Inside Studio Ironcat

by Jonathan Mays, Nov 3rd 2003
Studio Ironcat is a comic publisher at a crossroads, wrestling with several issues that will affect current and future products from the comany. Anime News Network's Jonathan Mays investigated the circumstances surrounding Ironcat's recent plight. The following is a summary of his two-month inquiry.

The Basics

What is Studio Ironcat?


In 1997 Kuni Kimura and Stephen R. Bennett IV co-founded Studio Ironcat L.L.C., with the financial backing of artist Masaomi Kanzaki. The new company entered as a domestic translator and publisher of Japanese comics (manga). Beginning with the January 1998 releases of New Vampire Miyu, Studio Ironcat went on to publish Futaba-kun Change!, Crusher Joe, Dragon Wars, Ogenki Clinic, and several other adult titles. Renamed International Comics & Entertainment in 2002, the company expanded its focus to include shoujo manga (Ren-Ai, Complex, How to Catch an Angel, Central City), high profile shounen series (Di Gi Charat, No Bra, and Hanaukyo Maid Team) and horror titles (Mantis Woman and Labyrinth Circus). The company returned to the Ironcat name in October 2003. In six years of operation, Studio Ironcat has released over fifty Japanese manga and US productions to the North American market, including AmeriManga and Fred Gallagher's Megatokyo.

What went wrong?

During its six years of business, Studio Ironcat has played a significant role in bringing manga to North American retail stores, but a trail of disgruntled employees, business partners, and customers has accompanied their ascent. An early sign of concern surfaced during the summer of 1999 when co-founder Kuni Kimura departed the company amidst accusations of embezzlement. Following Kuni's dismissal, Ironcat conducted an internal investigation. Although a conclusive amount could never be determined, they estimated Kimura had stolen over fifteen thousand dollars from the company.

Ironcat suffered a second blow when Stephen Bennett III, father of co-founder Steve Bennett IV and a key figure in the company's day-to-day operations, passed away in late 2000. Soon after the death, Masaomi Kanzaki decided to pull away from Studio Ironcat, taking his comics and the Ironcat name with him. For the next three years, a slow stream of employees left the company, culminating with the July 31st departure of eight staff members. Now, former employees are speaking out about late pay and company mismanagement, artists and business associates are frustrated with a lack of communication, and consumers are concerned about the future of Ironcat's products.

The Issues

Embezzlement


From 1997 to 1999, internal struggles with co-founder Kuni Kimura viciously shook the company's financial foundation. An employee witness tells ANN Kimura's three-year tenure at Ironcat was laced with fraud, as the company co-founder allegedly gave Ironcat funds to two friends in Japan, took unauthorized trips to Thailand, and frequently used company finances for personal expenses. Mr. Kimura's misuse of company funds drained Masaomi Kanzaki's investment in the company, leaving Ironcat's finances devastated and its future in peril.

On July 15th, 1999, Kanzaki demanded Kimura's removal from the company, leaving Steve Bennett IV, his brother Kevin, and his father Steve Bennett III to rebuild Ironcat's fractured management. Following Kimura's departure, Ironcat conducted an internal investigation. A conclusive amount could never be determined, but they estimated Kimura had stolen over fifteen thousand dollars from the company. No charges were filed against Kimura, who currently resides in Japan.

Employee Fallout

As Ironcat's financial struggles continued for years, interaction between leadership and staff began to deteriorate, gaining the company a reputation as a hotbed of "chaos" and "high-school politics" among many of its employees. Mark Hofmann, Ironcat's first Chief Graphics Designer and Copy Editor, left the company in June of 2000, allegedly frustrated with low pay and internal politics.

A number of former employees have expressed similar personal and professional grievances with co-founder Steve Bennett, claiming he exploited their enthusiasm through unfair work practices and withheld pay on several occasions.

