Studio Proteus: Bringing Manga to the Masses

After a trip to Japan, Toren Smith fell in love with manga and anime. This drove him to move to Japan and to bring manga properly to the western world.

It would be a drastic understatement to say that anime and manga have been a smash hit in America. After all, the second-best grossing movie in the hellscape of 2020 was the movie Demon Slayer: Mugen Train, grossing almost half a billion dollars worldwide. Some of the best-selling comic books in America also reliably come from Japan, with industry mainstays like Dragon Ball and  Berserk constantly selling in high numbers alongside new successes like Beaststars and My Hero Academia.

And yet, 30 years ago, almost no one dealt in anime and manga unless it was for pornography or badly-translated pulp media. There was generally one exception, and that was the manga licensed by Studio Proteus. Essentially the first company to even try and bring manga to America regularly, Studio Proteus’ effects are as long-lasting as the American branch of the industry itself.

It began with one die-hard fan and massive nerd moving to Japan.

Toren Smith, circa 2011 (left). Self-portrait (right).

A Canadian native, Toren Smith was born on April 12th, 1960. Most of his upbringing was “traditional” for someone in the 60s. Sure, he liked comics and science fiction, but he also adored rock climbing, hang gliding, and even mountain biking. However, a chance invitation to a 1980 science fiction convention resulted in the claws of nerdom sinking into him forever. He would move to California and become part of the burgeoning anime and comic book scene in the bay area. While writing for Epic Illustrated, Eclipse Comics, and Amazing Heroes, Smith would befriend UK novelist James P. Hogan. When his works hit it big in Japan, Smith was invited to come along with Hogan to attend the convention Daicon V in 1986.

Daicon was the nickname of the Osaka-based branch of the Japan Sci-Fi Convention circuit, which would change towns each year. Those based in Tokyo, for example, would be called Tokon. For those who think it sounds familiar, animation studio legends GAINAX cut their baby teeth on animated intros for conventions Daicon III and IV. Enjoy what reconstructed footage exists below:

Just don’t make a drinking game out of the references. Oof!

At Daicon V, Toren Smith would meet a veritable who’s who of the best and brightest at the time, as well as those who would become industry legends. Osamu Tezuka, Toshio Okada, Yasuhiro Takeda, and many others. At that specific Daicon convention, Masamune Shiro’s own manga Appleseed was awarded the best manga of the year, and Smith realized what he wanted to do. Toren Smith knew Japanese, and he enjoyed reading these books. People in California’s growing anime and manga fandom scene also loved these books. After all, the Cartoon/Fantasy Organization of Los Angeles and their obsessive importing of Super Dimensional Fortress Macross basically resulted in the first successful American import of anime, 1985’s Robotech. And thanks to working in the comic industry, he also had a lot of connections with publishers in America.

So, Toren Smith packed up his things and changed his country of residence once again in 1986.

The staff of GAINAX, circa 1985, visiting the United States’ Air and Space Museum in Washington DC.

To Japan.

Smith was dedicated and was this remarkable oddity to the major publishing companies in Japan. This little nerd was so dedicated, he’d moved to Japan to try and bring comics to his country of origin (and America). Studio Proteus, as he had named his company, would be a middle man for manga. They would obtain Japanese comics for an American publisher, doing all of the licensing and negotiations with the Japanese publisher for the American market, while the release and marketing in America would be up to the actual company printing the manga.

Money was ridiculously tight, so Toren found himself living in an unheated, 12 square meter room with an outside toilet… and only cold running water. The rental unit held 8 apartments altogether, and the owner actually let Smith live in their residence for free, so long as he acted as the manager for the complex. This lasted for about three months…

…until the Yakuza who actually owned the place found out. While the articles I’ve found don’t go into what happened, it looks like Smith started paying rent once again. This resulted in almost no money for food, and his health suffered. Toren Smith went from 190 pounds to 163 pounds after only nine months of living in Japan. We know it’s only nine months because that’s when his Visa ran out for staying in the country.

