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Jason Thompson's House of 1000 Manga: Ippongi Bang

by Jason Thompson,

Episode III: Ippongi Bang

Can you be a manga artist without the manga industry? With manga sales in various states of decline around the globe (http://www.animenewsnetwork.com/news/2010-03-17/manga-sales-drop-a-historic-6.6-percent-in-japan-in-2009), this isn't a rhetorical question. From 2002 to 2007, buoyed by bookstore distribution and hot anime properties on TV, the American manga industry became a Big Business. And, as every wannabe American manga artist is told, manga in Japan is Big Business. Manga, which started out as rough hardscrabble work for small publishers in the '50s and '60s (as seen in Yoshihiro Tatsumi's autobiographical tale A Drifting Life), morphed into an industry in the '70s and '80s. Even today, we're told that a mangaka's greatest dream is to get published in a major magazine, like the heroes of Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata's Bakuman. Of course, it's still hard work, but you have the publisher to pay you a page rate, to give you "legitimacy," to manage your public appearances, and to promote you overseas.

But for a long time, manga in America wasn't Big Business; it was an experiment for a few publishers, a shaky venture which didn't make a lot of money, which was sustained by a small grassroots group of fans. In such an environment, with limited availability of imports and bootlegs and American fandom not as aware of what was hot in Japan, manga artists who were relatively unknown in Japan could get published in America and find much more success, relatively speaking, than they had known overseas. One such artist was Tomoko Taniguchi, a competent but bland shojo mangaka published by Central Park Media. Another, much more interesting artist was Ippongi Bang, one of the most well-known manga artists in America in the mid-1990s.

Born in 1965, Ippongi Bang grew up as manga was morphing from blue-collar to white-collar, from disposable children's entertainment to the enshrined pop culture of mature geeks. In 1983, around the time direct-to-video anime (OAVs) were changing the anime industry, the same year that Akio Nakamori popularized the term "otaku" to describe anime and manga fans, BANG debuted in the cult magazine Fanroad with her pseudo-autobiographical manga Ippongi Bang's Campus Diary. The short snippets of manga described her experiences at agricultural college, as well as her experiences in science fiction, anime and manga fandom. "My style is rock n' roll, but enka (Japanese folk music) is the best!" she tells readers in the first installment, next to a self-portrait with fishnets, mascara, and the rainbow-colored '80s hair she eventually became famous for (elsewhere, she describes herself as "a rainbow-haired manga artist of average talent").

Fanroad brought BANG the fangirl to the attention of the industry, and soon she was not a farmer but an aspiring mangaka, schmoozing with the likes of anime studio Gainax. Another factor in BANG's rise to geek celebrity was her willingness to expose herself: not just through autobiographical comics, but by bikini modeling and cosplaying in skimpy oufits, such as Lum from Rumiko Takahashi's Urusei Yatsura. If BANG was born twenty years later, she would probably have had a popular youtube channel. As it was, she kicked ass with her flamboyant personality, drew manga, and did work in a lot of other media, including acting in the ExorSister series of Japanese horror/comedies, in which she wears a trenchcoat and flings a crucifix-shaped shuriken, Deadalive-style, through the heads of poorly made-up demons. (That wasn't her only brush with crucifixes; raised a Catholic, she also spent some time doing missionary work in Bolivia.) Eventually she joined her friends to make the manga collective "Studio Do-Do," a big apartment crammed with mangaka such as Masaomi Kanzaki (Xenon), Yutaka Kondo (Gojin), Masayuki Fujiwara (Dodekain), Hiroshi Yakumo (Hurricane Girls) and Mio Odagi (Magical Mates).

