In today’s Leaving Proof: We discuss the important role Studio Proteus played in the growth of the North American manga market and how Dark Horse’s monthly Blade of the Immortal comic helped change retailer and consumer perception of manga.
When the final English-language volume of Hiroaki Samura’s Blade of the Immortal comes out next spring (it’s slated for a 25 March 2015 release, and the penultimate volume came out just last week), it will be the conclusion of not just the Eisner and Japan Media Arts Award-winning supernatural samurai epic’s nearly 20 year-long English-language print run, it will also likely signify the end of a particular approach to the adaptation of manga for Western readers extolled primarily by the late manga translation and licensing pioneer Toren Smith and the manga translation/packaging company he founded, Studio Proteus.
The Canadian-born Smith, who had written for publications such as Marvel’s Epic Illustrated and Eclipse Comics’ Alien Worlds comics magazine anthologies prior to devoting his career to bringing manga to English-language readers, firmly believed in the merits of “flipping” manga from its typically right-to-left pagination/panel orientation to the Western-standard left-to-right configuration and the value of making manga available in a “floppy” comic book pamphlet format.
It may seem quaint now given how right-to-left oriented digest-sized paperbacks are the current dominant format for translated manga sold in North American bookstores and comic shops, but what many younger readers may not realize is just how much retailer resistance there was to manga in the mid-1980s, when Smith founded the company that would become Studio Proteus and embarked on his plan to bring translated manga to the growing direct market. Regardless of how one views the practice of flipping manga—and it is a topic of some contention in the manga fan community and the industry to this day—I think most folks familiar with the history of comics will agree that manga publishers would have had a more difficult time establishing a foothold in North America and the rest of the Anglophone world, if they would have found purchase at all, had Smith and Studio Proteus not done what they did at the time. As comics creator and Smith’s close friend Lea Hernandez wrote in a Comics Beat article memorializing Smith after he passed away last year:
Toren is the great unrecognized godfather of manga in the US, 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 US, you’ll find yourself back at Toren.
Toren made the business of manga in the US what it is today by getting reluctant (and outright hostile) comics retailers to carry manga by giving it to them in a format they were comfortable with: reading left-to-right (as opposed to [manga’s] native right-to-left), in monthly ‘floppies.’ This paved the way for all the manga released in the US 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.
It wasn’t just flipping manga and repackaging it in a floppy format that made Studio Proteus the preeminent manga translation and packaging outfit of the 1980s and most of the 1990s. It was also the emphasis it placed on producing high-quality reproductions of the art and professional-grade translation and lettering. The studio created translated editions directly from the original art whenever possible while their competitors were content with using scans of the published material. Among Studio Proteus’ letterers were Marvel/DC veterans Tom Orzechowski and L. Lois Buhalis. Doing translations alongside Smith were Dana Lewis and Frederik Schodt, experienced translators and interpreters who had previously lived and worked in Japan and whose backgrounds gave them a firm understanding of the cross-cultural aspects of translation for popular consumption. And then there’s Tomoko Saito, Studio Proteus’ Jill-of-all-trades: a translator, interpreter, retouch artist, and letterer described by UK-based author and manga authority Jonathan Clements as the studio’s “feather-unruffler” with its Japanese contacts.
Studio Proteus was known for the quality of its work on both sides of the Pacific. When VIZ Media acquired the North American English-language publication rights to Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind manga in the mid-1990s, the celebrated animated film director and mangaka specifically asked that Smith and Studio Proteus be directly involved in the work’s translation and localization.
More than any other title, however, it is the English-language version of Hiroaki Samura’s Blade of the Immortal that best exemplifies Studio Proteus’ core tenets of manga translation and formatting for the Western market. Originally a serial in Kodansha’s Monthly Afternoon seinen manga anthology magazine, Blade of the Immortal was launched by Dark Horse Manga in 1996 as a monthly “floppy,” designed by Studio Proteus to be read from left-to-right even though it wasn’t technically a flipped manga: At the explicit request of Samura, Studio Proteus actually cut and paste individual panels in order to avoid the mirror-image direction reversal inherent in the flipping process. (However, as explained in the comic’s preface notes, this isn’t possible to do with all panels, and every now and then, the observant reader will spot a flipped Blade of the Immortal panel or page.) In some cases, Tomoko Saito, working with Samura’s assent, would discreetly retouch the art so as to make it flow better from left-to-right. It’s a very labor-intensive production process, especially when compared to the simple, straight scanning method employed in the creation of today’s right-to-left oriented translated manga.
Blade of the Immortal had and continues to have a solid base of adult fans in the West, although it’s never achieved the kind of breakout success enjoyed by shonen titles like Eiichiro Oda’s One Piece, Masashi Kishimoto’s Naruto, or more recently, Hajime Isayama’s Attack on Titan. What I do find quite interesting though, is just how many of the Blade of the Immortal fans I’ve personally spoken to are more general comics fans than fans exclusively of manga. A few have never read any other manga besides Blade of the Immortal, and I suspect some of them would have probably bypassed the title entirely had they first encountered it in a right-to-left oriented digest-sized paperback volume format.
