[Toren Smith passed away on March 5, a pioneer of manga in America whose name was probably best known to those who were around when he was helping launch the global manga phenomenon. Jonathan Clements has a wonderful reminiscence of Toren’s career here, from his early days translating manga at Viz to his selling Studio Proteus to Dark Horse in 2004. I saw some personal comments artist Lea Hernandez posted on Facebook about Toren, and wondered if she could expand on them here—as an employee at Studio Proteus and one of the unsung manga pioneers herself she not only gives a picture of the early days but of how friendships evolve…and end. — Editor]
My long-time friend Toren Smith has passed away after a protracted bout of ill health, and I’m heartbroken. I worked for him over the course of seventeen years as part of his elite Studio Proteus team; doing retouch on adult comics, and rewriting titles like 3×3 Eyes, What’s Michael? And Oh! My Goddess!. If Toren had lived another year, I would’ve known him for exactly half my life.
Toren is the great unrecognized godfather of manga in the U.S., better than all the preening purists who followed him into manga in English combined. No matter how you trace the roots of manga becoming a viable market in the U.S., you’ll find yourself back at Toren.
Toren made the business of manga in the U.S. what it is today by getting reluctant (and outright hostile) comics retailers (notoriously hard nuts to crack) to carry manga by giving it to them in a format they were comfortable with: reading left-to-right (as opposed to their native right-to-left), in monthly “floppies.” This paved the way for all the manga released in the U.S. that followed, no matter how far afield companies wandered in quality. Once manga caught on in comics stores, publishers like Dark Horse (who published a great deal of the manga Toren packaged) began pushing into bookstores, opening the way for many more publishers.
Toren paid his translation, writing and lettering team good rates, he put out books (even the adult titles), with tremendous craft and respect for the creators. He paid royalties on writing and retouch. While Tokypop was producing manga translations by microwaving tankouban (collections) to melt the glued bindings in order to remove the printed pages for scanning, Toren stuck to his guns and kept making the best manga translations in the market. Toren rightly decried (as did I) selling a generation of fans on the idea that shit production and sloppy translation was “100% authentic.”
I met Toren for the first time at San Diego Comic-Con. He was an intimidating, tall guy carrying around a cardboard box of books like Johji Manabe’s Outlanders. He said he was going to publish translated manga. I realized he was the guy who put out the legendary BayCon ’86 Japanese Animation Program Guide, and it was exciting to meet him. I mentioned I was going to work for a company that he (with good reason) didn’t like. Toren got loud in his disapproval. He was a little scary. I had a dream of working on manga and making graphic novels, and he was telling me I was already doing it wrong. I decided that maybe I didn’t like him too much.
I wanted to work on manga and anime more than anything else. I was mad for anime and manga. I loved the look of it, the episodic drama of series, the artists. My now-ex held the first anime con, Yamato-Con, in Dallas in 1983. We ran a fan club together, I edited a fanzine devoted to manga- and anime-influenced and inspired erotica. When I found out a letterer lived close to me was retouching manga, I cadged a job as his assistant.
In spite of my first impression, I stayed in touch with Toren. I wanted to work on Studio Proteus books. I visited Toren in San Francisco to learn lettering from X-Men and Appleseed letterer Tom Orzechowski. I drew cover roughs, hoping to do a fill-in cover for Outlanders or Appleseed. I had a uphill battle, and fell into a deep funk.
Toren convinced his friends Okada (president) & Takeda (vice-president) of Gainax to hire me as the VP of their new company, General Products USA. One of my first jobs as VP was to hire a chairman and get the ball rolling on AnimeCon (which became AnimeExpo). On Toren’s advice, I hired John McLaughlin, AnimeCon was go. I returned to the business of trying to make Gainax U.S.A. a viable business, which was the beginning of a vice-presidential nervous breakdown and deciding comics was pretty easy after all.
Just when I was wondering about a paycheck, Toren reappeared in my email inbox after one of his long absences (which I’d gotten used to) and asked if I wanted to rewrite a book again. He felt like he wasn’t the right person for it. Of course I wanted write a book! I got busy re-learning the Studio Proteus script style through patient corrections by Toren.
A couple weeks ago, Toren emailed me. He said he was feeling sick that day and decided to go through his garage in preparing to sell his house and return to Canada. He praised me for my work on 3×3 Eyes and What’s Michael? in Super Manga Blast, and on Oh! My Goddess!. I was over the moon.
One of the things I wanted more from Toren than almost anyone else in my career was for him to think I was good, completely missing that he never would’ve hired me if he hadn’t thought I was. He admitted he’d been sparing in his praise, I (and boy do I feel like a dick now) agreed. But I loved that he noticed, I thanked him, because I’d busted my ass to live up to a standard in presenting manga that no one even tried to match. It was good to be reminded that if I worked for Toren, I was one of the best.
Toren only saw my daughter, Summer, when she was young because we moved from Alameda (across the bay from San Francisco) to Texas when she was five, but throughout her childhood, he emailed her pictures of funny plane crashes when he found out they cracked her up. If it blew up or flew into telephone wires, Toren shared it with Summer. After my son, Fox, was diagnosed with autism, Toren shared stories with me about his autistic cousin.
When I told Toren I’d been diagnosed with bi-polar disorder, he sent me the best books on the subject from Amazon. He told me how he’d struggled with it himself.
Toren gave me extra retouch work and advanced the pay so I could make a down payment on a house. We’d both had bad experiences as renters, and he hated being a renter more than I did. He said rent, “was like pounding sand down a rat-hole.”
