Friday at New York Comic-Con, Dark Horse announced the next stage of its DH:HD partnership with USA Today and Toshiba, which will see five new eight-page stories published exclusively on the USA Today website over a ten-week period, beginning October 11 with “Hellboy: The Whittier Legacy,” written and drawn by Mike Mignola. The other shorts in the first wave of the program are “Serenity: Downtime,” written by Zack Whedon with art by Chris Samnee; “The Goon: An Irish Wake,” written and drawn by Eric Powell; “Conan: Kiss of the Undead,” written by Ron Marz with art by Bart Sears; and “Mass Effect: Inquisition,” written by Mac Walters with art by Jean Diaz. Since the DH:HD partnership was first announced, USA Today has run several Dark Horse previews along with its broader comics coverage, but the original shorts will mark the publisher’s return to offering new comics starring its major characters for free on the web, following a format similar to the late “MySpace Dark Horse Presents.” CBR News spoke with editor Scott Allie about the finer details of the initiative.
Asked about the format of the new strips, Allie said that each story would be presented in two four-page installments, published one day apart. “That was something we worked out with USA Today. I think people on the interwebs are used to getting really small pieces at a time,” Allie told CBR. “Each story is designed to break in the middle, sometimes on a cliffhanger, sometimes on a softer beat, but each is meant to work as single 8-pagers, and in two quick parts.”
As to whether the DH:HD comics would incorporate any digital special features, such as panel and page turn animation flow or commentary tracks, Allie said, “Nope! We considered that, but we wanted a pretty simple interface for this. We’ve got things planned down to the road to take different advantage of the format, but this is a lot like ‘MDHP,’ traditional comics presented online.”
DH:HD has been underway for a little while now with previews and interviews, but “Hellboy: The Whittier Legacy” will be the first original content to debut under the partnership. “All the lead-in we’ve been doing, the promo stuff USA Today and Toshiba have done for ‘Baltimore’ and ‘Troublemaker’ leading up to October was all done with the goal of getting to the original stories – this was certainly always the point, these five original pieces,” Allie said. “Basically a group here at Dark Horse consisting of Editorial and Marketing staff picked the properties, ran them by USA Today and Toshiba. Neither of them shot us down on any of the books or characters we proposed. And then the editors got about creating the stories. USA Today and Toshiba were fine, no interference editorially.”
That editorial non-interference also extends to graphic content. Pointing to the example of Eric Powell’s “The Goon” specifically, CBR asked Allie whether, given the broad audience that makes up USA Today readers, these stories were being crafted in such a way as to be accessible while remaining true to the series’ tones, or are whether they completely uncensored as they would be in print. “Well, aside from ‘Satan’s Sodomy Baby’ and the foul-mouthed promo reel for the trailer, ‘Goon’ is fairly kid friendly. We’ve gotten a lot of mail from young readers,” Allie said. “I don’t know that nine year olds are on USA Today’s website, though. We’re not doing ‘The Goon on Elmo.’ All these USA Today stories are pretty true to how they’re normally presented. In ‘Conan’ we probably pulled back the most. No decapitations, no bare-chested ladies.”
The DH:HD comics are meant to be new-reader friendly without being a mere introduction or origin story. This is possible, Allie said, even with a character with a lot of history like Hellboy. “When we do something like this with Hellboy, we try to just make an accessible story that shows off what’s fun or interesting about Hellboy. This story does that,” Allie said. “It’s not an intro to Hellboy, so much as it’s throwing you in the deep end, and if you like it hopefully you’ll stick around. No mention of the Beast of the Apocalypse. We’ll let them discover that later.”
Of the five shorts, most are by the series’ regular creative teams, with the notable exception of “Conan: Kiss of the Undead” by Ron Marz and Bart Sears. “Dave Land is the editor on the new ‘Conan’ series with Roy Thomas and Mike Hawthorne, so we asked him to handle this story. He’s worked a lot with Ron and Bart, both were eager to do something with Conan, and this seemed like a great chance to do something quick and standalone,” Allie said.
“Serenity,” “Mass Effect” and “Conan” might be familiar already to non-comics readers, as each has a strong presence in other media, but fans who spend hours on the X-Box 360, recite lines from the classic Arnold Schwartzenegger film and show their loyalties by wearing a brown coat do not always migrate to the original comics stories, something DH:HD aims to change. “With all three, I think there’s plenty of room to reach fans of the stories and characters who didn’t know there were comics. Bums me out to no end to realize there are people out there that love the show or the game or what have you, but hadn’t even heard of the comic,” Allie lamented. “But that just means there’s people who we can get to come to it fresh. For ‘Mass Effect,’ I think some gamers will be surprised to see how well Mac Walters brings the experience of the game to life.”
For fans already immersed in the joys of comics, there might still be some surprises in store, especially related to the types of stories that can be told in only 8 pages, Allie explained to CBR. “The 8-page short is a bit of a lost art, and these guys all did real good work in the narrow parameters. I think some people will be amazed at the full-fledged experience they can get out of a mere 8 pages. I was blown away by Zack’s ‘Serenity’ script. People who are used to getting 4-page non-sequitur excerpts online, or 1-page gag webcomics, will, I think, be impressed with the depth and the economy of a free 8-page story by a really great team.
While Allie said it was far to early to talk about further original comics beyond the initial ten-week run, he did say, “We have a lot of plans for online comics, and I think there’s no end to the virtue of giving short bits of great content away for free.”
A to whether the DH:HD 8-pagers would eventually appear in a print venue, either collected together or in the ongoing series’ collections, the editor said, “yeah, eventually. Some will take longer than others, and none are coming out right away, but eventually they’ll be available in print. But you gotta pay for those…”