On one hand, this can be taken as anecdotal evidence that left-to-right manga won’t necessarily convince Western comics readers to try other manga titles, regardless of quality or format. On the other, the fact that Blade of the Immortal has earned many loyal readers among folks who wouldn’t normally read manga is quite the major success on its own. Studio Proteus showed critics and retailers that far from being specialist or “ethnic” entertainment, manga is just “comics” by another name and that it can thrive playing by the North American direct market’s rules if it is adapted with care and respect and given every chance to succeed by its publisher. The 131 monthly issues of Blade of the Immortal put out by Dark Horse from 1996 until the title went to a trade paperback-only publishing model in late 2007 is the most ever for any manga published in English, and is actually a decent total even by Western superhero comic standards—by way of comparison, neither Marvel’s original Alpha Flight series nor the second incarnation of DC’s New Teen Titans series made it past issue #130.
I think it also says something about Studio Proteus’ success in making Blade of the Immortal accessible to comics readers of various tastes and inclinations that among the many comics artists who have professed their admiration for Samura’s art in Blade of the Immortal and/or publicly shared art inspired by Blade of the Immortal—artists like Geof Darrow, Brandon Graham, Becky Cloonan, Philip Tan, Dustin Nguyen, Jason Pearson, the Luna Brothers, and Afua Richardson, just to name a few—not very many of them can be easily pigeon-holed as explicitly “manga-influenced” or “Amerimanga” artists.
We are now at a point in comics’ ongoing history where the younger generations of English-language manga readers have grown up in an environment where the right-to-left oriented digest-sized paperback is the dominant translated manga format, and those of us who are old enough to have started reading translated manga when flipping was the industry norm are now equally comfortable reading manga in its native right-to-left orientation. Given the current situation, would it still make economic, creative, and practical sense to adapt new manga the way Studio Proteus did with Blade of the Immortal? I don’t know. But I do know that Studio Proteus helped democratize manga at a time when it was regarded by skeptics as little more than a niche product and a fad, and with Blade of the Immortal, the studio—enabled by editors Philip Simon, Rachel Penn, Mike Hansen, Tim Ervin-Gore, Dave Chipps, and the other fine folks at Dark Horse Manga—also proved that the mangaka‘s creative vision and visual storytelling need not be excessively compromised when adapting a work for left-to-right reading.
- Manga in international markets (Wikipedia): Contains an explanation of the “flipping” method of adapting manga, its benefits, and the drawbacks it can potentially introduce in a translation.
- Leaving Proof 160: A primer on some of Blade of the Immortal‘s central themes.
- Leaving Proof 241: Discusses Masamune Shirow’s Appleseed, one of the first manga to be translated by Studio Proteus.
Further thoughts on Hiroaki Samura’s work
Hiroaki Samura is known in the West almost exclusively for his work on Blade of the Immortal but in Japan, where the serial ended in 2012, Samura has created manga in a variety of genres, from romantic comedy, supernatural comedy, yuri, and ero guro-style erotica. (Click here to read a safe-for-work translation of a relatively recent Samura interview where he discusses, among other things, the themes of bondage, masochism, submission, and femininity that are prevalent in his erotica work—his ideas on these themes remind me somewhat of Wonder Woman creator William Moulton Marston.)
Outside of Blade of the Immortal, only two of his manga works are currently available in English, both through Dark Horse Manga: Ohikkoshi (published in 2006) and the short story collection Hiroaki Samura’s Emerald and Other Stories (published in 2013). Of the two books, I’d probably go with the former as a better overall read. As a modern-day romantic/slice-of-life comedy, the standalone single-volume Ohikkoshi can’t be further away from the long-running Edo Period supernatural samurai violence of Blade of the Immortal, making it an ideal introduction to Samura for those interested in experiencing his work but who aren’t into over-the-top sword-fighting action or can’t invest the time, effort, and money to get caught up in the last 18 years of Blade of the Immortal comics and paperbacks.
Despite having nothing in common in terms of setting, tone, genre, and subject, Ohikkoshi and Blade of the Immortal do share Samura’s ability to impart what he describes as “the feeling of daily life” in the visual storytelling. It’s often overshadowed by the bombast of the crazy, no-holds barred fight sequences, but one of my favorite aspects of Blade of the Immortal is the way Samura conveys character and emotion in the book’s quieter scenes, although it could also be the case that these occasions of calm become more effective because of the extreme contrast provided by the context in which they’re embedded.
Sometimes Samura does this through his figures’ poses and facial expressions, other times it’s through framing, composition, and perspective, and sometimes he will use multiple panels focusing on different areas of the same figure or scene, but the result is always a candid image—the characters don’t look like they’re deliberately posed or they’re “overacting” for the benefit of an unseen audience in any obvious way, even though Samura often uses heavily-stylized and exaggerated anatomy and an active, roving “camera.” Instead, in these more serene junctures, his characters appear unguarded and genuinely caught in mid-motion or mid-thought. It’s a subtle thing, but more than any sort of rigid naturalism in rendering, it is this key quality that serves as the difference between a scene looking like an artificial, lifeless tableau and a scene approximating the appearance of a dynamic, sequential event captured as a single moment in time.