Last week, my daughter Emma and I, visited the headquarters of Dark Horse Comics, the third largest comics publisher in the country. Emma, at 15, definitely saw it as a cool thing to do. She is not too familiar with Hellboy but she loves The Umbrella Academy. She is also curious about manga, which is fine with Dark Horse since they are a competitive publisher of manga. What you’ll hear a lot of at Dark Horse is that they have something for everyone. As I’m from Seattle, just one state away, I was curious to make the trek and see Dark Horse firsthand.
To understand Dark Horse, keep in mind that they are based in Milwaukee, Oregon, the hometown of the founder and CEO, Mike Richardson. This small town, even with it being only a ten-minute drive away from Portland, is not your typical location for a major business, but one can say that Dark Horse is not typical.
I began my visit with public relations chief, Jeremy Atkins. His path in life began with a love for the basics: indie music, vegan food and sustainability. And, after college, he found a home with Dark Horse. His passion for the authentic has come through in his desire to see the local comics shop thrive. “Fifty percent of our market is the 3,000 comics shops we distribute to.” During our conversation, Atkins points across the street, “That car repair shop. That’s the same place that Mike’s dad worked - up to the day he died. And down a block is where Mike opened up his first comics shop. Mike never forgot his roots. When others moved on and never came back, he chose to build his dreams in the town he grew up in.”
“If a comics shop makes the effort to do it right, it can prosper,” Atkins maintains, “And Dark Horse is ready to help with incentives.” He points out that the company provides special vouchers for free online content that you can only get at your local comics shop. “We have never forgotten the vital role of the comics shop. It provides a social function, just like an independent record store or bookstore.” An upcoming incentive for the fall is a line up of three new titles that will debut their first issues in print for 99 cents and their first digital issue for $1.99: “Orchid,” by Tom Morello (Rage Against The Machine), available Oct. 12; “House of Night,” by best-selling author P.C. Cast and her daughter, Kirsten Cast, available Nov. 9; “The Strain,” based on the bestseller by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan, adapted by David Lapham (“100 Bullets”), available Dec. 14.
Next on the schedule was lunch with managing editor, Scott Allie. He is in a unique position as both an editor and writer at Dark Horse. Allie points out that, back in the heyday of comics, like when Harvey Kurtzman worked for EC in the ‘50s, every writer was also an editor. The artist took top billing and the writer was only credited as editor. Original Allie stories published by Dark Horse include “The Devil’s Footprints” and “Exurbia.” Allie’s work as editor includes “Conan, The Barbarian,” “Hellboy” and “Buffy, The Vampire Slayer.”
We settled into an easy-going diner called, “Libbie’s,” straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting. Allie looked quite content, waving a jovial hello to his regular waitress. What does give him irritation is to ponder over the missed opportunity that the whole comics industry had back in the ‘80s with such titles as “Maus” and “Watchmen.” There was no going back, right? “Afterward, there was nothing for a long time,” said Allie.
Flash forward to today, Allie is deeply involved with two of the hottest properties around: “Hellboy” and “Buffy, The Vampire Slayer.” Allie has been Mike Mignola’s editor for over twenty years. “With Mike, a lot of the editing takes place over the phone.” The two know each other so well that it’s easy for Allie to provide feedback. As for “Hellboy in Hell,” Allie said that the plan had always been for Hellboy to die. The journey to death begins with Hell. Stay tuned. Switching gears to “Buffy,” Allie is co-writer with Joss Whedon. Allie and Whedon have distinctive styles, with Allie’s approach darker and gothic. To help align his voice with Whedon’s, Allie said that he watched all the seasons of the “Buffy” TV series. The focus is to tap into the voices of the characters in the way that Whedon established, complete with pithy dialogue and riffs on pop culture. Watch for “Hellboy in Hell” in 2012 and “Buffy, The Vampire Slayer, Season 9,” scheduled for September 14.
In the introduction to “Dark Horse Presents Monsters,” Allie’s take on monsters goes to the heart of the matter: monsters are outsiders. They are The Other. They are strange, offbeat, quirky, misfits. Allie cites that a prime example of monsters can be found in the work of Carson McCullers. He said it was a pleasant surprise to learn that McCullers is an inspiration for Guillermo del Toro. It is this multi-dimensional view of monsters that fits perfectly with the Dark Horse vision. Allie said that Dark Horse is regularly adding new work that fits this view, like Carla Speed McNeil’s “The Finder.” “I would argue,” said Allie, “that ‘The Finder’ is more like Hellboy and the Goon than readers might think.”
Moving right along, public relations liaison, Aub Driver, gave us an official tour of Dark Horse. Driver is pretty busy with all manner of work in the media. He did take some time out recently to help out an artist by modeling for an upcoming comic, a “prequel to the prequel” to John Carpenter’s, “The Thing.” This one involves Vikings.
The tour brought home the surprising fact that Dark Horse is a huge presence in Milwaukee, Oregon. It is not just one set of offices that they work out of, but the whole operation takes up all of Main Street. The warehouse alone is three floors.
To complete the visit, I got a few minutes with Mike Richardson. In the time we talked, he rounded out the Dark Horse portrait. The carry away message: Content is King. First of all, Richardson is very proud of the Dark Horse in-house characters and their vitality. And, underlying everything, is a dedication to provide a diverse line of entertainment. This relates to distribution and reaching out to new audiences. One current effort to broaden the market is “Trouble Maker” by best-selling author Janet Evanovich and her daughter, Alex. Richardson is happy to report that this book has elicited a whole new market of readers.
Moving forward, with digital distribution a priority, Richardson said, “There will always be paper but it’s going to be a tougher market.” He points out that most people are aware of comic shops and know where to buy the typical superhero title. “Most people are aware of Superman and Batman. We are not publishing what most people are already aware of. If you publish a wider variety of material, you will bring in a wider audience. That’s what we’ve been doing since day one.” Richardson recalled the phenomenal success of the Dark Horse treatment of “Another Chance To Get It Right” by attorney/author Andrew Vachss. “Oprah held it up to show her audience for about eight seconds and that’s all it took to generate 150,000 calls to us to order the book.” And that was in 1992. Richardson spoke to other examples, such as the upcoming “Green River Killer: A True Detective Story” that recounts the case as told by the son of the lone detective on it. Or maybe you’d prefer the adventures of Concrete, another unusual monster. Or it might be manga that targets a teen girl audience. The list goes on. And the point is made clear: there is something for everyone at Dark Horse.
I asked Richardson about his success. There was no way he could have known what would spring from his first comics shop, or was there? He was just a kid who had maxed out his credit card. “I never asked myself what I couldn’t do. I thought I could do everything,” said Richardson. The way to do that, in a nutshell, is to plan ahead and see what works. Richardson majored in art and has always been on the side of the artist. “We negotiate separate contracts with thousands of artists.” He began with the idea of opening a comics shop in 1978. In 1980, he realized that dream. He wanted to support his fellow artists and that led to Dark Horse. “In the early days, we published ‘Boris, The Bear’ and it regularly poked fun at Marvel and DC.” By 1992, Dark Horse had its first involvement with movies, “Dr. Giggles,” filmed in Milwaukee. A couple of years later, Dark Horse had moved up to “Timecop” and “The Mask.” “You need to make a plan and see it through,” said Richardson, “I can’t tell you how many times a person can be shown a dollar, told that it will grow to a hundred if they left it alone, and they will go ahead and snatch the dollar.”