Courtesy of Antarctic Press
It all began in 1976, with a family trip to Taiwan.
Already avid collectors of Richie Rich and Marvel superhero comics, brothers Ben and Joeming Dunn — then ages 12 and 10, respectively — discovered the Japanese comics form known as manga, and their young minds were blown. The radically different art and stories were like nothing they’d seen in America.
That eye-opening experience brought on a deep love for manga and eventually led Ben Dunn to form his own comic publisher, San Antonio’s Antarctic Press.
Remarkably, the company has weathered 35 years in the tumultuous industry and emerged a trendsetter, presaging several movements and launching the careers not just of Ben Dunn, but other creators including Terry Moore, Alex Robinson and Fred Perry, all of whom have won accolades for their work.
And with filming starting next month on a Netflix series based on Ben Dunn’s popular Warrior Nun Areala comic, Antarctic’s influence on pop culture will soon be splashed across television screens worldwide.
Not bad for a pair of San Antonio brothers who just loved manga.
Antarctic got its start in 1984, some eight years after the Taiwan visit, when Ben Dunn teamed with friend Marc Ripley to launch the anthology Mangazine. Most of the early stories were created by Dunn, but soon other local creators such as Perry, Joe Wight, and Rod Espinoza began contributing to the title.
Antarctic’s first hit came three years later with Ninja High School. The series, focused on an unassuming high schooler who becomes the object of both an alien’s and a ninja’s affections, was one of the earliest original English-language manga produced in the U.S., a form now known as “Amerimanga” in the business.
Antarctic’s second successful Amerimanga, Gold Digger (1991), related the Indiana Jones-like adventures of archaeologist Gina Babette Diggers. Perry, the series’ creator, still writes, draws, colors and letters every issue of the ongoing series.
Ben Dunn returned to Amerimanga in 1994 with Warrior Nun Areala, the series that inspired the upcoming Netflix show. The title character called upon his San Antonio upbringing, which included graduating from Central Catholic.
“I knew about the lore and history of Catholicism. It was always fascinating to me — the rituals, legends and stories,” he said. “Definitely ripe for story exploitation, as they say.”
The title became a sales and critical success, even spawning a proliferation of holy heroes from other comics publishers. However, it generated controversy in the Catholic press.
Courtesy of Antarctic Press
“I tried to keep it adventurous, fun and tongue-in-cheek as possible,” Ben Dunn said. “Basically, my take was that in Marvel and DC superhero comics there was very little mention of the Church. With all the mutants and superheroes, I’d think there would be more characters with a strong religious bent or that the Vatican would have such people as part of their organization or advanced team.”
Despite the forthcoming Netflix series, no collections of the previously published Areala stories remain in print, nor will Ben Dunn and Antarctic be in charge of chronicling the character’s future.
“Ten years ago, my wife had gone into surgery and we had expensive medical bills,” he explained. “The comics industry is not well known for health plans. We had to pay a lot of expenses out of pocket.”
So, to cover the bills, he sold the property to Avatar Press, another independent comic publisher. Avatar recently announced there will be new Warrior Nun comics, but it hasn’t revealed a launch date or creative team.
Still, Ben Dunn will have a hand in the television version of his creation. He’s acting as story consultant for the show with Simon Barry, executive producer of Syfy’s Van Helsing and Ghost Wars, serving as showrunner.
Continuing the saga
Co-founder Ripley left Antarctic in 1989 and Ben Dunn brought in his brother Joeming to oversee the financial side of the organization. A full-time medical doctor who specializes in alternative treatments such as acupuncture, Joeming Dunn gets up every morning at 5 a.m. to balance both careers.
And since its Amerimanga beginnings, the publisher has branched out into non-manga inspired horror, science fiction, pirates, ninjas, funny animals, post-apocalyptic, political parodies and steampunk tales. It introduced the world to Terry Moore’s popular slice-of-life dramedy Strangers in Paradise and Alex Robinson’s acclaimed Box Office Poison. The first issue of Mangazine even featured a steampunk character called Professor Steam, years before Steampunk even had a name.
Courtesy of Antarctic Press
“As one of the oldest small presses, AP is well-regarded within the industry,” said David Wheeler, founder of the Dragon’s Lair Comics & Fantasy retail chain. “They do a lot of very funny books that are satirical in nature. They also do a number of other books that are just very good for the industry. They brought in a lot of manga-like books before manga was really accepted in the U.S.”
Antarctic Editor Brian Denham chalks up the success to a love for the medium. It’s something every creator on staff, from its old guard to new hires, have in common.
“We may all be into a certain style of comic, but if we see someone coming up with a new interest and a different look, we encourage them more than we discourage them,” Denham said. “We publish what we feel has the juice. That little bit you can’t define, but you know it when you see it. We don’t want an entire line of any one style of book. We want each book to have their own look and feel and lettering that reflects the creators.”
That belief has come with some tribulations, though. Last year, Joeming Dunn agreed to publish controversial creator Richards Meyer’s IndieGoGo-funded Jawbreakers book without understanding the creator’s contentious, verbally abusive relationship with retailers and other comic creators. After learning of Meyer’s frequent dust-ups with others in the business, Antarctic pulled the project.
But, despite the occasional hiccup, the business rolls on. After a decade of publishing six titles and a T-shirt each month, Antarctic recently upped monthly schedule to 15 books. Last year, it also began distributing local publishing house Guardian Knight Comics, bringing its kid-friendly adventure series William the Last and upcoming Tintin-meets-Tarantino crime drama Offbeats to wider audiences.
“I’m really excited to bring in new talent,” Denham said. “As an aspiring comic creator in the early ’90s, I was helped along the way by a lot of old talent on their way out, and other pros in their prime. I’ve tried to pay that forward for the past 25 years in comics. I have helped many creators along the way get published or hone their craft. To share my lifelong love of comics and appreciation for this art form excited me to no end.”
Through all the years and all the changes, Antarctic’s publishing philosophy remains the same, said Joeming Dunn.
“If it was a good project, we didn’t care what it was, who did it. We just care that it was a good, entertaining and fun,” he said. “That’s what comic books should be all about.”
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