If you haven't heard of any of these mangaka, you're not alone, but all of them were published in English by Antarctic Press (or in Kanzaki's case, Viz) in the early 1990s. Antarctic Press, a small press publisher, has started out in the '80s publishing some of the first weeaboo American comics such as Ben Dunn's Ninja High School. At some point, they decided to start translating Japanese manga. They chose BANG's work not because it was a tie-in to some anime on American TV, or because they were had connections to a Japanese publishing company and were looking through its back catalog for a graphic novel series short enough and "Western" enough to safely publish in English (long, multi-volume series were a huge risk in those days), but because of a personal connection between BANG and some of Antarctic's staff. BANG had been an American exchange student when she was younger, so she already had experience in North America. She became friends with the Antarctic Press staffers, posing in flirty photographs with Elin Winkler, future head of Radio Comix. And she was very willing to come to American conventions and promote her stuff in person, which, in those pre-internet days, was the best way to get noticed in America. It was the time of Gainax's Otaku no Video (1991), a time when Japan's economy was booming and otaku wanted nothing less than to fly their freak flag over the entire world.

And so began the short but bright American career of Ippongi BANG, self-titled "Manga Empress of All the Asias." Antarctic published several of her manga: Change Commander Goku, F-III Bandit, the adult comic Amazing Strip, Dark Tales of Daily Horror, and Ippongi Bang's Canvas Diary (Canvas, not Campus; excerpts of Campus Diary were later published as bonus material in Studio Ironcat's ¡Doctor!). The publishers craftily exploited BANG's cult of personality, certainly with her encouragement. In her overseas visits BANG schmoozed, got drunk and kissed American fans; meanwhile, Antarctic Press printed "Ippongi Bang Trading Cards" and foldout posters showing her in various outfits. Before Felicia Day, before Apollo Smile (anyone remember her?), she was the first Geek's Dream Girl. (For that matter, this was before Geek's Dream Girl.) Rumiko Takahashi may have been more famous, but Ippongi BANG would actually come to your convention and party with you.

The best thing about all this was that BANG's manga are actually pretty good (certainly the best manga published by Antarctic, except maybe for Dodekain), and certainly unique. BANG never worked on any long-running magazine manga (except for the untranslated and out-of-print three-volume Yûsha Kojiro 2 ("The Hero Kojiro 2") for Enix's Monthly Shonen Gangan); her translated works are All One-shots, or in the case of Change Commander Goku and ¡Doctor!, very loosely structured episodic stories. The one-shots in F-III Bandit and Amazing Strip are among her best work, and show her range: the Grim Reaper falls in love with a fallen angel, boy and girl ninjas flirt at ninja school, a boy wakes up to find he has a tadpole-like tail and an aquatic elf girl swimming in his coffee cup. In outline, these plots aren't so different than other geeky comedy/fantasy/sci-fi/romance manga; what makes BANG's work different is her strange, energetic art and the enthusiasm she brings to it. Her art is often messy and overdone, but delightfully so. Her characters have huge eyes, fluffy fluorescent hair, and that slightly fat and sassy look of '80s anime heroines, as if Japan, having struggled through postwar poverty and malnutrition in the previous four decades, was into women who ate a fruit parfait now and then. But unlike the work of other '80s rom-com stars like Rumiko Takahashi and Izumi Matsumoto, BANG's artwork is wild, with often crazy page layouts and exaggerated foreshortening. Mouths, fists, and in her adult comics, other bodyparts are always jumping into the camera, often surrounded by shocking lightning-strike screentone to emphasize whatever point the characters are making. (On a side note, I was always annoyed by the name of the old anime-inspired roleplaying game, Big Eyes Small Mouth. As BANG's work proves, there's plenty of anime and manga characters who have huge mouths!)

The over-the-top abandon of BANG's artwork may be due to the fact that she worked mostly in the small press rather than in mainstream magazines with their emphasis on speed and clarity. But it also expresses the rough-and-tough feel of her manga, and the way she harkens back to—or, to be more accurate, geekily indulges—the spirit of classic '70s manga. BANG is a huge fan of oldschool manga superstars such as Osamu Tezuka and Gō Nagai; not only is her pen name Ippongi Bang based on a Nagai character, the famous mangaka actually named her his goddaughter, according to fandom legend. In Change Commander Goku, which is less a story than a series of manga pop-culture in-jokes, the hero's sister Hani is a costume-wearing tokusatsu superhero whose clothes vanish when she transforms, just like Gō Nagai's Cutie Honey. The in-jokes continue: the hero's friend Joji is a tribute to Asao Takamori and Tetsuya Chiba's Ashita no Joe, and one of the minor characters is "Black Jerk," a scarred, cyborg super-engineer who looks just like a certain Osamu Tezuka character. A thinly veiled Black Jack later appeared as the main character in BANG's ¡Doctor!, as the only real surgeon left in a RPG fantasy world where everyone has grown dependent on magic to heal their wounds. (I sometimes wonder whether all these references were lost on early '90s American readers, and whether these comics would be funnier today, now that more '70s manga has been published in English. But on the other hand, the '70s were almost 20 years closer then than now, and surely some American fans knew of Black Jack and Gō Nagai from fansubs.)

