Toren Smith (1960-2013)

This week, document.write(“”); I was aghast to learn (via Anime News Network and James Hudnall) that one of the founding pillar of the manga industry in North America had passed away. Toren Smith was probably the first to go to Japan in order to negotiate publishing rights for manga titles, translate them into English (working with his friend David Lewis, later known as Dana Lewis, whom he met in Japan) and team up with American comics companies (like Viz, Eclipse and Dark Horse) to publish them — for that purpose he created Studio Proteus and thus kickstarted the manga industry in North America. For this we should all be immensely grateful and indebted to him.
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I met Toren for the first time in August 1989 at the San Diego Comic Convention, where my friend Alain Dubreuil and I interviewed him for Protoculture Addicts, and I kept seeing him in several other conventions after that. However, my wife knew him quite well. Married twice (mostly to the artist Tomoko Saito), he led a full and interesting life. He was an enthusiastic and multitalented individual, a shrewd businessman (he didn’t talked much about it but a good part of his income came from translating hentai manga, most of them published through Fantagraphics‘ imprint MangErotica) and a great guy. He brought us so many excellent manga, gave us (with Adam Warren) the Dirty Pair comics and even had a cameo appearance in the anime Gunbuster (at first I thought he had seriously pissed off Gainax people, because when someone put you in their animation only to kill you off it’s usually not out of love, but I later learned that it was meant as an expression of great respect and friendship).

Toren Smith died on Monday March 4th 2013 at age 52 (way too young) and the cause of his death has not been made public. My wife and I want to express our most sincere condolences to Toren’s family, friends and fans. Requiescat in pace Smith Toren!

Many members of the anime and manga community commented on his passing (Japanator, Right Stuf, The Fandom Post, All Day Comics, Gilles Poitras, The Mike Toole Show and I’m sure you can find more on Google), but if you have to read only one piece about Toren I suggest you check the obituary by Jonathan Clements.

For my part, as a tribute to Toren Smith’s life and career, I would like to offer you the interview we made with him and published in Protoculture Addicts #7 (pages 21-24) in the Spring 1990. Read the interview after the jump:

An Interview with Toren Smith

PA: Tell us about your background in Japanese animation: what are the series that marked your youth and how did you get so hooked to this japanimation thing?

TS: When I was a kid there were only two Japanese animation on TV, at least where I lived. Interesting enough, I liked them both. I didn’t like much else that was on TV, but I remember liking both of the shows. One of them was Kimba the White Lion, one of [Osamu] Tezuka’s works, and the other one was a show called Marine Boy, based on a Japanese show called Marine Kid which is really minor and obscure. Most of the Japanese people I talked to just never heard of it, even Japanese animation fans; but we have to remember there have been 500 animation series in Japan for the past 20 years, so it’s hard to remember them all. So that’s pretty much what I remember of when I was a kid. I remember liking Kimba quite a bit. I would actually hurry home from school so I could watch that one.

As far as getting turned on more recent stuff, what happened was that I moved from Calgary to California. I was living with a friend of mine in North California and she was a very popular SF/Fantasy artist. One of her fans came up to visit her and said, “have you ever seen Japanese animation? You got to see it, it’s great!” So we went to his grandmother’s house where he was staying and watched Japanese animation. He showed us Cagliostro Castle, the [Hayao] Miyazaki Lupin film. It was subtitled in English. We were all just completely blown away by that. He also showed us Phoenix 2772, the Australian dubbed version which didn’t impressed us as much but was still pretty good. When we came back the next week-end, he showed us Crusher Joe, some episodes of Urusei Yatsura and a couple of other things like that. My friend and I were completely astonished to find out that this stuff existed since we had never heard of it. And he told us about the C/FO [Cartoon/Fantasy Organization].

The person who did all this was James Hudnall, who of course is now writing for Marvel Comics. He does Alpha Flight, Strike Force Morituri and recently did Luthor for DC. It’s kind of interesting that he was the one who started us all on it. So, it’s pretty much how I got into it. And then from there, of course, I got interested in the manga itself.

PA: What were your first involvements with the animation fandom in this country?

