by Mike Hansen
Yesterday I learned that my friend and mentor Toren Smith died on March 4th.
Toren was the founder of Studio Proteus and the godfather of English-language manga in America. I only had the opportunity to hang out with Toren a couple of times, at different conventions, but during my two years as Dark Horse’s Manga Editor we spoke almost daily. He was classy, warm, funny, and very generous with his time – even though his voice often sounded all-business or just grumpy, he was always willing to listen and offer support, wisdom, and advice; and he was always cheerful and charming in person.
Toren shared with me several stories of his incredible career in comics. Most of the highlights are already on Wikipedia (under entries for both Toren Smith and Studio Proteus), but here’s what everyone should know: More than anyone else, he was the reason for manga’s success in America. He was the first American (well, Canadian) to try to convince U.S. publishers to release translated manga, and sold everything to move to Japan to make that dream a reality. He was a critical part of the formation of Viz Media (impressing Hayao Miyazaki so much with his talent and passion that Miyazaki insisted on Toren’s people producing Nausicaa for America, despite Toren being cut out of Viz behind his back: I asked him why he didn’t sue the pants off them, and he replied that he’d done alright for himself without them). He was present at the start of animation powerhouse GAINAX’s success (and did voice work and had a character named after him in one of their first commercial releases). He helped start AnimeCon (later Anime Expo), the first of now dozens of annual anime/manga conventions in North America. Despite Viz locking down manga licenses at the giant Japanese publisher Shogakukan, Toren wisely used his connections and unparalleled taste to gain dozens of manga licenses from other large publishers and independent artists like Masamune Shirow and Johji Manabe. When the comics industry went through busts in the late ’80s and mid-’90s, Toren was able to keep his main business afloat by publishing popular (and often reprinted) adult manga through Fantagraphics’ Eros Comix.
Toren had a sharp mind for business and a sharp eye for quality. Studio Proteus was set up so it would share in the profits and English-language license rights of all of its manga. It included the best talent in U.S. manga, including brilliant author/manga expert Frederik Schodt, legendary letterer Tom Orzechowski, incredible artist (and Toren’s then-wife) Tomoko Saito, and several others. They were paid the best page rates in the industry for their seamless work.
At the time, U.S. manga titles were still being produced first as monthly issues before being collected later into book form. Monthly comics production for manga was pretty similar to regular American comics: even though the comics had already been produced in Japan, “flopped” (left-to-right reading) art sheets had to be printed, the script had to be translated, and the art and sound effects had to be touched up and re-lettered.
By the time I became Manga Editor in 1999, Studio Proteus had consolidated all of its non-adult manga titles with Dark Horse (after Eclipse and Innovation couldn’t pay their bills). Along with others, I was asked by the previous Manga Editor, Rachel Penn, to help develop a new monthly manga anthology for Dark Horse: the end result was Super Manga Blast!, a 128-page title with 4-5 stories per month: Toren’s strategy was to have one “headliner” series (the first was Oh My Goddess!, one of the first manga to develop a strong female readership in America) and several lesser-known but high-quality series.
While SMB! was being developed, I took over as Manga Editor and helped oversee 4-5 titles a month. But Toren made my job easy: he personally obtained every license, oversaw every translation, and looked over every page before publication. Having the best second set of eyes in manga made my transition very easy and made each day working in comics a pleasure.
Things got more difficult pretty quickly, though. SMB!’s launch suddenly doubled our workload. As Toren worked his crew harder to produce more pages, he quickly figured out that he had to bring in more talent. But working with more people had its own drawbacks, and juggling what was essentially 10 projects a month soon led to a lot of missed deadlines. Toren and I worked long hours to make the printers’ deadlines, and his instinct for knowing when to make improvements and when to let things go ensured that the books were still published on time.
A year later, Dark Horse began publishing Lone Wolf and Cub, a monthly series of 300-page volumes that doubled our workload again. It was Dark Horse’s most profitable and best-selling manga ever, so the pressure was on to get the work out on time. I was assigned an assistant (first Philip Simon, then Tim Ervin) that helped keep things moving on the Dark Horse end, but Toren was exasperated trying to find other talent that could match his high standards. Some compromises were made to keep costs down: lettering on SMB! and LW&C was done by computer, and LW&C pages were digitally scanned from printed comics.
Despite the relatively small manga output, Studio Proteus got more awards and nominations than any other manga publisher. Twice I got to accept the Eisner Award for Best U.S. Edition of Foreign Material (for Blade of the Immortal, and for Lone Wolf and Cub). It should have been Toren on the stage, shaking Will Eisner’s hand: it was he who deserved to be recognized for his manga’s greatness and success; but Toren preferred to avoid public events, and the undeserving honor fell to me. I once shared a panel at Comic-Con with Toren and others (while nursing a massive hangover), and watching him smoothly handle questions with far more dignity than they often deserved served me well when I attended a couple of anime conventions as a solo panelist.
This work overload exacerbated Toren’s chronic health problems. He never shared all the details with me, and I won’t go into them here, but 2001 was a tough year. I missed several days as well due to exhaustion from the overwork, and the guilt of making Toren’s job harder on top of my own anxiety issues at the time made each day a struggle. Despite our best efforts, some of the books came out late and needed skip months to get back on schedule.
It ended up being too much for me, and I left Dark Horse on September 10, 2001. Toren emailed me a thoughtful and wise note advising me to stay on positive terms with everyone, and even went out of his way to type up a letter of recommendation that opened up some doors for me. We occasionally stayed in touch, and several times Toren expressed bewilderment and fascination with manga’s explosion in popularity despite other publishers’ much lower quality standards (lower-quality art scans, amateurish computer lettering, no translated sound effects, etc.). Especially annoying was Tokyopop’s successful marketing of “unflopped” (right-to-left reading) manga as “authentic” manga, undercutting Toren’s years of necessary effort producing Americanized manga to gain a wider readership.
Despite his retirement in 2004 (after selling Studio Proteus’s publishing rights to Dark Horse) Toren’s health problems continued, and we communicated pretty rarely. He’d invited me to lunch the next time I visited San Francisco, but our schedules never quite lined up. For the most part, until last year I’d stayed out of comics in a professional capacity, and I was looking forward to sharing my progress on my own comics with Toren in a few weeks once I had some art to show off. I wanted to tell him how much his example has meant to me, as a writer and a professional, and now I won’t have the chance. There are not enough words to express my gratitude for his presence in my life and career.
Manga has had a massive impact on the modern American comics industry, and has been a huge inspiration for American creators in every field. Much of that can be credited to Toren Smith and his enthusiastic passion for an artform that, thanks to his efforts, now belongs to the world.