In an earlier interview with ANN, three former employees accused Ironcat co-founder Steve Bennett of denying pay to themselves and several other company employees. Financial documents obtained by ANN demonstrate a three-month gap in one employee's payment from March 31st to July 3rd, followed in September by back pay of only one-third of the $1,800 the employee claims to be owed. The records also indicate other former employees have not received some or all of their claimed back pay.

Many employees chose not to continue waiting for promised payment. Between May and August 2003, ten employees resigned from the company. On August 15th, Domestic Affairs Manager Kei Blue, Editor Stephanie Brown, and four other employees filed wage claims of more than seven thousand dollars with the Virginia Department of Labor and Industry.

Department spokesperson Patty Bell tells ANN the labor board is currently investigating the six employees' wage claims. The investigation is ongoing, and there is no timetable for its completion.

ANN has confirmed both Stephanie Brown and Duane Johnson have received full back pay as of October 27th. The remaining four are still awaiting payment from the company.

Studio Ironcat declined to comment to ANN on the status or remarks of former company employees.

No More AmeriManga?

With over six hundred direct subscribers by June 2003, AmeriManga has been a focal point of Ironcat's product line over the last ten months. The monthly compilation comic featured American artists drawing in a "manga" style, a unique format that appealed to a wide range of fans. But it now appears the magazine may have reached its end. On Saturday, October 4th during the Ironcat panel at AnimeNEXT, Steve Bennett announced AmeriManga would be placed on hiatus. According to Ironcat website, the company is awaiting contact information from all AmeriManga artists before proceeding with plans for future issues.

Ironcat continues to express interest in talking to the artists, but ANN has confirmed the magazine's founder, Kei Blue, and fourteen AmeriManga artists are no longer working for the company. Blue tells ANN a pair of clauses specifying a timetable for product release and payment was included in each AmeriManga artist's contract. When Ironcat failed to meet the timetables, the contracts were automatically voided.

Although new contracts may be signed at any time, several of the artists have expressed publicly—and, according to a source within the company at the time, in person to Ironcat management—their intent not to participate in future Ironcat projects. Among them is Joe Satomayor, whose series was scheduled to premiere in AmeriManaga issue #8.

"Not only did my series never see the light of day, but I never received a single cent for the two months I was under contract. And $700 for two months isn't a lot to ask for." If future issues of AmeriManga are to be produced, they are unlikely to feature the work of any artist from the magazine's first five issues.

ANN inquired about the status of AmeriManga, but Studio Ironcat declined to comment.

Central City's Future

A five-year veteran of the comic industry, Saya (her pen name) has touched three continents with her artwork. From London exhibitions to CD jackets to magazine cover story illustrations, her diverse artistic talent has earned Saya respect across the manga industry. In 2002 Saya introduced North American audiences to her work with the new Central City graphic novel. But after only one issue, its future is in question. Four weeks ago at AnimeNEXT, co-founder Steve Bennett stated Ironcat could not contact the artist of Central City. He blames the communication breakdown on a former employee, whom he claims took the artist's contact information.

ANN reached Saya, who says she has no intention of working for Studio Ironcat in the future. The Central City artist responded to the panel comments.

"He has no right to say this about his former employee. If they really wish to talk to me, my e-mail address is very easy to find because there were links from their former web page to mine." Saya claims she has not received "even a penny" from Ironcat since the release of her Central City book.

Outlook

Through its struggles, Studio Ironcat is continuing to distribute manga titles. Di Gi Charat: Dejiko's Champion Cup Theatre was released last week, and six other titles (A.I. Revolution, My Code Name is Charmer, Hanaukyo Maid Team, How to Catch an Angel, Nanaka 6/17, The Wanderer) are under production and expected to be released soon. The company has recently shifted to an all-volunteer staff to aid their financial recovery, and their long-term plans are not yet known. Ironcat chose not to comment on ongoing issues at this time, but ANN will continue coverage of the issues as they develop and as statements become available.

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