Ben Dunn

by Chris Macdonald, Transcription: Sean Broestl,
Benn Dunn is a long-time veteran of the manga-styled comic world and one of Antarctic Press' biggest names. Who would have thought that he would take his humble roots from the hectic world of Taiwanese bootlegs? Starting his longest running book, Ninja High School back in the mid 80s, he's been in the publishing scene longer than many Americans have even known about manga and anime. Manga-styled comics? Ninjas? Ben there, Dunn that.

How did you get into drawing the comics?

Desperation, I suppose. I worked for other people, and I decided that comics was the best way for me to try to make a living without taking orders from other. So I thought, "Maybe I have a talent people will spend money on." Took a chance.

Looks like it worked out well for you.

More or less. There's always ups and downs, you know? This industry has gone through a lot of different changes over the last couple of decades. I've been sort of lucky that I was able to hang on for the most part.

You've been drawing Ninja High School since 1985, right? Anime and manga are really popular now. There's lots of people trying to do comics that are manga-styled because it's what's influenced them or because they think it's what's hot and will sell. That wasn't the case 20 years ago. What influenced you to draw that way?

Oh, I don't know. I guess I was just this snotty kid who just wanted something different, you know? When I went to Taiwan for the first time, it was a Mecca for bootleg manga. It was a lot of reading material for very little money. Since we were there for over six months, I had to do something to occupy myself. The comics were the cheapest and best way to keep a young kid occupied. That's where I got my first exposure to manga, way back in '76. I've fallen in love with it ever since then.

Manga wasn't very well known back then. What were people's reactions to this different style of comics that you were putting out?

Mostly ambivalence for the most part. I mean, there were people who were aware of manga and anime, but they were a fringe group as far as the rest of the comic companies were concerned. That didn't concern me too much. I figured there was enough of a readership out there that they'd accept it. I thought that the direct market was new enough to accept that new material, and it would live or die on the vagueries of the direct market. 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 and not because they thought it was popular, or that it was some big hot item. But I'm glad there were people out there who worked at it and made anime and manga mainstream. I'm glad to see that.

Can you tell me a couple of the particular titles that were more mainstream in 1976?

Mostly, I gravitated towards stuff like Go Nagai, you know, giant robot stuff. You're 12, 13-years-old, you want the boys manga which were violent, had superhero-type stories and giant robots and stuff. I certainly didn't gravitate toward the shoujo stuff, but I would by them on occasion. I would get them by accident; I couldn't read the titles and it just had a cool cover. What I read was mostly action boys manga though.

That's interesting, because you've said that the person who's currently doing the art and script for Ninja High School (Katie Bair) has made it a bit more shoujo-style, focusing a little bit on relationships.

Right, because 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 problems with that whatsoever. As long as she can maintain an audience, more power to her.

How has your audience changed in the last 20 years in terms of demographics and actual sales?

There's a lot more competition out there, for sure. 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. Now we're selling around two or three thousand because there's just more to choose from out there and Ninja High School has to change for it to meet the new demands of the readers.

What kind of changes do you think that will be?

Well, I guess the characters will have to change. The situations will have to change. We're still experimenting with the book even now. Like I said, Katie Bair is meeting some success with her approach with the shoujo thing. That's the beauty of the book itself; it's 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 other books do. And I think that's Ninja High School's strength, because it can vary and change and mutate into whatever it needs to be in order to maintain its readership.

When you mentioned bringing in some new characters, you were talking about some characters that you had been using in a different series into Ninja High School. Can you tell us a tiny bit about that?

Katie Bair and Robert Bevard, who are the primary creators on Ninja High School right now, will leave the series with issue 126. And by the way, they were 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 next letter of the alphabet. They're getting near Z. Once they get there, I take over with issue 127. I'm doing a book called Quagmire USA right now, it'll probably transpose into the new Ninja High School series when I finally take over with 127.

So you'll be bringing some of the characters from Quagmire USA to Ninja High School?

Right, that'll be the new cast as far as that. That'll be interesting, because like I said, the cast is interchangeable. Things can change, characters grow. I just never felt that a comic has to remain the same for 20, 30, 40 years. I refuse to let the book become like Archie. He's the eternal teenager. That's not the way things are.

What about Quagmire USA? What's going to happen with that after you go back on Ninja High School?

That'll end. That was basically just a jumpstart to introduce the characters. Once I've transposed them into that regular series, then they'll take over the regular series.

You've also done covers and work for other companies and other people's titles. Have you enjoyed that?

Yeah, it's fun. I mean, I like doing covers for other people. It's a great way to expand your repertoire, and it's fun to draw other people's creations. It's always been fun for me anyway.

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

I'm a proponent of that. I think that it adds a lot of different levels to the book, and it's interesting to see how other people interpret the same situations and the same cast and the same stories. That's what I think makes for an interesting book. I think sometimes it does alienate some fans who think the original creator should stay on the boat forever. But you know, evolution, things change. You have to realize that sometimes you need an infusion of new blood in order to keep the lineage going. You certainly don't want to become incestuous to the point where the stories and 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, you think that it results in the comic not being stale. It's going to go ahead, change and continue to be original.

Yeah. Well, some people may disagree with me on that. I think that it also gives people the ability to think that perhaps maybe they, in the future, can become instrumental in changing the direction of Ninja High School. That's one of the reasons I created the yearbook. To allow readers and fans to actively participate in the actual series. That's how Katie Bair ended up doing the book as it is. I've had other people in the past do the book too. Not all of them were good decisions, I'll grant you that. But I don't regret ever having anyone do what they did, because it's supposed to be a fun book. It's supposed to give people some entertainment value. I think that as long as the book is entertaining, it shouldn't matter who writes or draws it.

Along the lines of talking about your book and it reaching its peak in circulation a while back. What would you suggest for your older readers who haven't picked it up in a long time, who haven't read it in 10 years, and are suddenly interested in starting 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 just pick it up and read it at random and see if they like it. I think if they're looking for something specific and it's not there then there's not much I can do to convince them. If it's something that they like, then great. Hopefully they'll pick it up and start reading it again.

You've put out anthologies also, collected versions. Would the best place to start be the anthologies that picked up after they stopped reading? It goes in arcs a bit. Do you think they should start at the beginning of the most recent or next arc?

I think it's great if you start from the beginning. 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 really don't have to go that far back in order to get up to speed on what's currently going on in a book like Ninja High School. 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. You know, 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 back that far to catch up on. But you know also, we've collected and reprinted the books so many times, it shouldn't be difficult for any new reader to get up to speed. Not with what's currently going on. Plus we have the internet message boards and cons and things like that. It's very easy for anyone to find information on the book or to talk to other readers about what's going on with very little effort.

It's been almost 20 years. In another 11 years, where do you see the comic?

I don't know. I guess in 11 years it should be on number, oh, 180 or something like that? I don't know, it's hard to say. The industry could change again. Things could happen, you know. Like I said, I have shown more than a willingness to let other people take 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 who are interested in reading the book. So I have no fear that this title will continue so long as there is a readership out there.

As I was saying at the beginning of the interview, there's a lot of people putting out manga-style art and comics right now. Have any advice for fans of manga who want to start their own comics?

Well, it's really difficult for me to give advice to other creators. They have their own dreams and agendas, you know. The only practical advice I have is to be yourself and enjoy what you're doing and don't give up, because publishers are more likely to pay attention to creators who have a commitment to their work than to those who want instant fame. Basically, it hasn't changed in 100 years as far as comics are concerned. You just have to put your mind to it and get it done. If not, there are other venues. We live in a world, we live in a country that allows people to express their ideas in any form or shape.

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