Basically, BANG's work combines the still-current formula of romance between mismatched aliens/werewolves/shapeshifters/geeks with tributes to the "fiery burning spirit" of oldschool macho manga. In Ippongi Bang's Canvas Diary, an autobiographical one-shot, we see BANG working in the offices of Studio Do-Do, where she and her fellow artists fight over the toilet and geek out about superheroes and science fiction, and where BANG proclaims herself the best of the bunch: "I'm the head keeper of this zoo, the big boss, BANG Ippongi!" Although BANG isn't the only female member of Studio Do-Do, you get the impression that otaku culture of the time was very much a "man's world" and BANG was one of the guys. (Certainly her work, unlike that of her studiomate Mio Odagi, shows almost zero shojo manga influence.) But BANG's work is much more about class, and the special "class" of geekdom, than it is about the superficial concerns of gender. BANG's closest kin among American artists may be Phil Foglio, who also has absolute geek cred, a liberal attitude towards sexuality, and a love of roughneck men and wild-haired, cleavage-baring bad girls. The wildness is the key; BANG's heroes are not the middle-class, "I just want to be a normal high school student" protagonists of the vast majority of manga from the '80s onward. Instead, they are guitar-playing teenage street toughs, bancho punks and bad kids who live in cheap apartments. They may look cute, but they are bad dudes and loners (although they usually find true love, or at least die in a romantic way). As the hero of "Life by Formula," a motorcycle-riding dropout who has just met his future girlfriend, puts it:

"We're forced to go to school, get educated, find a job, get married and have kids, so they can do the exact same thing... it's a formula we can't ever change! Anyone who can't do what everyone else does, or who doesn't want to, has no place in our society! People like us!"

BANG's world is a punk world of romantic rebels, a world in which otakudom is rebellion (as opposed to, say, the hikikomori world in which otakudom is mere withdrawal from reality). Likewise, the way BANG was published in America, in the small press, represents an alternative lifestyle from the idea that manga must be a top-down culture sponsored by giant megapublishers. Her story is an exception to what manga translator/blogger Gottsu-Iiyan recently wrote about the insularity of the manga market and of manga artists. "They are faceless largely by choice," writes Gottsu-Iiyan (http://www.gottsu-iiyan.ca/gib/index.php/2010/05/19/it-s-just-not-about-you). "Making their presence known outside Japan and information accessible to foreigners beyond buyers in the industry is not something most Japanese companies in any industry pay much attention to... The sad truth is that few creators or content publishers care what happens to their work once it leaves Japan's borders, which is one reason you never hear complains about foreign censorship out of Japan." Of course, even BANG was writing first and foremost for a Japanese audience; none of her works were actually created specifically for an international audience or for American fans. (If they were, would they still be "manga"?) But she obviously cared about her fans abroad, and the small press of the '90s gave her the opportunity to interact with them.

But no form of media is immune to economic downturns, and in 1995 and 1996, the American comics industry went into a sharp decline. One trigger was the burst of the comics-collecting bubble of the early 1990s, in which fans threw away money on holographic variant covers and bought 10 or more copies of overhyped books such as Spawn #1 and the "Death of Superman" one-shot. Another trigger was the collapse of most of the comic distributors, leaving only one company, Diamond Comics Distributors, which even today handles almost all comics sold to comics and hobby shops. On the other hand, Diamond *doesn't* have broad distribution in non-comics bookstores, and the 2002-2007 manga boom, being supported by chain bookstores like Borders and Waldenbooks, largely took place over Diamond's head. But in 1996, few manga companies had any significant bookstore distribution. Antarctic Press ceased publishing manga, and its manga-loving employees left the company, founding two new small-press publishers: Radio Comix, which specialized in furry comics and manga, and Studio Ironcat/Sexy Fruit, which specialized in everything else.

