After telling their own tales in a number of black and white adventures, the pair’s Dark Horse Comics line grew, until it turned into the market force it remains today. In the years between then and now, Richardson and Stradley have continued to recruit new talent and sign new properties to the Dark Horse line as Publisher and Senior Editor respectively, but they never stopped telling their own stories, in franchises from Star Wars to Aliens to the Comics Greatest World superhero line.
Today, CBR News continues our exploration of the publisher’s “Year of the Horse” rollout of 2014 publishing initiatives with an interview featuring Dark Horse’s founding members as Richardson and Stradley team to reveal the final publishing plans for the Star Wars line, including the deluxe edition of their recent hit “The Star Wars” adaptation of George Lucas’ original story treatment. They also give us the exclusive first word on the return of Stradley’s “King Tiger” superhero as part of the growing Project Black Sky line, share an early look at the plans for “Prometheus,” “Aliens” and “Predators” revivals, show off new collected edition plans for projects like Frank Miller‘s “Sin City,” the manga classic “Lone Wolf & Cub” and much, much more.
CBR News: Gentlemen, this week it seems Dark Horse is ready to break one last bit of “Star Wars” news as part of your Year of the Horse rollout with the word that the current run of books will wrap in August. Did that month allow you to cap the modern series to your satisfaction?
Randy Stradley: We did this because we just weren’t sure what was going to happen with the license, but I wanted to play it safe in terms of saying, “Here’s the last date we can get the comics out and still have time to collect them and get them into bookstores.” We just decided to put the date out there and prepare for its coming, and if it turned out we could do more Star Wars books, we’d keep going. As it turned out, we couldn’t. Unfortunately, the confirmation for us came at the last possible second. So we’re heading towards some wrap ups, and I think they’re more logical wrap ups. We’re not blowing up the galaxy, and they’re not gigantic climaxes in the sense that this is the ending of something. Obviously, Star Wars will continue.
One piece of this puzzle that is really brand new and as of yet unseen by readers is Matt Kindt’s “Rebel Heist” series. Did you conceive that as a stand alone story from the start?
Stradley: Originally, I had conceived of the idea of doing fill-in issues of a way to buy Brian Wood some time in his schedule. He’s been writing a lot of books, and I was worried he’d have trouble meeting the schedule. But Brian said, “No, no — I want to do all these issues,” so I talked to Matt and he had a way to turn his original idea into a four-issue series, so that’s what we went for.
Well, even as that series represents the last original launch of Dark Horse Star Wars material, Dark Horse has a relaunch coming in the form of new comics set in the universe of “Aliens,” “Predator” and “Prometheus.” Of course, longtime readers know that Dark Horse was the company that first combined the Alien and Predator characters together before the movies expanded everything out, but the concept of that being one larger world has really jumped to another level on film in recent years. How did that embracing of your ideas from the Hollywood side impact what you wanted to do with the comics?
Mike Richardson: When we were very early on in Dark Horse’s life, we saw that we were having critical success with our books, but we weren’t getting the sales numbers we’d like. Part of that was because we didn’t have the franchises that have existed for years like Marvel and DC have. It occurred to us that a good way to jump start that was to take popular movie properties and adapt them into comics. We didn’t want to do it like other companies did — which were generally lackluster, uninspired affairs. There were only a couple of us in the company at the time, and we decided that we wanted to do sequels or prequels to the movies we loved. We thought that as fans we could create the next part of the story, and so we applied that to “Aliens.” Surprisingly enough — or maybe not so surprising — “Aliens” fans really responded to that. That was the first project where we sold hundreds of thousands of books, and we were told at the time that comic shops were getting new readers because of those books.
Obviously, flush with the success of that, we wanted to expand on the idea, and it just so happened a new movie was being advertised at the time. I said to Randy at lunch one day, “Let’s go see this thing,” and it was called “Predator.” Since it was also from Fox, we’d be dealing with the same people we had been on “Aliens,” which included Pam North, who was running Fox Licensing at the time. There wasn’t anything going on with merchandise for “Aliens,” so they were very excited because we were drawing attention from other licensors. We were good partners from their standpoint. Once we’d seen “Predator,” we walked out with some good ideas on how to do a sequel for that, and we made the deal for a comic that was another big success. It was another six-figure sales range. In a story meeting, the idea was brought up to do “Aliens Vs. Predator,” and the sales for that ended up shattering the previous records. We were just doing the movies we’d like to see, and that became our approach to Star Wars and Terminator and all the other licenses we had.
But as time went on, we sometimes strayed from that particular approach. We’d let creators go off and break outside the continuity, and we didn’t have quite the success. In recent years, we’ve pulled back from that. Now, with “Prometheus,” the film generated such controversy when it came out, and being set in the world of “Aliens,” it raised all new questions about how that movie fit in with all the other projects. So we decided to find a way to fill in the cracks around what Ridley [Scott] is doing with his movies. He himself said that this all took place in the same universe, and we took that as our launch point to again make comics that we thought would make for great movies. We want to answer a few of the questions that were raised in “Prometheus” and pose some additional questions while having a related set of books all set in that same fictional universe.
