When word finally came out that Dark Horse Comics was losing the comics license to Lucasfilm’s Star Wars characters at the end of 2014 to Lucas corporate partner Marvel, the news hit with a certain amount of internet hand wringing over Dark Horse’s post-Star Wars fate. But the Portland-based publisher is quick to show how they’ve got some market muscle beyond the powers of the Force.
Today, Dark Horse revealed to CBR News that they’re branding their 2014 efforts the “Year of the Horse” after the convenient timing of the Chinese Zodiac, and both Publisher Mike Richardson and Editor-in-Chief Scott Allie were eager to discuss how they’ve built their new year around new publishing platforms, new facets of their current franchises, revivals and a run of new creator-owned titles as well.
Below, Richardson and Allie give an extensive look at their 2014 strategies, explaining why the end of Star Wars if far from the end of Dark Horse, why their uniquely situated to provide creators the support they want with original material, why their licensed comic program is as innovative as ever with new launches for “Tomb Raider,” Ridley Scott’s “Prometheus” and more, as well as how anchor books like Joss Whedon’s “Buffy The Vampire Slayer” and Mike Mignola’s “Hellboy” will continue to expand across the next 12 months.
CBR News: Gentlemen, I wanted to start out talking about Dark Horse’s overall line right now…
Mike Richardson: You’re not even going to start out with “Star Wars” which everyone’s been calling about for the last three days? [Laughter]
Well that too! I think the thing about the news of Star Wars leaving Dark Horse next year to go to Marvel that struck me was that you must have known this was coming. How did you plan around the loss of that license through 2014 and beyond?
Richardson: Well, we’ve known for a long time that Star Wars was going. We couldn’t announce it until Lucasfilm was ready, and they picked the day of January 3, allowing us to get through the holidays without having to deal with it. But we’ve known this for a very long time as we’ve built our schedule. The thing that’s a little bit irritating is hearing this talk of “Well, Dark Horse can’t get by without Star Wars.” Star Wars constituted less than 6% of our bottom line. We’re talking a year in which we’ve had a sensational year. So we’re fine without Star Wars.
The bigger blow here is not to our checkbook but to our psyche because we chased Star Wars originally because we were big time fanboys. We treated that as a very precious property, and it’s sad to lose it. That’s the sad part of it. But the financial part has very little effect on us.
What do you lay that attitude about the news at the feet of? Is it just the omnipresence of Star Wars in pop culture?
Richardson: Yeah, I think that Star Wars is such a huge cultural phenomenon and now with the Disney news it’s been back in play. I think people just assumed it must be the juggernaut here at Dark Horse, but we have a number of programs that are every bit as big, some bigger. So we’re sad to lose it, but maybe it’s a good time to lose it as Disney takes over Lucasfilm and seems to be heading in a different direction.
So as to the rest of the line overall, Dark Horse has already announced most of its books for the first quarter of 2014. How do you conceive of a year of publishing? Do you try and build parts of the year around your tentpole properties?
Scott Allie: We look at it from a lot of different points of view. We are looking at the whole year and at each quarter. But plans also grow organically out of different things. The superhero initiative that we’ve been doing in Project Black Sky has been growing gradually over the past few years, and it’s going to be a big part of our schedule in 2014. With something like that that’s growing on its own, we have to look at it in connection with something like the Whedonverse where we’ve got “Buffy Season 10” and “Serenity” coming back. When you look at how all these pieces fit together, we have a really crowded first half of the year with “Tomb Raider,” new creator-owned launches from the likes of Greg Rucka and a lot of different things.
I think one of the reasons why Star Wars looks like such a big part of what we do is that we do so many different things. People think of us as the Buffy publisher. Some think of us as the Hellboy publisher. And to many people we’re the Star Wars publisher. But that’s always only been one — really lucrative — but only part of what we do. And knowing that 2014 was the end, we wanted to make sure that it was a big Star Wars year for us. We want to go out with a bang, so we’re kind of pushing it right up to the edge. There’s the Matt Kindt recently announced “Star Wars: Rebel Heist”, which I think adds another level of excitement to Star Wars even as it’s heading out the door.
