Betting on a Dark Horse – Interview with Dark Horse Comics President, Mike Richardson

Mike RichardsonWhen Mike Richardson started Dark Horse Comics back in 1986, he funded the venture with profits yielded from Pegasus Books, a comic shop that he opened, independently, 6 years prior.  Within a year’s time, the Milwuakie, Oregon-based publisher showed impressive growth, and would quickly cement themselves as both a vital and resilient force in the industry; a position that they’ve managed to maintain for nearly 3 decades.  And while the company has primarily forged their success by carving out their own unique voice, outside of the frameworks established by the likes of “The Big two” (Marvel and DC), the last year or so has marked a foray into the more orthodox world of super heroes in the vein of costumes and shared universes, for the publisher.

Dark Horse tried something similar, 20 years ago, but their attempt to introduce costumed heroes was eclipsed by the ‘90s boom, where every publisher–large and small, corporate and indie–was feverishly created, and flooded the market with unique “Super” universes.  The DH characters fizzled–good stuff buried and lost in a deluge of largely mediocre and derivative crap.  As an entity that needed to make money, Richardson and company smartly, and understandably, shelved conventional superhero comics to focus on their wheel houses; namely, quality licensed comics, like Star Wars, and creator owned, self-contained continuity titles, like, Hell Boy and Frank Miller’s acclaimed Sin City stories.

So, why revisit super-heroes, now?

I recently had the opportunity to correspond with Mike Richardson himself, and the company president/founder/author was generous enough to answer a smattering of questions, touching on various aspects of DH comic book operations, with the main focus being on their recent “superhero initiative,” reviving dormant properties that hadn’t seen much print for the better part of two decades.

dark horse logo

Monster Fresh:
What motivated Dark Horse to pull the trigger on creating new comics featuring characters from resurrected properties like Ghost, X, and Captain Midnight?

Mike Richardson:
We’ve dipped our toe into this water before.  Super heroes have always been of interest, but we weren’t interested in competing directly with Marvel or DC, at least not in the past.  With the success we’ve had over the last several years, I decided it was time to address a genre in which we were not well represented.  There are more opportunities now than at any time in our history for a successful launch, and we’re going all in.  Should be fun.

Are they meant to be the nucleus of an expanded superhero line at Dark Horse?

While I don’t want to say too much on this now, you will see the term Project Black Sky appearing on many of our super hero titles linking them together.  More on that will be coming soon.

Was the publishing of dormant superheroes simply a matter of implementing a phase in a grand agenda, or more of a response to demand?

Let’s face it, superheroes are a big part of the comics industry.  We’re in the comics business.  Our last full scale entry, Comics Greatest World, was initially a huge success.  Unfortunately, we launched at a time when about a dozen other companies had the same idea.  Despite our early success, only two of the characters survived the ’90s market collapse.  Using your own word, we do have a grand agenda to build viable superhero properties that are uniquely Dark Horse.  X, Ghost, and even The Mask (basis for the 1994, Richardson-produced motion picture, starring Jim Carrey) will be involved, as well as new characters and titles.  I need to stress that it’s not our intention to try and create Marvel or DC clones.

How tightly do you believe editorial oversight must be exercised over company owned properties and properties to which DH owns the publishing license (Buffy, Star Wars, etc)?

We will be exercising a good deal of oversight on our hero titles.  A bible has been created and story benchmarks plotted.  We try to leave enough room so that the writer still has room to work story wise.  With licensed properties, we try to work out direction well in advance, so that the writer can create a great story, but we all (publisher, licensor, and creator) agree and are aware of the direction the book will be taking.  In both cases it is a bit of a balancing act.

wall of heroes

Is there really a template for being an editor that, albeit with slight modification, can be seen across the board?  Or, as I think is much more likely, are comic book companies so unique as to require a custom approach?

Speaking as the publisher of Dark Horse, I can tell you that the job description for any of the editorial levels we employ here have been developed in house to fit our unique needs.  We have a certain way of doing things, and we really are not concerned about the process at other companies.  Editors who come here from other companies obviously need basic editorial skills, but the need to learn the requirements and expectations we have.  Experience has taught us that these can be very different at the assorted comics companies.

It seems whenever an EIC is interviewed, they are inevitably asked, or provide unsolicited, what their overall philosophy is.  What is your editorial philosophy at Dark Horse?

Our philosophy regarding creator owned books is this: we want to create an environment that allows writers and artists to have the freedom to create stories free of the traditional roadblocks found at mainstream publishing houses.  That was at the heart of my interest in creating Dark Horse and that goal remains intact today.

With licensed material, we want to create the sequels and prequels for established properties that enhance existing canon and, simply enough, stories that we as fans want to read ourselves.

There has been a mini renaissance in the past decade or so of original novels featuring Superheroes.  Would Dark Horse ever consider expanding its publishing to include novels featuring some of these newly reborn superheroes or any other property?

Well, we’ve been slowly inching our novels program forward.  So, I guess the answer would be yes, good idea.

In general, what is on Dark Horse’s horizon?

A wide variety of great projects.  Our sales have been very strong; in fact, 2013 will easily be our best year yet.  We’re expanding our line of titles with amazing creators and new projects.  Our digital presence grows weekly.  Product lines based on properties such as Game of Thrones are selling out.  All in all, we’re looking at growth and an extremely strong future.

X issue #4 cover by Dave Wilkins

X issue #4 cover by Dave Wilkins

Ultimately, it seems to be a mixture of market interest, and a creative agenda; no major publisher can afford to truly divorce themselves from super heroes, if they want to carve out a decent piece of the comics market share pie.  Dark Horse wants to diversify their product line and take advantage of their deep talent pool, channeling their energies into a genre that gave birth to superheroes and, ultimately, is the ideal medium for presenting them.  Now the question becomes, even if your interest in super heroes is piqued, why check out the burgeoning stable of titles offered by DH?  Why shouldn’t you explore the much lauded, culturally iconic, nigh-legendary heroes of Marvel and DC?  Well, far be it for me to tell you one thing or the other, but I’d warn that 70-plus years of back history, as in the cases of Batman and Superman, can lead to stiffness and predictability in story telling.  This conservatism is even more pronounced when these characters become the foundations of large media cottage industries, like blockbuster movies, or Disney theme rides (mostly with Marvel characters).

Richardson offers something fresh with Dark Horse.  Their universe is young, their characters little known outside of the rather marginal contingent of avid, longtime comics readers.  My recommendations aren’t just based on lazy, sofa-based, speculation; I spent my own money on the first wave of DH’s superhero initiative and was relieved at the quality that I observed in the creative art layouts, and the pared down eloquence of the prose.  So, check them out.  If you are a casual or new reader, there are no clichés to roll your eyes at, or a near century’s worth of convoluted back-story to pore over, just so that you are able to comprehend the significance of a single panel.

All of Dark Horse’s superhero titles are published monthly, along with licensed and creator-owned titles, and are available at your friendly neighborhood comics shop.