INTERVIEW: Ben Dunn
Last issue, Ben Dunn talked about his origin story, the foundation of Antarctic Press in 1984, and Ninja High School in 1987. Now the conversation shifts to the development of Antarctic Press from the 1990s to today.
PULP: At the time you created Asrial and Mighty Tiny, was there any furry fandom to speak of?
Ben Dunn: Oh yeah! In fact, furry fandom was bigger than anime and manga fandom at the time. Albedo and Usagi Yojimbo and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Fish Police, Kung Fu Kangaroo Rats, whatever, that was the big thing. That was the golden age of anthropomorphics in my opinion. I like doing furry critters, but I really don't look at them as exclusively furry. I just look at them as another storytelling technique.
P: Were you ever in the military? Because your work and Ted Nomura's seems to have a lot of mecha and military stuff.
BD: I was in a Junior Reserve officer corps back in high school, but I never did join the military. Heck, you don't have to be in the military to enjoy it. Now I know Ted has been in the military, in fact, he's almost all military, so he's very familiar with that.
P: From 1993 to 1995, Antarctic Press grew a lot, with Warrior Nun Areala, and you also started to publish some alternative comics like Box Office Poison.
BD: That was also about the time we started doing manga. We were one of the first companies to actually coin the term "dojinshi" and to expose people to Comic Market. We also were the first comic book company to do our own action figures. So yeah, we did a lot of firsts, and we're still doing yearbooks and annuals, which are pretty rare nowadays. We try to be different, you know. And if we can be different, we'll certainly try to do it.
P: How did you develop the contact with Japanese artists that started you in publishing manga?
BD: I got started by a pen pal. I have a Japanese pen pal, and I've known him for almost eleven years. He happens to be the president of what you'd call a fan circle, but his thing is American comics, ironically enough. He contacted me through Comics Buyer's Guide, and we hit it off pretty well, and then he told me about his dojinshi. I was like, "What the hell is a dojinshi?" And he told me what it was, basically a fanzine that he did to celebrate American comics, especially American superhero comics. So I said, well, tell me more about this dojinshi thing. And he told me, well, he goes to this thing called Comic Market, and then he sent me some dojinshi, I got a big box full of it. And I was very impressed, and a little idea hit my head. "Gosh, if I can't get mainstream manga, then maybe I can publish these kinds of things." And that's why I learned about Comic Market, and I went over there to talk with people and stuff like that. And also while I was there, I went to some other Japanese publishers and negotiated for some manga there.
P: What was the first manga that your company published and translated?
BD: The very first manga we translated was a thing called Mighty Bomb Shells [September 1993]. That was by a guy named Yujin Ishikawa, which, ironically enough, is the Japanese comic editor for Marvel Comics. And he's one of the responsible parties for doing the X-Men manga.
P: Editor, not the writer.
BD: Yeah, he's one of the editors. He also drew a couple of stories too. He wrote and drew the Mighty Bomb Shells, which is basically a Japanese stylized version of American superheroes. Which, again, gave me the idea, why not do Japanese manga versions of American superheroes? [laughs] So that's why I did Justice [in 1994], which was basically a reprint of my pen pal's fanzine.
P: Your pen pal worked on Gadget?
BD: Yes, he worked on Gadget and Justice. And one of the members, surprisingly enough, was the guy who did Pokémon, Toshihiro Ono. Basically, that's how I got thinking about taking the direction of manga-izing superhero comics.
P: What superhero comics do you read?
BD: Every once in a while I'll read something like Death: The High Cost of Living or something that catches my fancy. I read a lot of war comics, like Enemy Ace and Ministry of Space, things like that. But actually I read very few superhero comics now, because it doesn't attract me as much anymore. But I do read them on occasion. I pick up Battle Chasers, I pick up Crimson, some other stuff. Because they sort of draw in that sort of manga style that I have to keep up with.
P: About Warrior Nun Areala , did that originate as a sort of reaction to what was coming out of the market at the time?
BD: Oh hell yeah. I was basically t'd off by the whole bad girl craze. I thought it was a ridiculous trend, and it was an obvious cash-in, portraying females as sort of these warrior types, so I figured, why not take advantage of it at the time? See if I can do it too.
P: You did it as a parody?
BD: Yeah, it was my parody of all the bad girl stuff. But no one knew it at the time. They thought it was just another bad girl comic. But I'll tell you what, I wish I still had the sales I had back then. [laughs]
P: So what would you say the company's focused on nowadays, and what is your personal focus in what you're working on?
BD: We're going back to what started the company to begin with: good, solid creator-owned material. And focus on cultivating an audience. Really getting creators to stick with their books and getting it out on time. That's our main drive, and that's what we're basically trying to do.
P: Has this been inaugurated by the third incarnation of Mangazine?
BD: Pretty much. We decided to go with something a little bit different, experiment with something a little different, you know, and see how retailers and the public react to the large-format comic books. And so far, we've been doing pretty well with it.
P: It seems that right now a lot of people are trying anthologies, like Dark Horse's Super Manga Blast!, and Viz's Animerica Extra. I guess Mangazine also has a similar format, in a way.
BD: Yeah. I have to applaud [Dark Horse and Viz] for that, that takes a lot of guts. And I'm hoping their books are doing really well, quite frankly. With Mangazine, the only thing different is that it's in color, with some black-and-white editorial material. My belief is that American readers like color. They're just used to it. If you could somehow get manga in color, you could probably sell a lot more. The problem is whether it justifies the expense.
P: How do you feel Antarctic's image has changed since 1985, when no one knew about anime and manga, and you were the first and the only manga-style comic out there?
BD: I don't like to rest on anything that's been done in the past. You rest on your laurels, and you're gonna get bypassed by quicker, more nimble companies who know how to adapt to a changing audience's tastes. And we try to be as nimble and as quick as we can. That's the beauty of doing your own books. With manga, we were translating books that were maybe years, months, even years old. And unless it was something brand-new or specifically done for the American audience, chances are, most of the people who would have bought it had already read it. That's one of the things that we have sort of an advantage over, is that any time you buy one of our books, it's brand new. You're not buying, essentially, a rehash. And I see it as a trend nowadays, manga artists doing American comics. And I think that's a trend that's going to develop even further, in my opinion.
P: How do you mean by that?
BD: I got an e-mail from a company that apparently brokers for manga artists in Japan to do original material in the United States. I know that the guy who did Silent Möbius, Kia Asamiya, he's doing something strictly for the American market [Image's color Dark Angel: Phoenix Resurrection]. So I see that definitely as a trend, and I think that's a good trend, because I think the more people who are exposed to manga, the better.
P: Haven't you had some smaller Japanese artists contribute to NHS Annuals?
BD: Those are done actually by Ninja High School fan circles in Japan. There was one guy named Takeshi Suzuki who had a circle and was a big fan of Ninja High School, and he basically sent me the stuff and there was enough material for me to cull together for a collection that Eternity published.
P: Would you ever choose, again, to have something like you had at Eternity? Would that be your ideal situation, to be paid to just do your own comics? Is that what you'd like to do?
BD: That's a tough one. I wouldn't mind a steady paycheck for the most part, but there is something to be said about controlling your own destiny. And basically, if I worked for Eternity, I would be at their whim, and I couldn't do whatever I wanted to do, in fact, there's a couple of times when they had to censor my work. And therefore I don't have complete control over everything. But if you publish it yourself, you're the boss, no one can tell you what to do, and you take the book in the direction that you feel you want to take it. So that's basically the advantage. But of course, the disadvantage is, you never know where your next paycheck is coming from. [laughs]