Luckily, he’d made a lot of friends by this time. One of them was Tetsu Yano, a science fiction novelist who had made a name for himself with translations of American science fiction works before making his own. A letter of recommendation from Yano had allowed his Visa to extend those nine months, and Smith would return with many licensed works to start translating and publishing at the time.

The sheer amount of content and smaller page count did allow for multiple publications per month.

In 1988, the first manga translated by Studio Proteus was published. These earliest works were a partnership with California-based publishing companies VIZ Communications and Eclipse Comics, as the latter was suffering financial difficulties after a flood in 1986 caused catastrophic damage to their headquarters and saved content. These included Area 88, The Legend of Kamui, and Mai the Psychic Girl. The latter is best known as the first completed manga to be released to America, while Kamui is best remembered for being lettered and touched up by indie legend Stan Sakai. The manga line would be expanded upon, but financial issues would wind up causing Eclipse Comics to bow out.

Other releases would soon follow, with Dark Horse Comics and Innovation Publishing also joining the American release train. Dark Horse would pick up Outlanders by Johji Manabe, which was the start of a long and prosperous publication relationship between Dark Horse Comics and Studio Proteus.

Outlanders would sell massively for Dark Horse, as did the spinoff Caravan Kidd. Both would receive American-sized graphic novel collections, which was remarkably rare for manga before the 2000s.

Studio Proteus was an odd beast, so far as printing standards were at the time. Smith would work off the original art, making scans from the actual same quality of comic that was published in Japan. Everything would be translated, with sound effects cleverly replaced and re-drawn by hand. Only the most experienced writers and translators were hired, with the company having decades of writing experience under their roof. Further, their translators were paid some of the highest rates in the industry, and they even received royalties for their translations.

There are also times where a monthly release schedule meant that their comic needed new art for a cover. Rather than make their own, Studio Proteus would commission the original creator to make one. They would also make use of several pin-up pages from volume releases to act as covers, and their localized releases even had different art from the original on rare occasions.

Outlanders volume 1. Art and writing by Johji Manabe. Japanese edition on top from Hakusensha Inc, American edition on the bottom from Dark Horse Comics.

In the case of the above example, it’s not really known why the art was changed. Was it to make the book less violent, despite depicting a decapitation? Was Manabe not happy with the way the head was sliced in half? It does look like someone copied-and-pasted the head from panel to panel 3 before adding a blood splash, but we don’t even know for sure if it was that. No interview exists online that’s asked.

With his fledgling company starting to take off, Toren Smith would return to Japan in late 1988. This time he wouldn’t be living in a cold room under threat from mobsters. Instead, the same crazy animators who’d gone on to form GAINAX offered him a room.

The staff of GAINAX, circa 1986. Publication unknown.

GAINAX had taken up residence in an apartment. They lovingly nicknamed the place GAINAX house, and it was a little cramped. 12 animators lived there, stacked up on bunk beds and feverishly working on their next project. This didn’t come out of nowhere, either, as Toren had been long friends with the animators at one of the hottest new companies on the market. How do we know?

Say hello to Smith Toren, a reasonably important character from the middle of GAINAX’s legendary Gunbuster original video animation series from 1988. The character showed up in the middle of the series to show how horrible space could be to the main character, and he came from America. Obviously, he’s a “name” tribute rather than a complete copy-and-paste into an anime, but in the real world, Toren even got to add his voice to the Japanese language track to Gunbuster as it was being worked on. Sadly, he did not get to voice himself but was instead the voice of one of the bridge crew of the starship Excellion. While no interviews I could find talk about this, it’s fair to say he got one hell of a kick out of it.

GAINAX House was a hellscape for a few reasons. While Toren likely appreciated living with friends, he was still in an unheated room that was four square meters smaller and working on a salvaged typewriter mostly built out of an IBM Selectric. At least it was no longer a manual typewriter!