Is it tougher to do that with three books in the franchise and some more unknown parts to the mythology? It seems that for all you gain with the franchise names, tying those parts together must be creatively harder.
Richardson: It’s a big task. We spent a lot of time just sorting out how we could do this and what the rules would be. How can we answer questions posed in the film itself while also not going too far astray from Ridley’s ideas? So just tackling “Prometheus” in that way was a task, and then we had to find how to tell stories in the other franchises where we could also have a set of related characters through all the comics.
Stradley: We’ve been having regular meetings at Editor Scott Allie’s house — getting all the writers and a bunch of the artists and some of the editors together to hash out everything we wanted to do. We’ve been coming up with some related-but-varied themes for each part of the story. So the story in the “Prometheus” chapter is a different story from the one in the “Aliens” chapter which is different than the one in the “Predators” chapter. They’re all obviously one larger story, but within the pieces, we’re making sure to pin down satisfying stories within each franchise chapter.
Is there one series that’s launching the whole or setting the stage for all the books and what they share?
Richardson: The launches will be staggered, but we’ll talk more about that when we get towards the launch dates.
As you were saying earlier, when Dark Horse began, it didn’t have company-owned franchises like superhero comics to lean on to gain attention. Then you both worked on what was called “Comics Greatest World.” It’s been around 20 years since those original books with Ghost, X and the rest happened; is it weird to be at a place where you’ve got something you created yourselves which can now be revived and relaunched?
Richardson: Not really, because I feel like we never really finished telling those stories in the first place. We had some grand plans, and unfortunately, there was a glut of superhero books at that time. We started with big numbers, but after a few years there was a general weariness for so-called “universes.” But we’ve never had the intention of competing directly with Marvel and DC where their forte was these long-running superhero books.
At the same time, we’ve been pretty good at launching franchises. If you look from 1986 on, we’ve launched as many franchises if not more than anyone else — in both licensed and creator-owned projects. We’ve done “Hellboy” and “Sin City,” “Aliens” and “Terminator,” Joss Whedon’s “Buffy The Vampire Slayer” and more. So it kept coming back into our minds that we should be in this space that we weren’t really into in a big way. We had characters that were successful back in the day — primarily X and Ghost — so it’s fun to return to those with a project we’ve had in the works for a while. Once again, this is something we’ve been working on well, well in advance. It’s been more than 12 months of work before it was even talked about publicly. The plan is coming together, and some out there on social media have already started to see the Easter Eggs we’ve planted in. We plan on being in this space for a long while — permanently, we hope — and we’ve put the resources and fun characters to make a great world for them to live in.
Randy, you’re taking on the most recent part of this with a new “King Tiger” series who is a character you wrote in the original run of Comics Greatest World. I know some of the franchises, like Ghost, got a bit of a facelift to their origins for this new iteration of Dark Horse superheroes that is Project Black Sky. Are you approaching this with a similar view, or since you’ve written it all, will all the stories fit together some how?
Stradley: Well, I did write “King Tiger” originally, but it was only relatively short segments within larger stories. So we never got around to telling his origin. Doug Wheatley and I are going to cover that in this new arc. I haven’t changed anything. It’s still the same idea I had for the character back in 1991 when we were coming up with these characters. In some ways, it’s fun to finally be able to tell that story. In other ways, I’m glad I got to wait until now to tell it. I know more, now. I’m a better writer and a better storyteller than I was back then. I feel like I can do King Tiger more justice, now.
He’s very much a hero set in that chopsocky action adventurer mold. Were there any films of that genre or stories that influenced you wanting to add a character like that into this superhero world?
Stradley: There were a couple of Hong Kong action films that originally got me started thinking about a character like this. But he really owes a lot more of his existence to everything from Doctor Strange to H.P. Lovecraft stories. We haven’t touched on a lot of that yet, but it will be coming up. He’s that figure from the mystic East like the Shadow, or some of these other characters, but as you’ll discover, there’s yet another side to him. It’s something that will break away from the classic mold of those stories, I think.
And Doug Wheatley has a tradition of drawing comics with that flavor in them, dating back to “Jonny Quest” and the like. What made him the right fit for this new “King Tiger?”
Stradley: Having worked with Doug on Star Wars, his drawing is unbelievable. He’s a master draftsman, but his storytelling is so amazing too. He thinks about the story in ways I can’t. He thinks about where characters are in the scene and what object he can put in the background so that when we look at the scene from a different angle, that landmark stands somewhere else in the frame to tell the reader where they are and where the characters are in a scene. Not every artist thinks about that stuff, and clarity in storytelling is really the essence of comics and what makes them work.