I was angry about life (which was a common mode for me at the time because I was inconsistent in Good Life Decisions) and decided I was going to go out with Toren and Adam (Empowered) Warren, (someone I’ve known as long as Toren) and get drunk. I succeeded magnificently in getting Super Drunk on May 5th, and throwing it all back up on May 6th.. The sun that morning was very bright.
When I heard Toren had died, I got a bottle of wine and called Adam. Over four hours, I cried and talked and laughed, and drank the whole bottle of wine and ate most of a box of Cheez-Its. Unlike 1989, I didn’t have a hangover. The Cheez-Its gave me heartburn. As my fiancé, David, held my sorry drunk self, I fought sleep and asked for pie, cupcakes and a Subway sandwich.
On the drive up Highway 5 to San Francisco for Toren’s funeral, as Summer and I entered the Tehachapi Mountains, we saw light snow on the peaks. Then we were being snowed on. As we got higher in the mountains the snow got heavier and was so close to the road, we could’ve stopped and touched it. (You know, in case we also wanted to get creamed.) We opened the sun roof to let the snow in. Just past a blue mountain in the deepest cover, the snow thinned out, the universe’s on-the-nose metaphor for aging ended, and we were in the San Joaquin valley and on our way to getting pelted by bees as we passed through vineyards and orchards.
Toren’s funeral was small. I was 10 minutes late, hampered by the Bay Bridge, aggressive cabbies and untimed lights. Lateness from unplanned circumstances, the story of my career. I had the honor of sharing with Toren’s parents and sister and brother-in-law that their son and brother, who could do anything (he’d had a full scholarship for college to be a doctor), had chosen to change Western pop culture, that he’d been good to me and my kids.
I held hands with Dana Lewis, one of Toren’s oldest friends and a mighty, mighty translator, and she rested her head on my shoulder. I hugged Toren’s ex-wife and amazing letterer and illustrator, Tomoko Smith. I missed Adam, who couldn’t get a flight out.
The long trip back to LA started with driving Summer through the neighborhoods where I crashed with Tom Orzechowski and letterer L. Lois Buhalis, where Toren had his first office, through the first neighborhoods I saw in 1989, when I already thought I was too old to make my mark in comics.
I couldn’t find Toren’s old apartment or rented house where, one evening long ago, he returned unscooped dog poo, left in front of the house, to the dog’s owner by means of picking it up and slapping it onto the owner’s jacket. Typical Toren.
Summer and I went to Japantown to shop. (Her, Pokemon, me, and a swath cut through Daiso. Kitchen tools, a timer shaped like a chicken, a plain glass bell.)
Outside Kinokuniya Books, a performance of a man summoning ghosts was just ending.
I realized I was not on Highway 101, but on 17, and too far down it to turn back. The two-hour detour took Summer and I through isolated landlocked towns of almost-new condos, then into remote strawberry farm country. I pulled off the road to get a picture of a faded-to-gray Victorian farmhouse that was both repellent and fascinating. I respected the signs that said to stay off the property and took pictures from the road, even though I wanted very badly to get close.
Summer and I listened to music, and it struck me how much Toren’s and Adam’s taste in music influenced mine. Def Leppard, They Might Be Giants, songs from anime.
Strawberry country was lonely, and I had lots of time to meditate. I had too much damn time to meditate. The sunset was pink and early because of the hills, and it felt like Toren fading away. I listened to an interview with the drummer Dave Grohl where he talked about not living in the past, echoing Adam who warned me against the same while I drove through San Francisco and cried over regrets.
After days of not finding a house for Gainax to rent for their U.S. Office, and being stood up yet again for a house showing, I had a meltdown. With the “for rent” ads still clutched in my hand, I put quarters in a pay phone and started calling about rentals nearby, so my long, hot trip to Oakland didn’t go to waste. Tomoko, who was in tow that day, told Toren about how I started to make phone calls even though I was still bawling with frustration. Toren told me he admired the way I could cry and get right back to work.
March 11 Monday, 12:01AM
It’s my 49th birthday. I pulled off on a dark, safe spot in the Tehachapi Mountains to look at the stars. I wondered what it was like for Toren to see them for the last time. Did he look up?
Summer and I finally got home to L.A. We’ve seen ghosts, friends, people we’ll probably never see again, stars, strawberry fields. The car was a mess from flinging around comfort food like chocolate croissants, Carl’s Jr., coffee, almonds from Mercy Creek, palmiers, and stuffing it with books and 100-yen goodies.
I started crying again when David welcomed me home. I thought about how Toren admired the way I could cry then pick myself up. I started breathing again. I decided I was done crying, and I slept.
Toren was not the easiest person to know. We butted heads. We yelled at each other. We hung up on each other. I was not always the best freelancer. He was not always the most understanding boss, but he was smart, thoughtful, engaged. He was a hysterically funny storyteller, and he’d done a lot to tell stories about: roughneck, rock climber, teenage mischief, paragliding, going to Japan, the wretched apartment that housed various Gainax employees, the many people he met. Sometimes the stories were embarrassing, but he’d still tell them, turning a florescent red and laughing.
Toren cared deeply, and he was a tough guy who was easily hurt. He was one of the most difficult people I ever worked for, but he was also the most honorable.
Toren had just treated me to my first sushi lunch. We were walking out of the Castro, and I was (to use Toren’s turn of phrase), bitching bitterly about how little time I got to visit with a friend.
I said, “A day isn’t enough!”
Exasperated, Toren said, “Fifteen years wouldn’t be enough!”
Neither was twenty-four years, as it turns out.
O yasumi nasai, Toren.
Heidi MacDonald is the founder and editor in chief of The Beat. In the past, she worked for Disney, DC Comics, Fox and Publishers Weekly. She can be heard regularly on the More To Come Podcast. She likes coffee, cats and noble struggle.