TS: What happened was, James Hudnall decided he liked the area up there so much (we are living in Santa Rosa, around that very nice area about fifty miles north of San Francisco, the Sonoma county with a lot of wineries around) that he wanted to moved there. He was still a computer programmer at that time. He packed up everything, bought a house, and moved up there but he missed going to the C/FO meetings that they were having down in Southern California. I mean this was when the C/FO really did something, when people were still getting involved doing a lot of things. So we started a C/FO chapter – he started it and I came in to help out on it. I was working as a computer programmer at that time as well. So I started helping him out by making translation booklets. I would just take sheets of 8 by 11 paper, and use the IBM Selectric typewriter at work to produce a master copy, switching the balls to make different typefaces. I’d paste in drawings clipped out of animation magazines, then Xerox it off on the company machine when no one was around, fold it over once, and we’d give them away at the meetings. A lot of people would come and watch all different kinds of animation. I started collecting it about that time too.

Then I got contacted by a friend of mine, John McLaughlin, who is a SF fan and was putting on BayCon. He asked us to do an animation room, which was very progressive of him because at that time not many people had ever done one. That was BayCon ‘84. We had just a little tiny room – a room where the beds fold up into the wall. Well, it was jammed, it was absolutely packed with people, from the time it opened till the time it closed. John saw this and said, “God! It looks really popular! Next year we’ll have a bigger room”. So in ’85 we had a much bigger room. That was the first year I put together one of those animation booklets. It was stapled together, it was twenty pages Xeroxed on both sides, some of them were blue, most of them were yellow and I got Lela Dowling to draw a really nice Lum on the front. That was the booklet that started everything off. Again the room was absolutely packed from morning till night. So John said, “OK, next year what if we run it 24 hours? I’ll give you a huge budget so you can rent all the stuff you want, buy all the films you want and print a really nice booklet”.

I contacted Steven Johnson, and after I’d written all the synopses, I drove down to his office and we worked twenty hours a day for three days putting everything together. It was originally printed with a black and white cover, but when Books Nippan asked us to reprint it a few months later, we had Lela Dowling color her original cover illustration. So that was the big BayCon ’86 book. I really wanted to do an expanded version, I really did. I had plans for it; [Yoshikazu] Yasuhiko even did me a cover – I got it at home on my wall in a frame; [Hayao] Miyazaki’s also doing one for me, but I’m not sure now when I’m going to have time to do the book – it might not be for years. Besides, with all the subtitling that’s being done, and the English version coming out, the need for such a book isn’t as great as it once was. Anyway, that was how I got involved in BayCon and came out of that.

PA: What brought you to Japan and how did Studio Proteus start?

TS: What happened was that I had been in pretty close contact with Frederik Schodt who wrote Manga! Manga! He called me up and said, “look, a friend of mine wants to start publishing Japanese comics in America, can you help him at all?” I said, “well, maybe”. So I got into contact with this person, Seiji Horibuchi who is now president of Viz comics. At that time he was running his own company called Green Communications which was doing location research for movies and stuff like that; he had nothing to do with comics at all. He had a connection with Shogakukan. He talked about it a little bit, he asked my opinion on a few things. A couple of years earlier, James Hudnall had been working part time for Eclipse Comics as a Marketing Director. He was pushing them to get Akira and Lone Wolf and Cub. We didn’t realize at that time that First Comics was also negotiating for those. But no one was really interested in Japanese comics back then; they didn’t think it could sell.

I started talking to Seiji a lot. For about a year we talked about it, and made various plans. More and more I felt that I wanted to go to Japan. This was something I really wanted to do. To go to Japan, meet some people and see what it was like. At that time I had figured I would just work for Viz as a translator. Seiji was saying that I’d do Urusei Yatsura and all sorts of other stuff. I finally packed up, sold everything, quit my job, took all the money I had and went to Japan. I went over there with James Hogan, the SF writer. We went to the Daicon SF convention. We flew to Tokyo, spent two days there and then flew directly to Osaka for the convention. At Daicon V, I met with [Osamu] Tezuka, Mamoru Oshii, Mamoru Nagano; I just met this incredible list of people and that was it. Once I made the contacts, I could start talking to people about things.

