Its first issue boasted the talents of Joss Whedon, Fabio Moon, Gerard Way, Gabriel Ba, Ron Marz, Luke Ross, and Rick Geary. The current issue features a “Conan” story by Darick Robertson, a super-sports tale by the indie team of Jim Rugg and Brian Maruca, an offbeat horror story by novelist Cody Goodfellow, and a two-pager by some brand new artists. And every issue is free.
“MySpace Dark Horse Presents,” a revival of the publisher’s flagship series retooled and revitalized for the web, is a monthly anthology of four original stories made available for free online and later collected into trade paperbacks. The original “Dark Horse Presents” series debuted in 1986 and ran until 2000, and featured the first appearance of Paul Chadwick’s “Concrete” and Frank Miller’s “Sin City.” The new edition has featured the premiere of Joss Whedon’s “Sugarshock” and Michael Avon Oeming and Taki Soma’s “Rapture,” as well as featuring shorter adventures from established series like “BPRD,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” and “Solomon Kane.” CBR News spoke with editor Scott Allie about the origins and development of “MySpace Dark Horse Presents” and its function in Dark Horse’s publishing platform. The January issue will be posted Wednesday, December 30–during Diamond’s infamous “skip week,” in which almost no new comics will arrive in stores–and CBR has an exclusive first look at the entire first chapter of “Brody’s Ghost,” a new serial that begins in “MDHP” #30.
“MySpace Dark Horse Presents” is now about two and a half years old and has just released its fourth trade paperback. Despite many unresolved questions about digital content when “MDHP” launched–questions that largely continue to this day–Allie said that the online publication has developed in line with Dark Horse’s expectations for the series. “The question was always how was the world gonna change around it. As changes at MySpace happened, we had to change some of our ideas about it,” Allie said. “It doesn’t serve the same function as the original ‘DHP’ [in print], in that the old b&w one was there to launch new properties, and this series has done relatively little of that. Because it’s free, because it’s intended for MySpace viewers and not necessarily hardcore comics fans, it’s mainly there to expose people to our stuff, and to expose them to comics in general. That hasn’t changed.”
The site has included strips by established creators, comics set in current Dark Horse series, prelude episodes to upcoming comics, and one-off strips by up-and-coming creators. “As we’re filling out an issue, we’re looking down the road at the regular publishing schedule and looking at what sort of projects are coming, with an eye to books that could use a little exposure and books that could bring readers to ‘MDHP,'” Allie said of the process of selecting stories for each issue. “When we put Buffy on there, it does more for ‘MDHP’ than it does for Buffy, although I’m surprised to hear people who call themselves die hard Buffy fans still coming up to us at shows saying, ‘Wow, I didn’t know there was a comic.'”
Regarding those changes at MySpace and the ever-shifting digital landscape, CBR asked Allie how and whether the current setup of “MDHP”–comic-sized pages, hosted by a major social networking site–continues to serve the content and audience or whether the anthology series might shift to another format, such as mobile-formatted comics. “In terms of the pages we make, the comics dimensions are a real point of conversation. We opted to go with standard-size pages because we wanted this to still feel like a comic, still reprint really nicely as a standard comic,” the editor explained. “But one rule we’ve got, which some editors and creators have had a hard time sticking to, is that no panel should be more than half the height of the page. The reason for that is that I know I hate reading a comic online and not being able to see the whole panel at once, having to scroll down to read a balloon, then go back up to make sure I can see what he’s talking about.
“A lot of what we think of as real webcomics–comics made purely for web use, even if they’re printed elsewhere later–have landscape format pages, because those fit the screen better. The ‘MDHP’ compromise, comics pages with no panel more than half the height, works fine for me, but it shows the hybrid nature of what we’re doing. We’re still thinking of the stories as comic books that are first shown on the web. But the thing about webcomics, however you define that term, is that there are endless possibilities. D’Israeli and Ian Edginton did a great thing with their ‘War of the Worlds’ comic, where they cut every standard comics page right in half, so you view half pages at a time online, then when it was printed, the halves were doubled up, and you had a standard comics page. I believe currently on the DH site if you view it, you see the whole page, the two halves. But again, it’s all pretty flexible.