Richardson: From the beginning, we’ve had a plan for how to approach our line. We’ve had a mix of creator-owned books, and obviously, I think we were pioneers in that field. We have a mix of licensed books, and I think we also changed the way the industry sees those kinds of books. And I think as a result, we’ve had creator-owned books in our line that were the poor stepchild that people didn’t pay as much attention to because we didn’t promote them as much as other things. Star Wars was a juggernaut, and because of its place in the culture, when we’d put out news about different books Star Wars would take up most of the ink while the other projects would get what was left over.
But as Scott said about the other divisions of our line, we’ve got the Mignola-verse which is huge. We’re about to relaunch the Fox properties being spearheaded by “Prometheus,” which I think is a really exciting program for us to be followed by “Aliens,” “Predators” and “Aliens Vs. Predator.” They’re all tied in together in some way. And then there’s Project Black Sky where when Scott says it’s organic, it’s really a plan that’s been in the works for several years. We’ve been planning to bring back superheroes, and we had certain plans for how to do it for years, but as we evolve and talk with the writers, that campaign becomes more specific. You’ll see that come to fruition in the next several months.
One last thing on Star Wars that occurs to me is that you had such a singular beginning for that license with “Dark Empire” which is still viewed as one of the classic Star Wars stories. With the end in sight, did you have a desire to wrap with a similar send off series or big final moment?
Richardson: We’re going to cap the stories that we’re in process with. Obviously, Lucasfilm plays a part with the things they approve and chose to run with. Our first big launch of the past year was “The Star Wars” — something that we’ve been chasing for a long time that they finally gave to us in George’s original vision for the series — and I think that’s a lot of fun for fans. We’ve also got a series that will launch this year that I think will be a fan favorite, and there are some special projects coming out as well. There are no plans to cap “Dark Empire” because we always saw all of those post-Return of the Jedi stories are part of a larger story, and it was capped. So we’ve moved on to other elements and other stories during that time period. There was no need to go back and do a specific final story there.
Allie: But because of the advanced notice we had, Brian Wood is going to be able to wrap what he’s been doing in “Star Wars.” And Gabriel [Hardman] and Corinna [Bechko] are going to wrap up what they’re doing in “Legacy.”
Richardson: All the stories we started are going to be finished, but we’re not going to go back and wrap with “Dark Empire Finale” or anything like that.
Allie: I feel like we’re ending on a really high note between Brian’s work and “The Star Wars” and this book with Matt Kindt. It feel like a lot of the best Star Wars comics we’ve ever done.
So let’s move into the rest of the line in this “Year of the Horse.” On the creator-owned front, the first big launch of 2014 is a new “Elfquest” series by Wendy and Richard Pini, which is not only a big creator-owned series but one of the foundational ones in a lot of ways. When you talked with the Pinis about taking on that franchise, what were the things you wanted to see in terms of giving such a long run a new platform?
Richardson: I’ve known Wendy and Richard for many, many years. In fact, when we started Dark Horse, Richard was probably the first publisher I talked to. So we’ve been friends a long time. But the thing that makes this particular series so special and something we were eager to have is that in the history of the Direct Sales Market, which goes back into the ’70s, Wendy’s work has been there through history. And what we’re doing is not just another “Elfquest” series but the final “Elfquest” series. It will tell the end of the story. So for the people who have followed the story for many years, you’ll now be able to see the fate of all the characters involved. And we were excited to present that story, especially with people we’ve known and liked for all those years.
Allie: And for us it was also about finding a permanent way to present all of the material. So over a period of time, we’re going to bring everything out in a really accessible way for people who are new to it or who have tattered old copies from the old days. Now you’ll have one bookshelf-ready version of the entire series.
Richardson: Yeah. We’ll have it all together as one coherent format as opposed to the many forms it’s taken over the years. And all the material should be there for readers young or old.
Allie: One of the things we’re really great at is managing these huge libraries whether it’s the Mignola library or the “Lone Wolf & Cub” library or what was the Star Wars library. There are readers who want to sink their teeth deeply into something, and it’s great when you can get your hands on a huge story with a beginning, middle and end. “Elquest” meanders around a lot. There are a lot of different chapters and detours it takes, but we’re excited to be able to present the whole thing. I think it’s a story that exists in a genre that has renewed interest. I think there are a lot of young people that don’t know this material, and we’re going to get it out in a way that’s really accessible to them.
