Anime North 2004
Ben Dunn Interview

by Christopher Macdonald, May 27th 2004
Ben Dunn has been caleld "the God Father of North American Manga," he founded Antartic Press back in 1985 and the company has been publishing manga style comics from North American creators ever since. Dunn was one of the first North Americans to create manga-style comics. His most famous title, Ninja High School, premiered back in 1987 and hasn't stopped since. Other comics he has created include Warrior Nun Areala and Heaven Sent, and he has also worked on his own adaptation of Gigantor, Robotech, Captain Harlock, Project A-Ko, Marvel's Mangaverse and more. In January 2006 Dunn will return to the helm of his flagship title, Ninja High School.

Mr. Dunn sat down with ANN at Anime North.

ANN: How did you get started drawing manga?

Desperation, I suppose. I didn't want to work for other people and I decided that comics was the best way for me to try to make a living without taking orders from others. And so I thought “Maybe I have a talent that people will spend money on that took a chance”

ANN: Looks like it worked out well for you

Well, more or less, there are always ups and downs. This industry has gone through a lot of different changes over the last couple of decades. I guess I've been sort of lucky that I've been able to hang on for the most part.

ANN: You've been doing Ninja High School since 1985 correct?

Yes.

ANN: Anime and manga, they're really popular in 2004, there's a lot of people who do comics that are manga style, either it's because it's what influenced them, or because they think that it's what's hot and will sell. That wasn't the case 20 years ago, what influenced you to draw that way?

Well, I don't know, I guess I was just this snotty kid and I just wanted something different. When I went to Taiwan for the first time — that was just a mecca for bootleg manga. So it was a lot of reading material for very little money. And being as we were there for over six months. I had to do something to occupy myself and comics were the cheapest and best way to keep a young kid occupied and that's where I got my first exposure to manga, way back in '76, and I just fell in love with it ever since then.

ANN: What were people's reactions to this different style of comics?

Mostly it was ambivalence for the most part. There were people that were aware of manga and anime, but they were just a fringe group as far as the rest of the comic community was concerned. That didn't concern me too much; I figured there was enough of a readership out there that they would accept it and I thought the direct market was new enough to accept new material. And it would live or die depending on the vagaries of the direct market. And fortunately for me it was the right place at the right time. Most retailers looked at it with a very neutral stance, they ordered it mostly for their customers, not because they thought it was popular or like it was some big hot item. But I'm glad that there were people out there who worked at it and have made anime and manga mainstream basically. I'm glad to see that.

ANN: Can you tell me a couple of the particular titles that influenced you back in 1976?

Just about everything that was popular at the time. Mostly, I gravitated towards the Go Nagai, Giant Robot stuff. You know, you're 12 -13 years old and you want the boys' manga. Sort of violent and had super hero type stories and giant robots and stuff. I certainly didn't gravitate towards the shojo stuff, girls' manga. But I saw them on occasion, sometimes I'd get it by accident because I couldn't read the titles and it just had a cool cover. What I mostly read was mostly action – boys' manga.

ANN: Which is interesting because you were saying in your panel that the person who is currently doing the art and script for Ninja High School, Katie Bair, that she had made it a bit more shojo style, focusing on relationships.

Well, she's a girl you know. They like to focus on stories with relationships and characters and stuff. And that's fine, I have no problem with that whatsoever. As long as she can maintain an audience, then more power to her.

How has your audience changed in the last 20 years?

Well, there's a lot more competition out there. I guess we're just holding on because of sheer tenacity – there's enough of a readership out there to keep it going. At its height Ninja High School was selling around 12 000 or so and now its selling around two or three thousand. There's just more to chose from out there and Ninja High School has to change in order to meet the demands of the readers.

ANN: What kind of changes do you think that would be?

Well I guess the characters will have to change and the sort of situations will have to change. We're still experimenting with the book even now. Like I said, Katie Bair is meeting with some success with her approach with the shojo. That's the beauty of the book itself is that its not typecast in any particular thing. We can change it because the cast is so interchangeable; it doesn't rely on a singular cast like many other books do. That's what I think is Ninja High School's strength, it can vary and change and mutate into whatever it needs to be in order to maintain its readership.

You will be bringing in some new characters that you will be bringing into Ninja High School from another series; can you tell me some more about that?