BANG's new work, such as Virtual BANG, ¡Doctor! and Bang's Sexplosion, was published by Studio Ironcat. ¡Doctor! is her best Ironcat-period manga: a tribute to Osamu Tezuka's Black Jack, only set in a vaguely Spanish-themed fantasy world probably inspired by BANG's stay in Bolivia. With its diseases which incarnate in the form of slimy tentacled monsters, it's about as much a real medical manga as Toriko is a real cooking manga, but it's an entertaining series. Unfortunately, despite the Ironcat staff's personal connection to the artists, the company quickly established some of the lowest printing and reproduction standards seen in translated manga at the time. (Even early ADV Manga looked better.) The work was flopped left-to-right and the sound effects were translated, like every other manga at the time, but the crisp B&W printing of the Antarctic comics was replaced by gray, blurry, moire-patterned pages, probably due to cutting costs by scanning directly from the Japanese tankobon rather than using film or original art. (You can get somewhat better results by scanning today, because scanning and Photoshop technology is better, and because manga aren't blown up to 150% of their original size to be printed in the American floppy comic format.) Ironcat's translations were also, uh, budget, although Antarctic's hadn't been the best either.

Nonetheless, BANG continued to appear at conventions as her cheerful self, cosplaying as Pikachu and chilling with other Ironcat artists like Shimpei Itoh (Hyper Dolls), until 1999 when Ironcat co-founder Kuni Kimura was accused of embezzlement by his coworkers. Kimura fled to Japan, never to be heard from in American fandom again. The exact story of what happened to Kimura, BANG and Studio Ironcat is muddled by conflicting accounts, but it has the signs of a sadly familiar story of small press fans-turned-pro: running a business together isn't the best way to stay friends. In any case, Kimura had been Ironcat's link to BANG, and with the personal connection gone, the translation of BANG manga ended.

BANG's manga career also dwindled in Japan, with little new professionally published work from her in the last 10 years. She has two websites, one personal (http://homepage2.nifty.com/~BANG/) and one hosted on Gainax's homepage (http://www.gainax.co.jp/hills/BANG/index-e.html), although neither have been updated in ages. However, in 2008 she released a new book, Tatakae Oku-san! Funinshô Boogie ("Fight, Oku-san! Infertility Boogie"), a collection of "essay comics" about infertility. It may seem like a change in direction for the now-married BANG, but of course, autobiographical comics were what she started out in. I haven't read the book yet, but the prospect of more BANG autobio fills me with interest, and reminds me of another mangaka: Hideo Azuma (Disappearance Diary), who's also grounded in a cartoony early '80s style but known for his revealing autobiographical stories.

Although her early work is mostly out of print in Japan, a surprising amount of old BANG back issues are still available in English on comic sites. I wanted to publish some of BANG's art in Manga: The Complete Guide, but sadly I wasn't able to due to rights issues. Writing about her today, at a time when the manga industry is suffering, has made me wonder if an approach like BANG's and Antarctic's isn't a more sustainable way to publish manga in English in the long run. Artists promoting themselves, taking an interest in their English release, working closely with the publisher if they have a publisher of all—it's an appealing idea, and makes me wonder, why aren't more Americans reading work straight from the mangaka? One question is whether the internet promotes such cross-cultural interaction (by removing geographic barriers) or actually makes it more difficult (by eliminating the very idea of a 'mainstream' to 'break into'; by drowning the reader in an ocean of unmoderated, unedited webcomics and web animations, making it harder for any one thing to stand out). Certainly, BANG's work reminds us that manga is about individual artists, not publishers or magazines. And even if it's silly, geeky stuff, it can still be good.

Jason Thompson is the author of Manga: The Complete Guide and King of RPGs.
Banner designed by Lanny Liu.

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