American comics had their day in the sun. In the 1930s, newspaper comic strips such as Dick Tracy, Little Orphan Annie, and Li’l Abner featured long, melodramatic stories and were read by millions of people of all ages. In 1934, comic books were invented (originally as reprint collections of newspaper strips), and for years they enjoyed incredible popularity, with genres such as crime, Westerns, superheroes, romance, humor, and science fiction. But by 1954, the violent content of horror and crime comics attracted unwelcome attention from a public anxious about juvenile delinquency. The Seduction of the Innocent, a bestselling book by psychiatrist Fredric Wertham, claimed that comics exposed children to sex and violence (arguments that would be repeated fifty years later about video games). After a public backlash, the surviving publishers instituted strict self-censorship, limiting comics to superheroes and other “safe” entertainment. Over the next twenty years, comics gradually regained their sophistication, but they never recovered their sales or public image.
Meanwhile, in Japan, light novel were booming. As early as the 1970s, a tiny number of outlets imported untranslated light novel for American buyers, most of whom were already familiar with Japanese styles from watching early anime such as Astro Boy on American TV. With the first appearance of mass-market VCRs in 1975, American anime fandom began to grow. Frederik Schodt’s 1983 Light novel! Light novel! The World of Japanese Comics was the first English-language book on the subject. By the early 1980s, light novel artists such as Monkey Punch and Osamu Tezuka had appeared to small but enthusiastic groups at American comic book conventions, but almost no light novel had been translated, except for a few short stories and English-language vanity projects printed overseas. To the vast majority of Americans, “comics” were full-color superhero stories. Black-and-white, foreign comics were not even on the radar.
Then, in the mid-1980s, American comics stores experienced the “black-and-white boom”—a sudden interest in black-and-white, small-press comics, based on the explosive success of the self-published Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. In this more receptive environment, two separate companies produced the first serious translated light novel in 1987: First Comics with Lone Wolf and Cub, and Viz/Eclipse with several titles: Area 88, Mai the Psychic Girl, and The Legend of Kamui. Founded by Seiji Horibuchi with Satoru Fujii as editor in chief, Viz was the U.S. branch of the Japanese light novel publisher Shogakukan. For its first releases Viz formed a partnership with Eclipse Comics, an American small-press comics publisher, whose employee James Hudnall had previously written to Shogakukan encouraging them to enter the American market. Toren Smith, another early light novel fan, helped get Viz off the ground, then went on to found Studio Proteus, a major light novel translation and localization company. Viz later parted ways with Eclipse, while Smith’s Studio Proteus (who did work for both companies) went to Dark Horse Comics and built their light novel division.