Well, Katie Bair and Robert Duval, who are the primary creators on NHS right now, will leave the series with issue 126. By the way, we're going through all the letters of the alphabet as a story, if you're familiar with the book, every issue; the title begins with the letter of the alphabet. So they're getting near Z, once they are finished with that then I take over with 127. I'm doing a book called Quagmire USA right now, which I'll probably transpose into the new Ninja High School series when I finally take over with 127. That will be the new cast. I think that's very interesting, because like I said, the cast in interchangeable, things can change, character grow. I just never felt that a comic has to remain the same for twenty-thirty-forty years. I think that I refuse to let the book become like Archie, where he's the eternal teenager. Because that's not the way things are.

What about Quagmire USA? What will happen to that after you return to NHS?

That will end. That was basically just a sort of jump start to introduce the characters and once I transpose them into the regular series they'll take over the regular series.

You've done some covers and work for other companies - on other people's titles, have you enjoyed that?

Well, its fun. I like doing covers for other people. I think it's a great way to expand your repartee so to speak. And its fun to draw other people's creations, it's always fun for me anyways.

You've liked to a certain degree what's been going on with the last 26 issues of NHS, what do you think in general of other people drawing your characters?

I have no problem with that. I think that is adds a lot of different levels to the book. Its interesting to see how other people interpret the same situations, the same cast and the same stories. And that's what I think makes for an interesting book. It does sometimes alienate some fans who think that the original creators should stay on the book forever, but evolution – things change and you have to realize sometimes that you need an infusion of new blood to keep the lineage going. You certainly don't want to become incestuous to the point where the stories and the characters are all the same and refuse to change.

So by changing the characters, by advancing them as well as occasionally bringing in new blood to work on the comic itself, it results in the comic not being stale, its going to go ahead, change and continue to be original.

Yes. Some people may disagree with me on that. I think it also gives people the ability to think that, perhaps, maybe they in the future can become instrumental in changing the direction of NHS. That's one of the reasons why I created the year book, to allow readers and fans to take an active participation in the actual series. And that's how Katie Bair ended up doing the book as it is. And I've had other people in the past do the book too, and... not all of them were good decisions, I grant you that, but I don't regret ever having anybody do what they did. It's supposed to be a fun book and it's supposed to give people some entertainment value. And I think that as long as the book is entertaining it really shouldn't matter who writes or draw it.

You were talking about the yearbook, and you also said that NHS reached its circulation peak a while back. What would you suggest for your older readers who haven't picked it up in a long time, lets say haven't looked at it ten years and are suddenly interested and want to start looking at it again. How would you suggest they go about that?

That's a hard question to answer. I would think that if the cover looks interesting, the stories look interesting, the characters... They should pick it up and read it at random and see if they like it. I think that if they are looking for something specific and its not there, then there's not much I can do to convince them to read it. If its something that they like, then great, hopefully they'll pick it up and start reading it again.

You've put out anthologies also. Do you think the best point for them to start would be to pick up the anthologies that pick up after where they stopped reading, or do think they should just start at the beginning of the most recent or the next arc?

Well, everything is great if you start from the beginning because that allows you to see everything evolve and change as the series progresses. But like I said, with the addition of new cast and characters, you don't really need to go that far back in order to get up to speed on what's currently going on in a book like NHS. It used to be, back when I was starting the book, I made a promise to myself that I would never do a story that was more than three issues long, because I wanted to have any reader pick it up at any time and not have to go that far back in order to catch up. Of course that hasn't happened, but it's a good philosophy to have, to be able to tell a story that new readers won't have to go that far back to catch up on. But, we've collected and reprinted so many times that it shouldn't be that difficult for any reader to get up to speed on what's currently going on. Plus we have the internet, message boards and clubs and things like that, so its very easy for anybody to find information on the book or to talk to other readers and find out what's going on with very little effort.

It's been almost 20 years, so where do you see the book in another 11 years?

I don't know, in another 11 years it should be on number 180 or something like that. I don't know, it's hard to say, the industry could change again, things could happen. Like I said, I've shown a more than willingness to let other people take over the book, so if anything were to happen to me, heaven forbid, it would continue to go on as long as there would be readers that were interested in reading the book. I have no fear that the title will continue as long as there is a readership out there.

As we said earlier, there are a lot of people putting out manga style comics right now. Do you have any advice for fans of manga that want to start their own comics?

Well, its really difficult for me to give advice to other creators because they have their own dreams and their own agendas. The only practical advice I can give is to be yourself, enjoy what your doing and don't give out. Because publishers are more likely to pay attention to creators that show a commitment to their work than to those who want instant fame. It hasn't changed in the past 100 years, as far as comics are concerned, as far as anything is concerned – thousands of years, the main thing is that you just put your mind to it and get it done. If not, there are other venues; we live in a country that allows people to express their ideas in any form or shape.

Thank you very much for your time.

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