I didn’t actually start working on Kamui until early ’87. Back in early ’86, Seiji had decided, based on my recommendation, that he should co-publish the book with an already established American company. So I said: “you should go with Eclipse because they are interested and because they are close” (they are very close to San Francisco, about 75 miles north). Seiji kept telling me, during the fall of ‘86, “Don’t worry, we’ll give you Kamui, and we’ll give you another book, Mai [The Psychic Girl] or Area 88. That way you’ll have two books so that you can survive while living in Japan doing them”. I finally got a letter from James Hudnall telling he’d been given Area 88 and Mai and Viz had never even told me in my face. So I was stuck in Japan with only Kamui to live on. It wasn’t enough; I mean I would have starved to death. So I merely had to start doing things on my own. So I gathered up a bunch of stuff I really wanted to get the rights to and publish in English. And I took it to Seiji and said: “look, these are things we should get. I could help you get them and if I do, you’ll have to give me the translation work on it”. “Well”, he said, “we can’t do anything that isn’t Shogakukan right now; we have to do only Shogakukan works”. “OK, fine, fair enough. We can’t wait on these things or other people will get them”. So I went off and got them myself. I got Appleseed, and a bunch of other things. When I told Seiji, he got really mad at me. So I did Kamui for him but I never did anything else. The only reason I’m doing Nausicaä now is because [Hayao] Miyazaki insisted that I work on it. That was the big split between me and Viz and that’s why I decided to start Studio Proteus.

One thing I realized is that I wasn’t going to get the rights to anything unless I could fool these people into thinking that I was a real company. I got a very expensive suit, spent most of my last money on it, so I would look very professional, and I got some really nice business cards. I planned everything out. I would go to them and show them the business card. They’d see the business card and they’d see the suit and they’d figure “this guy must know what he’s talking about”. That’s all it was. And of course I had copies of the stories I’d written for Epic and Eclipse and other people like that. So that’s how Studio Proteus really got started – an expensive suit, a nice business card, and a line of B.S. I contacted the Appleseed people first of all and they were very interested. Also at that time we were negotiating for Nausicaä so all I had to tell people was that we were doing Nausicaä and immediately everyone would say “you must be a big company, if you’re doing Nausicaä” because everyone knows Nausicaä there, it’s the Watchmen of Japan, everyone knows it. So after that, things started to fall into place, and Studio Proteus was off and running.

PA: What’s the readers’ feedback on your present projects?

TS: It depends on how you count feedback. Most letters you get are positive because most people who don’t like something, hate it, or got pissed off at it, won’t write in; they’ll just grumble to their friends. But if they like it, they’ll want to write, show their approval and maybe get published; so most of the letters we get are positive. From talking to other writers about how fan mail tends to run, I’ve determined that, actually, the negative mail on all of our series is very low, much lower than the average. So I think we must be doing something right. As far as sales go, all of our books are selling much better than the average B&W comic: the average B&W sells about 6000 copies; Appleseed and Dirty Pair are selling close to 30,000 copies, which is very good. Our lowest seller is Cyber 7 but that’s catching on and sales on everything are going up. Outlanders is selling 500 to a 1000 copies more each month as the series goes on; this is almost unheard of in the comic industry. Cyber 7 is also selling more, about 250 additional copies every new issue.

The only thing we’re getting a lot of flack on of course is Dirty Pair. A lot of people don’t like the fact that we changed the character designs and that they are too different from the TV series. I said it a million times before but I’ll say it again: we had no choice on that, we had to change them. If they don’t like what we’ve changed them to, well that’s a decision that only the individual reader can make. If they don’t like it, they really don’t have to buy it because we have to do what we want to do. Otherwise, we can’t do the best job we can on it. You have to want to be doing something; if the readers want you to do this or that, you feel like you’re being pushed around. It’s either the readers like what you do or they don’t but I don’t think people will go farther ahead if they try and do what the readers want. Once you do that, almost invariably you’re sunk. You can never guess. We’re making 30,000 people happy, I know that much. I think that maybe rather than try to make happy the two or three people that write in every month – that’s about all we get, maybe two or three very negative letters every month (although there must be much more people out there who don’t like it) – so I mean rather than trying to make those 200-300 people happy at the expense of the 30,000 people who like it, we’ll just continue to make what we feel is good. That’s the best we can do, I think.

PA: What are your near future projects and what are you thinking of for the next years?