An IBM Selectric II, a close approximation to what he was working with at the time.

Of course, it eventually caught fire while he was working on a translation.

Unfortunately, GAINAX House was also crammed full of 12 nerds from Japan (and one Canadian) with whom hygiene may not have been the highest priority. GAINAX staffer Yasuhiro Takeda would later recount their home in a memoir released in 2002 the condition of their living area:

Make no mistake, GAINAX House was a den of rabid bachelors. Nobody cleaned or even straightened up—ever. When we received a visit from Hiroe Suga (who for a time was staying at a boarding house in Tokyo and working as an author), she was literally sickened by the smell. The color drained from her face and she beat a very hasty retreat. Ultimately, we elected to move out of GAINAX House. When the landlord came by to give the place a once-over and release us from our contract, he was stricken speechless. Almost immediately after we vacated, the house was demolished.

No pictures exist on the western side of the internet of GAINAX house, and it is probably for the best. However, even while living in squalor and among the messiest people in the nation, Toren Smith actually did what some considered the impossible. Yasuhiro Takeda would add a side-note to the mention of GAINAX house about Smith himself:

He is one shrewd fellow—not only did he make plenty of manga-related connections while he was here, but he snagged himself a beautiful Japanese wife to boot. I still remember one morning, shortly after we all woke up; the door to Toren’s room opened and out walked a young lady we’d never seen before!

This woman was Tomoko Saitou. While she would undergo several name changes in her career on both sides of the ocean, perhaps the most significant was that of Tomoko Saitou Smith. The two were married in 1991, and she would work alongside Toren at Studio Proteus as a letterer.

According to what research that can be found, Studio Proteus was almost the victim of the crunch the comic industry experienced in the mid-1990s. For those who aren’t aware, the hyper pandering performed by most comic companies to a new speculation market would result in many ripples throughout the industry. Some of it was simple, with a large number of comics being relaunched with a new first issue to entice collectors (which still happens to this day). Others included artists becoming more important than the writer when it came to sales, almost directly starting a chain that ended with Image Comics being founded.

As the sales of the speculation market crashed around 1995, sales slumped across the board. Companies tightened their belts, and many smaller publishers fell to ruin. It looks like Viz Communications chose to cut costs by starting their own branch of translation rather than deal with Studio Proteus, while Dark Horse Comics seems to be the one company that was still working alongside Studio Proteus… on the all-ages market, anyhow.

This is the only cover we can show that is safe for work. I’m not kidding.

Working with a Fantagraphics imprint called Eros Comics, Studio Proteus began to crank out pornographic material to pay the bills. Proteus had dabbled with near-porn works before, as Outlanders creator Johji Manabe started as a pornographic artist and did not mind using nudity and sex as part of his plots. However, books like Secret Plot dealt with crossdressing and teachers seducing their students, while Super Taboo was all about incestual relations. Bondage Fairies featured characters akin to Tinkerbell in relation to the beasts living around them. These are just the more easily found content, however, as keeping track of Studio Proteus’ adult translations has been less important to the internet at large.

Needless to say, this didn’t help the image of manga in America, but you do what you have to do.

At this time in the publishing world, several companies tried to mimic what was done in Japan. Rather than release single chapters (or paired chapters) each month in a ‘floppy’ format like American comics, many attempts at large anthology releases were tried. 

1997, for example, brought MIXXzine. This was a collection of manga from MIXX Entertainment, later known as Tokyopop. Their works focused on the more girl-friendly works, like Magic Knight Rayearth and Sailor Moon. VIZ had their own, called AnimericaEXTRA, after their popular anime magazine. Also focused on the female audience, they would have works like Fushiugi Yugi and Video Girl Ai. Both of these magazines would survive the better part of a decade, albeit with low sales resulting in smaller page counts or lower quality printing. This is still remarkably respectable, as their prices were higher than the average comic at the time.

