James Hudnall: The Johnny Appleseed of Manga?
By Jason Thompson

If it wasn't for Jim, there'd be no Studio Proteus, and maybe even no Viz.

--Toren Smith, owner of Studio Proteus

In the late seventies and early eighties, anime and manga fans played an important role in popularizing anime in America. James Hudnall discovered manga in 1966, in Hawaii, when a Japanese friend at school showed him Tetsuwan Atom comics. Shortly thereafter, Hudnall saw Astro Boy and other Japanese TV programs, but got out of comics in his teens.

"Back in 1980 I was living in Orange County and got back into reading comics," recalls Hudnall in an interview for this article. "I was in my early twenties then. Hanging around the comic shop, I met a local fan artist named Steve Martin, who did manga style "furry" art. He heard how I was into Japanese films, and was into anime as a child in the 1960s when Astro Boy and Kimba the White Lion were on the air, so he told me about a friend of his who collected current anime. His friend, Mark Merlino, introduced me to Castle of Cagliostro, Phoenix, and a new show called Urusei Yatsura. I started collecting the stuff. I went to conventions and met many comics pros and tried to turn them on to this stuff, because it seemed like a breath of fresh air and comics seemed so stale to me."

For a time Hudnall was active in the Cartoon/Fantasy Organization (alongside Joshua Quagmire and future Aeon Flux creator Peter Chung). In 1983 he introduced anime to Toren Smith, who was then the roommate of a friend in Santa Rosa. (Hudnall also may have introduced anime to Carl Macek, the man who brought Robotech to America.) Smith joined Hudnall in organizing anime rooms at conventions, and later went on to found the translated-manga publisher Studio Proteus. Hudnall, meanwhile, was then trying to break into comics as a writer. In 1984 he met cat yronwode and Dean Mullaney, founders of Eclipse Comics and began working part-time doing their marketing. Hudnall pitched a comic about psychics, ESPers, which Eclipse sold under their logo on the condition that Hudnall paid the printing costs himself.

At the same time, Hudnall convinced Eclipse to look into Japanese comics. His initial wish list included Buichi Terasawa's Cobra and Tsukasa Hojo's Cat's Eye (because of their less cartoony, more American art styles), Riyoko Ikeda's Rose of Versailles, Osamu Tezuka's Phoenix, and the works of Shotaro Ishinomori and Leiji Matsumoto.

He began writing letters to Japanese publishers, playing up the then-booming American b&w comic market. Most were ambivalent (Hudnall asked Kodansha for Akira, but they later decided to go with Marvel), but Shogakukan and Shueisha were interested. If either company was already considering US publication (although business rivals, Shogakukan and Shueisha are owned by the same Japanese family), Hudnall's letters may have tipped the balance.

"My letters influenced [them] to look into publishing in the USA. They remembered me, so they contacted me. Seiji [Horibuchi] was their man in the US who would spearhead it. I suggested they let Eclipse distribute their books in the US since they already knew the market. Seiji met with Dean and cat and they set up a deal."

The new company was Viz Comics. Hudnall rewrote two of Viz's first manga, starting with Area 88 and Mai the Psychic Girl; Toren Smith rewrote The Legend of Kamui.

Comments Hudnall, "I was surprised that Mai was so similar in story to ESPers...I was kind of annoyed by it, but that's probably why they gave it to me to do.

"In a way, I am the 'Johnny Appleseed' of manga, having spread it far and wide with my enthusiasm. I turned on a lot of people to it, who then went on to varying success. Before me, the fans who were into it were a really small niche...The people in it were early otakus and were ignored or shunned by the rest of fandom. There was massive resistance to this stuff back then. All the comments would be how the art looked weird."

Hudnall continued rewriting for Viz for ten years, after Eclipse went under, but meanwhile went on to write mainstream comics for Marvel (Strikeforce: Morituri, Alpha Flight), DC (The Psycho, Streets), and Malibu's Ultraverse (Hardcase, The Solution). He later returned to self-publishing with Image (ESPers, Harsh Realm).

"Then I became active with my own writing career, so my involvement tapered off. I do consider manga a big influence, mostly Tezuka, whose stories had a big effect on me as a child. I don't watch too much of it now or read that many manga, because it seems to be a shadow of what it was. Back then there was a lot of crap, but there was also a lot of good, solid stories and a lot of experimental stuff. Now it seems too commercialized, cliched, and bland for me. Every so often something will come along that I like, but you don't see the great outpouring of material like in the 1980s.

"As far as my work goes, I like the cinematic storytelling which the Japanese invented. I think Eisner sort of did, but I think Tezuka beat him. The other thing I've always liked about Japanese comics is that even though the art style is often cartoony, the stories--in the heyday, anyway--were much more believable and down to earth....If you go into a science fiction story by Leiji Matsumoto, even though he has weird ideas, his stuff was really human. It dealt with really strong human stories about the kind of things we can all relate to. I mean, maybe I'm a sucker for sentimentality, and the Japanese stories tend to be sentimental, but they also tend to really dig deep into some serious issues. I consider Graveyard of the Fireflies to be one of the most powerful films I've ever seen. I mean, I can't watch five minutes of it without crying, and after you see it once it's hard to even see it without getting misty-eyed. And I've never seen anything that comes close to that here."