TS: Coming up real soon is Dominion. As a matter of fact, I should probably have a script waiting for me in San Francisco. I’ll start working on that next week. That will be out in October [1989]. All the covers on that will be by [Masamune] Shirow – some people didn’t like the Arthur AdamsAppleseed covers. Within the next month, we’ll probably start working on What’s Michael? That’s a book-size thing, about 110 pages or so, that we’ll have coming out, sold mainly through bookstores. It’s a very funny comic. Following that, Black Magic will be beginning in February [1990]. What’s happening is that Appleseed Book three will end and, instead of Book four beginning a month later, we’ll have Black Magic. It will run for five months and then there will be a one month break and we’ll start Appleseed Book four. The reason for this is because the artist in Japan is very slow in producing the book and we have to space it out as much as we can. I’m afraid that Appleseed fans can’t expect to see Book 5 much before summer ’92. But we’re thinking of publishing the Appleseed Data Book, a 200-page encyclopaedia of the Appleseed world. It has around fifty new Shirow illos and a new 48-page short story. We might do that later next year.

The Venus Wars will be coming out from Dark Horse this summer, July or August. It’s written and drawn by Yoshikazu Yasuhiko, director and character designer for Gundam, Arion, Song of the Wind and Trees and other films like that. I’m sure every animation fans knows Yasuhiko. We will be doing that probably for Dark Horse, on a monthly basis. It will run about forty pages an issue and will cost about $2.25. It should run – if Yasuhiko does what he told me he was going to do – something between forty and fifty issues. About the same size as Outlanders.

We’ve got about four more projects coming up for ’90, but they’re all still waiting for final contracts, so I really can’t talk about them. One I can talk about is The last Continent, by Akihiro Yamada. It’s an homage to Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, but takes place in the world of 1950’s Japan, instead of Victorian England. The art is very detailed and realistic – it reminds me a bit of Mark Schultz’ art on Xenozoic Tales, with a dose of Frazetta’s comics work. Look for that from Eclipse about July or August.

The new Dirty Pair series will be starting in May. This one will be called A Plague of Angels. The WWWA has sent the Pair to an out of the way O’Neill colony, and assigned a reporter to follow them around as they (supposedly) keep out of trouble and show everybody how nice and sweet they really are. I think you can imagine about how well that particular plan works out. The first issue has the most action we’ve ever jammed into a single issue of The Dirty Pair so far. That’s pretty much it for the future that I can talk about, anyway.

PA: What can you tell us about the main new things coming in Japan in the near future?

TS: I’ve been away so long, actually, I’m due to go back. I’ll be going back in September. I know that there’re going to be a movie made called Maimu, directed by [Sh?ji] Kawamori, the guy who directed Macross The Movie and character design will be by [Haruhiko] Mikimoto; Mikimoto has been doing a lot of character designs lately and it started to look all the same because he’s doing so much work he doesn’t have time to really think up new things. But I’ve seen the character designs for Maimu and they’re going to be great. And of course Kawamori is just like a great director, so I’ve got real hope for that. The girl does a lot of riding around on a mountain bike in the movie and so Kawamori bought a mountain bike and he’s been learning to do tricks and things on it, so that he could direct it in such a way that is very convincing. That’s something that is coming up and I look forward to it.

[Katsuhiro] Otomo is working on a new film, Roujin Z, which is going to be – you’re not going to believe this – about an old man who’s gotten Alzheimer’s disease. He’s senile and he’s going to be inside a power suit like those in Appleseed or Gundam; he’s going to go out and do good deeds except he’s not very good at them because he’s senile. What a bizarre concept. But, anyway, that’s what Otomo’s got planned; we’ll see what happens with that. There’s also a rumour that Gainax, which did Wings of Oneamis, will be the one working on that.

The Gainax folks are also doing a series for NHK in Japan. The title is, literally, Nadia’s Strange Ocean, but they’ve been calling it Blue Water in English, which is a lot more euphonic. The character designs are by [Yoshiyuki] Sadamoto (Oneamis) and direction by [Hideaki] Anno (Gunbuster). I’ve seen the first episode, and it’s pretty damn good for TV animation. It’s heavily influenced by 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

There’s another rumour – that I’m not in position to confirm or deny – that Shirow Masamune (Black Magic M66 and Appleseed) will be directing a very high budget Appleseed movie; when I say very high budget I’m talking about the same as Wings of Oneamis or Akira, somewhere between.

PA: Thank you Toren.

Interview by Alain Dubreuil (and Claude J Pelletier; pictures by CJP)

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