It was either Dark Horse Comics watermarks or another website’s watermarks…

Dark Horse would also release their own answer to this, partnered with Studio Proteus in 2000. Called Super Manga Blast, these 128-page volumes would feature content that would spread the target audience out. The cat-focused What’s Michael would appeal to everyone, while 3×3 Eyes covered the action and adventure. Oh! My Goddess was also a major hit early on, and the biggest draw for most fans of the day. It was also monthly and lasted for just shy of 5 years. This was around the time all the other manga anthologies died out, and for good reason.

Manga went mainstream.

Thanks to companies like Tokyopop churning out manga at inexpensive prices and partnering with major book retailers, the days of the floppy and anthology releases were ending. After all, why buy a chapter or two of manga when you could wait a few months and get a full volume for only 10 bucks? This shift was almost overnight, with every company changing gears in a way that must have left transmission fluid on the highway that is the history of manga in America.

Studio Proteus also survived this as well, with their running translations of Blade of the Immortal and Lone Wolf and Cub being converted to volume publication. Some of Dark Horse’s earliest direct-to-digest publications were also by Studio Proteus, such as Osamu Tezuka’s Metropolis. Manga was also finally being released in a format that was faithful to their Japanese publication!

You see, almost all manga released before the 2000s was “flopped.” This means the art was mirrored before being translated, resulting in the book reading left-to-right to match the western style of reading. Most cases literally mirrored the art itself by flipping it digitally, but the art style of Blade of the Immortal was so loved by Smith and Studio Proteus that they actually cut the pages and re-laid the art so it would read Western without changing the art itself.

The fact that flopping the art would have made the manji on the back of the main character into a Nazi swastika is likely the real reason, though. The comic even had a full page dedicated to explaining the manji and historical Japanese references that basic liner notes could not do.

Toren Smith himself was against the idea of publishing in the Japanese format. At the time he started in the business, it was a risk just to publish some of these weird black and white comics from Japan. Because of that, making the comics as “normal” as possible was important. Smith would later admit that the revolution of manga publishing in the 2000s solved this issue by both making manga easier to obtain and sell. The fact that Smith was so adamant about flopping manga made him a bit of a pariah in the early online circles, but it wasn’t his only major controversy… that being the lack of shojo (girl’s) manga.

Luckily, the explanation for that one is easy: Toren Smith (and by extension, Studio Proteus) obtained and licensed the works he had an interest in. Toren loved science fiction, action, adventure, and comedy. Girl’s manga was less up his alley, which resulted in a blind spot for the company.

By 2004, Studio Proteus was no longer needed. The world had changed, and manga companies were dealing directly with publishers. Dark Horse Comics would buy them out, absorbing the company’s licenses into themselves as their manga publishing arm. Toren Smith took the opportunity to retire at this time as well, citing burnout and comparing his output to massive companies like Tokyopop.

With Studio Proteus behind him, Toren Smith would dabble with translation and writing still. However, he spent more of his time at anime conventions, conducting impromptu interviews with fans. Toren Smith passed away on March 4th, 2013 at the age of 52. He spent the last years of his life adventuring around the world with his wife, while also reading and enjoying the medium he so loved. However, Toren’s work would survive him, as any manga republished by Dark Horse’s manga division retains his touch as a translator. This even includes the recent omnibi of Gunsmith Cats and Dominion.

Without one weird little anime fan getting the idea to travel to Japan, it’s entirely possible that the manga boom of the early 2000s wouldn’t have happened. Anime still would have become popular, as it evolved on a different path in America, but major retail stores would be lacking a large selection of their stock without the path laid by those like Toren Smith and his cohorts in Studio Proteus. If you ever have a chance, check out some of those old books that Toren translated. They hold up really well and have this nice timeless quality to them… not all of which can be attributed to the original creators.

Thanks, Smith. You were one in a million.

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