Let’s stick with creator-owned at Dark Horse for a moment. You have new material coming on that front from known faces like Steve Niles and Paul Tobin as well as up-and-comers like Frank Barbiere. What’s the core of Dark Horse’s commitment to that kind of material, and what are the challenges of doing that publishing as opposed to the franchise material?
Richardson: We’re always looking for new and exciting creators. Matt Kindt became one of our biggest stories of last year. He did “3 Story” which got some attention, and then “Mind MGMT” really blew up. The idea that you can find creators outside the Marvel or DC mold who have a strong creative vision that’s accepted by comics readers and is exciting for comics readers — that’s the kind of creator we’re looking for. Matt’s a great example of someone who you wouldn’t put in the traditional comic book mold with his art style, and people have responded really positively to it.
Since the very beginning, we’ve looked for creators with unique talents and visions. We’re not just trying to find more of the same. I always felt the creator-owned line was more for the readers who had graduated from Marvel and DC comics and were looking for something new in order to stay excited in the market. There was a study years ago that said the average Marvel reader goes in and out of the market within three or four years. Our goal early at Dark Horse was to try and capture those readers. We want books that will keep readers in the market.
A few years ago when shoujo manga intended for teenage girls blew up the market — in the early part of the 2000s — many readers grew out of the teenage material. So we took a chance on doing a book with Janet Evanovich who has a huge female readership but was not as well known in the comic world. We got a lot of press on that book, and in the end we sold almost 40,000 graphic novels through that program. That’s just one of the ways we tried to keep readers in the market, and one of the best ways to do that is finding new creators.
Allie: We also do a lot to try and pull new readers in. We’ve had a lot of luck with that over the years. And I don’t think the big difference between one book and another is necessarily who owns it. “The Witcher,” our new book from Paul Tobin, is a video game. We are doing creator-owned stuff with Paul as well, and we’re doing “Prometheus” with Paul. He’s a really complex creator with a lot of different kinds of ideas, and I think readers want to get a lot of different things. They don’t just want sci-fi, or they don’t just want horror. Maybe a lot of comics readers only read superhero comics, but it’s great to be able to bring in different readers with what we do.
We’ve had success with video game stuff where for years the common wisdom was that that material doesn’t work. That’s another thing I think we turned around. When we took on Star Wars and Aliens in the old days, that was the first time anyone had taken licensed comics as seriously as we did and did such cool things with them.
Richardson: Scott brings up a good point. I hear the term “licensed comics” all the time as though there’s some strike against them if they’re based on a media property. Remember that Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four — none of those are done by their creators. They’re all owned by corporations, so I can’t see what the difference is between a Superman comic and on of our licensed comics in terms of its organic basis. Whether it be video games, television, films or whatever, every good story has great potential as a comic. We’ve had great success with our Aliens stories back in the day and heard from all over that we brought new readers in with “Alien Vs. Predator.” So where things come from is not a key factor in whether it can be successful or not.
Allie: For me, working on the Buffy comics is a lot like working on Hellboy. You’ve got to make sure you’re true to the creator’s vision and that you’re sticking to what the thing is all about. It’s the same with the “Prometheus” comics where Mike has been working with Ridley Scott to make sure that what we’re doing connects with where Ridley’s heading with the rest of the franchise.
One of the more noted creator-owned books coming out soon from Dark Horse is Greg Rucka’s “Veil,” and when I spoke with Rucka about that series, Scott, he said you really courted him to come to Dark Horse. I wonder what you say to creators when recruiting them about why they should bring their ideas to you guys?
Allie: We’ve got a long history of giving creators the freedom they want but giving them the support a publisher like us can give. In working with Greg, we were meeting periodically, and he laid out some ideas for me, one of which was “Veil.” The fact that it’s a horror comic obviously appealed to me because I love that material, but it was also that Greg got really excited about it and you could tell he had something on his hands. Working with him, I can tell the Greg’s not the kind of writer that needs a hands-on editor. But one thing we’re really good at beyond editing the scripts or the stories is carrying out the creator’s vision across the life of the project. That’s part of our pitch to them.
