Manga isn’t typically the main draw at San Diego Comic-Con, held July 19-23 this year, especially since publishers have shifted energies—and marketing budgets—to Anime Expo, which was held two weeks prior in Los Angeles. But this year, manga got marquee billing. Two superstar comics creators from Japan were headliners at the show: Vinland Saga creator Makoto Yukimura and horror manga master Junji Ito.

While it wasn’t Ito’s inaugural appearance at a North American fan event, it was a rare one, and it marked his first time gracing the halls of SDCC. Viz Media rolled out the red carpet with an exhibit of more than 100 examples of his original manga pages and color illustrations on display at the Marriott Marquis Hotel and at the Viz booth. There was a constant line to view the gallery room of framed pieces, which included many iconic scenes from Uzumaki, Gyo, and Ito’s latest release, Soichi: Junji Ito Story Collection.

Kodansha’s booth similarly featured original full-color sketches and replica pages from Vinland Saga, Yukimura’s epic tale of Vikings and a cross-Atlantic journey, along with a preview of the upcoming release of the Vinland Saga Deluxe Edition, an oversized 3-in-1 volume hardcover with embossed faux-leather covers that will hit shelves in December 2023.

Both creators were featured at hugely popular panels and autograph sessions, where they charmed fans with insights into their creative process. Yukimura garnered lots of laughs when he told the crowd at his spotlight panel, “This is a secret, but I’m not all that into Vikings! I had a vision to tell a story about violence and peace…. But stories set in historical Japan, China, Rome have all been done before.”

Vinland Saga is historical fiction, and Yukimura openly acknowledged the challenge of drawing problematic episodes of the past. “The story has reached the point where [protagonist] Thorfinn has met the natives of Vinland. I can’t hide the fact that this is based on history, and something very unfortunate is about to happen,” he said. “I’m debating how to deal with the conflict between the Vikings and the Mi’kmaq people, and make it into something more hopeful.”

Meanwhile, Ito opined on why horror has become trendy. “The main draw of horror is about the unknown,” he explained. “With horror, you’re faced with the unknown, but you’re given some kind of resolution in the end. It’s part of the human psychological need to know the answers.”

At the Manga Publishers Roundtable on Thursday, manga and webtoon publishers debated another unknown: how the market will evolve in 2023 and beyond. While the dramatic growth of manga sales across 2020-2022 plateaued in 2023, “the good news is we're still trending higher than 2020 sales,” said Kevin Hamric, v-p of publishing sales at Viz. “If that continues for the rest of the year, which we predict it will, it will be the third largest year in the history since we’ve been keeping the records of sales.”

Michael Gombos, senior director of licensed publications at Dark Horse, added: “This is our third year running for setting sales records at Dark Horse. Manga is a very small part of our total titles published—about one to one and a half percent, but in 2021, it was 66% of our gross trade publishing revenue. In 2022, that's dipped to a paltry 52%.”

Other trends to watch include the growth of full-color webtoons in print. Jamie Kim, business development lead from Manta, announced a deal with Penguin Random House’s Inklore imprint to publish both the novel and graphic novel version of fantasy romance Under the Oak Tree. Bobbie Chase, executive editor of Webtoon Unscrolled, revealed that the publisher is increasing its yearly output to 24 titles per year going forward—up from earlier projections of 15 per year—across YA and Adult categories, thanks to "strong sales and Amazon #1 statuses.”

“What’s interesting to me is that compared to the 2000s, readers seem to be more omnivorous now,” observed Ben Applegate, director of publisher services at Penguin Random House. “It just doesn't seem like this generation of readers cares that much about whether manga is only comics produced in Japan for a Japanese audience.” For example, Kodansha announced that they’ll be simultaneously publishing a new manga series in North America first, before it debuts in Japan: Blood Blade by Oma Sei, a fantasy-action series about Dracula being reborn as a sword-wielding teen girl and her encounters with other re-imagined characters inspired by classic horror movies like Frankenstein and The Island of Dr. Moreau.

“There are more creators around the world making what they call ‘manga’ for global audiences,” said Applegate. “And readers seem really excited.”

This article has been updated for clarity.