with it. Contrary to my worries that it might hurt things, it's actually made the story come alive better than it was before."
One of the more intriguing elements of the series is the blurry line that exists between Megatokyo characters and their creators. Gallagher readily admits to modeling Piro on himself, and Largo is a stand-in for Caston. In the book Megatokyo 1, Gallagher and others appear as characters, commenting on the creation of the strip in cartoons that fill the margins of the book. Online, Gallagher identifies himself as Piro when he chats with readers on his online forums, and he is often called Piro in interviews. Similarly, other characters are modeled on friends and coworkers: Seraphim, Piro's female conscience, is modeled on Gallagher's wife, Sarah. Shirt Guy Dom is based on Dominic Nguyen, who helps Gallagher with the strip by writing Shirt Guy Dom comics when Gallagher falls ill or faces writer's block. Just as characters in the story confuse the line between their reality and the reality of gaming and manga, Gallagher and his readers blur the lines between their life and Megatokyo. This blurring seems to promote a real devotion to the series, as many fans comment regularly on the series on its Web site, clearly taking an active interest in the Megatokyo community.
"Does Anyone Here Speak L33T?"
In one of the first strips of Megatokyo (strip 9, dated September 1, 2000), Largo stands up from his plane seat, clutches his chest, and calls out "D4 P41|\| !!!" An airline stewardess asks if he needs a doctor, and Largo answers "3Y3 |\|33|> h3[P!" After listening to a further string of this strange language, the stewardess cries out, "Does anyone here speak L33T?" Like many of the readers of the strip, Piro answered "j0.", or "yo."
L33T—usually known as leet or leetspeak in normal English—is a specialized form of spelling developed by computer gamers and Internet users. The term "leet" is a shortened version of the word elite, used to refer to elite computer users who had mastered the language. Leetspeak evolved alongside the Internet as a form of specialized communication. Leetspeak has a number of benefits: it can only be understood by those who commit themselves to learning the conventions of the language, such as using 3 for E, and |\| for N, and thus is used to confuse outsiders to a discussion; also, the strange spellings allowed users to "sneak" words past Internet filters designed to screen out coarse language. Leetspeak began to change almost as soon as it was adopted, as experienced users continually invented new spellings to screen out new users, or "noobies." Various forms of leetspeak and other variations on standard English still exist, and they are widely used for text messaging on cell phones and instant messaging on the Internet.
Megatokyo made a few leet jokes early in its history, and some actually credit the strip with making leet known to a larger audience. But Gallagher and Caston soon moved on, and once Caston left the strip in 2002 Gallagher rarely made reference to leetspeak. "I could have easily done L33T jokes until the end of time," he told Anime Digital, but "it just didn't seem like the type of thing that I thought would help the comic grow or give people what they were really looking for."
Over time, creators Gallagher and Caston had developed different visions of the series: Caston wanted more gags and less reliance on the ongoing stories; Gallagher wanted to develop longer, more character-based plots, with less emphasis on humor. Somewhere between episode 269 and 271, in June 2002, Gallagher and Caston parted ways, leaving Gallagher in full ownership of the series. The first publication of Megatokyo in book form was in 2002, by I.C. Entertainment; the initial print run of 11,000 copies sold right away, and 11,000 more were ordered. Troubles in getting the book into stores ended the relationship between Gallagher and I.C., however, and Gallagher signed with graphic novel publishing house Dark Horse, which has released three volumes of Megatokyo strips. Perhaps most notable to readers is the improvement in Gallagher's art. He has progressed from a simple four-square-panel style in the early days to a free-flowing style similar to Japanese manga, and the quality and clarity of his drawings has improved dramatically. "Gallagher's pencil drawings grow in their command of manga style and are impressive for both sensitive line work and his bold depiction of comical action sequences," wrote a Publishers Weekly reviewer in 2003. New York Times Book Review contributor John Hodgman noted, "The pleasure of watching what began as a lark, an exercise in the typical 'Bloom County' kind of four-panel gag, as it literally outgrows its borders into a lushly penciled full page, the story maturing into the exuberant, addictive soap operatics of the manga that inspired it, and becoming an unintentional whole." In 2005, Booklist magazine named Megatokyo 2 one of its top ten graphic novels of the year for young adults.
Thanks to the positive reviews, increasing book sales, and the stable arrangement with Dark Horse, in 2004 Gallagher began to commit himself to producing Megatokyo full time after getting laid off from his position as an architect (he had been spending more than twenty hours a week producing the strip after work). Gallagher had no plans to stop giving away his work for free on the Web, however. "I like the idea that you don't have to spend a dime to be an MT fan," Gallagher told Anime Digital, "but I know people do." Indeed, fans support Megatokyo financially by buying shirts, mouse pads, and stickers at the Web site, and by buying the print editions. During the early years of the series, Megatokyo gear was licensed to another online store, but in 2004 Sarah Gallagher spearheaded an effort to sell the goods directly to fans online. "It's part of our commitment to deal directly with our readers as much as possible," Gallagher told GN, "and we think people like that about our site." Gallagher expects to continue working on Megatokyo into the future, but he told Anime Digital that if it all fell apart, "I would just go back to architecture, I wouldn't go into comics and try and work for somebody else, I don't think I could do it.… I prefer just to do my thing and let people decide whether they like it or not."
For More Information
Coleman, Tina. Review of Megatokyo. Booklist (May 1, 2004): 1555.
Hodgman, John. "No More Wascally Wabbits." New York Times Book Review (July 18, 2004): 14.
Review of Megatokyo: Volume 2. Publishers Weekly (February 23, 2004): 53.
Zaleski, Jeff. Review of Megatokyo: Volume 1. Publishers Weekly (February 24, 2003): 55.
Zvirin, Stephanie. "Top 10 Graphic Novels for Youth." Booklist (March 15, 2005): 1304.
Adams, Cecil. "What the Heck Is 'Leetspeek?"' The Straight Dope. http://www.straightdope.com/columns/030110.html (accessed on May 3, 2006).
Brotman, Alex. "Manga on the Web: MegaTokyo." Animefringe. http://www.animefringe.com/magazine/02.04/feature/1/ (accessed on May 3, 2006).
Caston, Rodney. "The Truth about Megatokyo?" TypeRCaston.com. http://www.rcaston.com/modules.php?op=modload&name=News&file=article&sid=71&mode=thread&order=0&thold=0(accessed on May 3, 2006).
Curzon, Joe. "An Interview with Piro and Seraphim." Anime Digital. http://www.digital.anime.org.uk/talkingtopiro1.html (accessed on May 3, 2006).
Fey, Chris. "Interview: Fred Gallagher." Anime News Network. http://www.animenewsnetwork.com/feature.php?id=182 (accessed on May 3, 2006).
Megagear. http://www.megagear.com (accessed on May 3, 2006).
Megatokyo. http://www.megatokyo.com (accessed on May 3, 2006).
Pickoff-White, Lisa. "Web Comics Attract Devout Fans." Echo Online. http://easternecho.com/cgi-bin/story.cgi?1337 (accessed on May 3, 2006).
Stiteler, Bill. "Fred 'Piro' Gallagher." Applelinks. http://www.applelinks.com/iconversations/piro.shtml (accessed on May 3, 2006).
Additional information for this profile was obtained through e-mail correspondence with Fred Gallagher in July 2005.