Richardson: Most of our content editing comes in the choice of who we work with. If we decide to work with a particular creator, we’ve made our decision on what our tolerance for that particular material is. There are certain things that no publisher will touch, but we’re able to work with it. We can reach out to Milo Manara and say, “You’re going to have your work printed in beautiful books that present things the way you want them presented.”
Speaking of matching creators to projects as we were a moment ago, I wanted to ask about the plans for both “Tomb Raider” and “Avatar: The Last Airbender.” The latter has been a bit hit for you over the past year or two, and the former is a property that hasn’t been as high in the public eye in recent years. How do you approach franchises in those two positions in terms of building talent and momentum?
Richardson: Well, with “Tomb Raider” we’re going to get a lot of help because there’s a new game coming out. There’s going to be a big push of publicity behind that. But we’re in a good place because they’ve reestablished the character with a more modern sensibility. We think that’s been a big property, and we’re excited about it.
Allie: And we feel like bringing Gail Simone in, who’s never worked at Dark Horse before, is the perfect fit for “Tomb Raider.”
Richardson: Right. There are fans of the series from years ago, so the chance of getting in at the beginning is a key pitch to bring in a creator like Gail. It has to get traction in a crowded market, but if we’ve got a great book with great creators, that’s the most important thing with all of these. The title of the property will only give you heat for so long. After that, it’s all about the material you’re putting out.
Allie: We’ve learned a lot about working with creators and licensors to make the comic an essential part of the experience. Working with Crystal Dynamics and guys like Brian Horton who’s the Senior Art Director on “Tomb Raider” who also used to do “Buffy” comics for us means we can really do that well. And Dave Marshall is the editor who’s spearheaded a lot of our video game stuff has a lot of experience dealing with these guys, so he knows how to tell a story that stands on its own but also opens up the world of the game. Games are such an incredible narrative force, which they didn’t used to be. You can take that to another level with the comics. And I think that the fact that “Tomb Raider’s” been out of the public consciousness for a while helped us too because now it feels brand new.
And with “Avatar,” the key there was that we hired an amazing writer in Gene Yang and hooked him up with the creators of the show. Even though the original “Avatar” cartoon had ended, those guys had threads they were excited to tell in comics. And Gene has incredible traction with that audience, and so now the comic is really able to keep Aang and everyone else alive.
Richardson: When the fans see that an original creator is going to stay involved with the series, it means there’s an authenticity involved with the book that they look forward to. Joss Whedon is a great example of that. Joss oversees everything in the Whedonverse, and having his name and participation on that series is clearly a part of the success we have on those books.
That last big piece of your first quarter of 2014 is the continuation of work with creators who have been at Dark Horse for years and years — namely Mike Mignola and Stan Sakai who each have new material on tap. How to you approach the task of keeping their long-running serials exciting for both diehard readers and potentially new ones?
Allie: The Mignola stuff is really fun and it does change and grow over the years. Mike, John [Arcudi] and I talk all the time, and we’re always brainstorming stuff. Mike has always had a long vision for where all this stuff is going, but it’s flexible and it changes. I think one of the really appealing things about those books is that you get the sense that this story is really going somewhere — and it is! But sometimes it changes, but we stick to the core principals. It stays fresh for us because of that way it evolves and because we bring new artists in. There are a lot of characters that Mike comes up with that we don’t think are going to be a big deal, but they become a big deal for the readers. Sledgehammer is a character we did five issues with, the last of which comes out this month, and we didn’t realize how much of a big thing that was going to be the first time Guy Davis drew it in the background of one panel in a book called “The Dead.” But it stuck around, and we thought about more ways to play with it.
Having Mike guiding the whole thing while also being open to other people’s work — like when we just did a great book with Gabriel Ba and Fabio Moon — that lets the series change over time but stick to what it’s all about. There was a time where we never thought we could do these books without Guy Davis, and now we’ve got this wealth of great new artists who have come on. Cameron Stewart is doing some work with us. There’s Sebastian and Max Fiumara. It stays fresh, but the guys always rely on Mike sense of design with those characters. That flexibility keeps it fun for us working on it and for the people reading it.
