When Hello Kitty's Sanrio tried to 'take over' comics

We've all seen Hello Kitty grow from a quirky Japanese import into a household name, but do you remember the time its corporate owner set out to "conquer comics"? Me neither, but I learned a lot from reading comic/animation historian Fred Patten's excellent post on Cartoon Research called "Sanrio And Me."

In 1978, Sanrio held a series of press conferences in the United States trumpeting its goal to, as Patten says, "take over the American comic book industry and the moribund theatrical animation industry." With an office in Santa Monica, California, the means for doing that was a slick manga anthology publication called Lyrica (which it had already launched in Japan) and a full-length animated feature called Metamorpheses, which executives promised as their Fantasia, referring to the Disney feature that had been reissued the year before. Metamorpheses had a trial run in the Japanese edition of Lyrica as a comic strip by American animation artist Dan Morgan, who did double-duty in the movie's art department.

But how could Sanrio hope to break the stranglehold Marvel and DC had on the comic industry at the time in the late 1970s? Well, in Japan it sought to burst a similar logjam by hiring the country's most popular cartoonist of all time, Osamu Tezuka, to draw a strip about a baby unicorn called Unico that fit well into the "cutesy" style being developed with Hello Kitty. But in America, Tezuka's name wouldn't hold much weight, so for the American edition of Lyrica Sanrio sought out some the top talent in comics not already locked in to the Big Two. Here's the impressive line-up of comic strips, according to Patten:

  • Angela by Patten and Jonny Quest creator Doug Wildey: This 60-page science fiction story was about a "young princess of a post-atomic barbarian kingdom," with Wildey doing each page as a fully realized watercolor painted page.
  • Riverboat by Mark Evanier and Dan Spiegle: This story by frequent Kirby collaborator Evanier was a 19th-century America period piece following a teenage girl working gas a Mississippi riverboat captain.
  • The Time Twisters¬†by Evanier and Pat Boyette
  • Keystone by Evanier and Will Meugniot
  • Untitled Science Fiction Comic by Dave Stevens
  • Untitled "Indian Brave" Comic by Rick Hoppe
  • Untitled Comic by Willie Ito, a veteran of Hanna-Barbara animation studios

[caption id="attachment_158499" align="aligncenter" width="600"]

A page from Wildey & Patten's Angela.[/caption]

Sanrio intended for the American Lyrica to clock in at 100 pages and be printed with high-gloss full-color pages, a color quality traditional American comics wouldn't adopt regularly until the early 1990s. Although manga eventually found its place on U.S. bookshelves, the idea of a manga-style anthology like Lyrica working in the 1970s is presumptive, even if its pages were filled with American cartoonists.

But sadly, it never came to be. After the dismal failure of the animated film Metamorphoses following its premiere on May 3, 1978, Sanrio quickly pulled back its plans to conquer American comics and animation. The Japanese edition of Lyrica was shuttered in March 1979, and Metamorphoses was never widely released in theaters or in any home-video format.

Despite the out-sized promises of Sanrio, there was one virtually unheard-of business decision made by the company when Lyrica was canceled: It gave the rights to the Lyrica comic strips (both the American and Japanese editions) to the writers and artists who made them. Tezuka ended up transforming Unico into two anime features and eventually republished the manga on his own, but none of the American cartoonists found a proper venue to show the work they produced.

According to Patten, Wildey finished the entire 60-page Angela comic strip but told the writer that "no American comic-book publisher was interested in a romantic s-f story for teenage girls at all." Second-hand reports say that Evanier has most of Riverboat by he and Spiegle in storage, but the whereabouts -- and the extent to which they were completed -- of the other comic strips, including that enticing Stevens work, are unknown.

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