“As for comics on phones, we’re doing the iTunes thing, that’s separate from MDHP. But it’s one of many, many avenues. We want to explore all of it.”
One of the big unresolved questions of publishing online for free is how exactly to make money on the venture, or whether there are other functions free content might serve even if the material itself never generates a dime. “We have not, as an industry, really figured this thing out yet. There are people making money off web comics. There’s a lot to be learned, a lot of room for improvement,” Allie said. “So I’ve always seen ‘MDHP’ as promotion. I felt, at the time that we launched it, that there was no good model for a comics publisher creating original content online for a profit. Because of a friendship with MySpace, I thought the best thing at that moment in time was to put free content out there. I’m still a huge fan of putting free content online in the hopes of winning readers. The iTunes thing is showing us how to make money doing it, but not yet to the point where we could pay top talent top rates and sell the stories directly on the phone, and make a profit. Until we can comfortably go there, I don’t think you can say that we’ve figured out how to make money selling comics digitally.”
Of course, the trade paperback collections do carry a price tag, but included within their pages are samples from across the Dark Horse line. The fourth trade includes stories from “Star Wars,” “The Goon,” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” along with comics from indie favorites like Kate Beaton and David Malki. “Anthologies are not for everyone. Some people hate variety. They like Bendis writing Spider-Man, they feel like they’re wasting money on any page that isn’t Bendis writing Spider-Man,” Allie said. “I understand that attitude. But if you love the variety of what comics have to offer, anthologies are richly rewarding, full of discovery. Sierra Hahn edited volume 4, and the way she constructed it, if you read it cover to cover, you start on some cool girl hero stuff from Joss Whedon, Mike Oeming, and Gilbert Hernandez, segueing into some real indie-spirited stuff including Farel Dalrymple, Matt Kindt, and Kate Beaton, flowing into the best of the web comics guys like David Malki! and Chris Onstad, then climaxing in some hard-edged action adventure, including The Goon, Guy Davis’s Marquis, Hellboy’s dad, and ‘Star Wars.’ That’s kind of the range of what Dark Horse has to offer, aside from manga.”
Allie mentioned that there will be bonus material in the print edition, as well. “There’s some extras, including character profiles themed around a boxing motif, which you can see on Kristian Donaldson’s cover, and a look into Jo Chen’s process for her ‘Buffy’ pages. It’s always fun putting an ‘MDHP’ trade paperback collection together, because you look at all this stuff you commissioned over six months, and then you try to find the rhyme or reason to how it all fits. And Sierra did a great job with this one. It flows, frankly, in a way the monthly online didn’t do, because that was scheduled more around publishing opportunities. Now we get to just put the stories next to each as they best fit.”
January’s thirtieth issue of “MDHP” hits a little early, posting on December 30. Asked what readers could expect in 2010’s first installment, Allie said, “Well, actually, January debuts a big new title for us, Mark Crilley’s new series ‘Brody’s Ghost.’ It’s great to debut a new title from a major talent, and we’re giving Brody the longest run yet in ‘MDHP,’ four straight months. That’s something I’d been wanting to do for a while. [Joss Whedon’s] ‘Sugarshock’ was three months, the first three issues, and since then we’d only done two-parters. Which makes sense, looking at ‘MDHP’ as a promotional vehicle, but again, I want the variety. So having a more long-running feature is a new thing for us, and ‘Brody’s Ghost’ is a good one to do it with.
“We’re putting this one online early–usually MDHP goes up the first Wednesday of the month, but because of Diamond cutting off the shipment of new books on the final Wednesday in December, we thought it would be cool to deliver some comics ourselves on December 30,” the editor said. “I wish it did something for the retailers that are missing a week’s revenue–a crucial week’s revenue–but at least readers will have 26 new pages of comics.”