Richardson: It’s interesting with Stan because Stan really likes doing “Usagi.” When we did “47 Ronin,” he had to think about it because it meant he had to step away from Usagi for a while, but suddenly he realized he really wanted to do it. I’d been thinking of who could do that for 20 years, and I finally got serious about it because this movie was coming out that’s not exactly faithful to the legend. We wanted to tell the real story, and when I told it to Stan, he thought it was a great idea. I don’t think he’d ever done people in comics for an extended period of time, and he had the perfect style for this book. It recalled Japanese woodcuts without being a slave to that particular style of art. I think he’s now dying to get back to “Usagi,” and when I read the reviews of “47 Ronin” — which was reviewed well mostly thanks to Stan — a lot of the reviewers said, “We’re so glad this is over so Stan can get back to doing what he’s supposed to be doing.” [Laughs] I think he’s going to be doing it for a long time. He’s a tremendous artist and a tremendous person too. It’s such a pleasure to have him here at Dark Horse.
Wrapping this talk on the first quarter of Dark Horse releases, as you said the discussion right now is all about Star Wars and how it’s impacting Dark Horse. By the end of 2014, what do you hope is the thing people will be talking about around the company?
Richardson: Well, I’d just want to make it clear first when we talk about Star Wars that people have dramatically overestimated the financial impact it has on us. Dark Horse just had its best year it ever had — and not by a small margin but by a large margin of 30%. We’re the largest we’ve ever been, and we’ve actually been hiring people. With the different divisions of our company, publishing had a record year, the internet division had a record year, digital had a record year, and the product division that’s our toy company had a record year. Led by things like “Game of Thrones” products, we can’t even manufacture things fast enough there. Meanwhile, our film division has two projects ready to start shooting this year.
So this is the best overall year we’ve ever had, and in the middle of that we lose Star Wars and so we start to see people worried about Dark Horse. We’re in really good shape. We have a new creator initiative that we’ll be rolling out across the year that will help make it an easy choice for creators to bring their projects here. We have Project Black Sky as a huge program that’s already starting to catch attention since we’ve put some Easter Eggs out there in both the books themselves and out on the internet. We have the huge Fox program leading off with “Prometheus.” I know some people hated the movie and some people loved it. I’m one of the people who loved it, and we’re going to delve into some of the questions that Ridley’s people have allowed us to delve into. So we’ll address some things that seemed unanswerable, and we’ve got answers for all of them — that’s one of the reasons why the story people at Fox are excited by this.
Overall, with the year 2014, we’ll have announcements all year with exciting new creators — both big name people coming to work on projects and a new creator-owned initiative. The licensed properties on our publishing schedule will be as exciting as ever from Fox to game-based properties like “Mass Effect,” “Halo” and others. And there will be some new company owned projects that we’ve started in recent months. All of it looks very exciting.
One of the impressions given about Dark Horse I think comes from that Diamond pie chart, which has always been an irritant. I’m not sure, but I think that’s what people think of as the measure of our company’s success. But when once company publishes 90 pamphlet comic books and another company publishes 40, but the 40-comic publisher has a much higher per issue sales value, well I’m not sure what that market share chart means. And that doesn’t even include backlist or bookstore sales where we are incredibly strong. It doesn’t include products or all the other divisions. Dark Horse is unlike any other comic book company out there. We have very clear and profitable divisions, we’re known for quality, and we continue to grow every year. People can buy market share or flood the market, but that’s never our goal. Our goal is always to grow each year with quality product and to be specific and careful in the choices we make and the creators we go after. While we’re not always 100% in that, I think our ratio of success is pretty high. And that’s what’ll continue in 2014.
Allie: And in terms of what we want people talking about at the end of the year, and what they’re always talking about is whatever the last thing was. Now it’s Star Wars. For me, the thing I think they’ll be talking about at the end of the year is this new Mignola book we’ll be launching in late 2014. When we figured this book out, we were like, “Why haven’t we been doing this all along?” I think everyone will be saying it’s an amazing title, and when they hear who’s drawing it, they’ll be going, “Holy crap. THAT guy is doing THAT title with Mignola for Dark Horse?”
Stay tuned to CBR News for more announcements and news from Dark Horse’s “Year of the Horse” across 2014.