Of course, “King Tiger” is only one of a number of superhero books, and we know that starting on Free Comic Book Day, all the characters of Project Black Sky will start coming together a bit more. Does your hero have a role in the overall plans moving forward?
Stradley: There are aspects of his introduction that will help fold him into the rest of that world. I don’t want to say too much and give away the surprises of the story, but he does fit right into the rest of this world we’re building.
Mike, just like Randy, you continue to work on your own writing and often launch some passion projects like “47 Ronin” alongside everything you’re doing as publisher. Next up for you on that front is “Atomic Legion.” How do you view that book in terms of its overall place in the Dark Horse’s publishing plans for the year?
Richardson: “Atomic Legion” is actually something I’ve been working on for about four years.
Stradley: Maybe longer!
Richardson: Yeah, maybe. It was sort of a passion project I was working on on the side with tremendous art by Bruce Zick who’s worked for Disney and a bunch of other places. I told Bruce, “We need a project that showcases your art in a way that really shows people how good you are.” So we wanted to have fun with this series. I’d done some horror series, and “47 Ronin” was a very grim story, so I wanted to just have fun here. We sat down and literally came up with a list of all our influences from when we were young. It’s very different from the other books Dark Horse is doing, and it’s certainly different from anything I’ve done before. There are going to be a lot of references hidden within the comic, and this was to do something that was fun that could showcase Bruce as an artist.
Also on the expanding franchise front, you’ve got “The Strain: The Night Eternal” coming, which is the latest in your adaptations of Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan’s novels and the third in the original trilogy. I know there are some bigger media things happening with that franchise. How do you see the comics fitting into that growing pop culture footprint of “The Strain?”
Richardson: Guillermo and I are friends. We’ve done several movies together, and he has pretty much a standing offer to do whatever he’d like to do here at Dark Horse. He’s an amazing talent, and we’ll continue to do “The Strain” as long as he wants us to do it and in whatever direction he wants us to take it. For us, the television series was just an added bonus. We were already committed to this series whether he wanted to go beyond the original novels or not. We’re happy to work with Guillermo in a variety of areas. He’s a creative genius.
Aside from the monthly publishing slate, a huge part of the Dark Horse business is the collected editions department. Among the upcoming books is a big special edition of “The Star Wars” series based on George Lucas’ original story treatment, as well as some new editions of classic Dark Horse books and additions to lines like “Lone Wolf & Cub.” What do you view as your overall goals for that segment of publishing?
Stradley: For “The Star Wars,” what we’re doing is a deluxe edition. We got together with our print buyer and discussed all the different things we could do with that, and what we came up with was a nice package in its own clothbound, clamshell-type box. Inside that are three separate volumes — all of them nice books with clothbound covers — and one of the best things we came up with was a portfolio book. It looks like a book, but when you open it up, it’s full of plastic sleeves each containing a mini poster or a portfolio piece. It lets you store all the art and keep it pristine. It’s a really nice package, and we spent a lot of time researching the best way to do it.
One of the most important aspects we talk about whenever we’re doing new hardcovers is to say, “Okay, let’s not just do what we did before.” We want to think of what would be cool to hold in your hands or cool to see on your shelf. We’re always trying to do one better than we did last time.
Richardson: For the new “Lone Wolf & Cub” series, we’ve got a book where [Kazuo] Koike himself has chosen a new artist since [Goseki] Kojima, the original artist, had passed away. Hideki Mori is the new artist drawing this series, and he has a style very close to what Kojima did on the original. This new series takes place immediately after the events of the final volume of the original “Lone Wolf & Cub” series. Koike picked up the story right where he left off, and this has been out in Japan for some time. We’ve been working hard to get it brought over here for Lone Wolf fans.
We’ve sold over a million copies of “Lone Wolf” since we started the series, and we thought as we introduced the new series that we’d put out the original in a new format. We went with something in our Omnibus series because those books were almost Omnibus-sized originally. It’s quite a package for the money — quite a value. And by the way, when the original series came out because of the bookstore distribution deal we were negotiating at the time, we had a poor start where the first two books of the series didn’t make it to bookstores. We had to start with Volume 3, and that sort of limited the sales potential of the series. We eventually got the first two books back into stores later on, but now this give us a chance to get the series started with a #1 in both the bookstore and comic shop market. This is a book we have a long history with, and Koike is a great friend of mine. You may have noticed that he was the spiritual guide on “47 Ronin” making sure I didn’t stray too far from the spirit of the legend. So we’re very excited by this new series which we’ve been after for a long time.
You’ve also got a massive “Sin City” book on tap to tie into the new movie. Do you continue to see a lot of new readers come to that franchise with releases like this?
Richardson: We’ve released that series so many times. [Laughs] And it’s not just to generate new readers, which of course we want to do, but it’s also to get it out there for the film and for older readers. This time when talking about how to do that, we thought, “Let’s just call it ‘Big Damn Sin City.’ Let’s put it all in a book and keep it out there for a long period of time.” It gives fans a chance to either buy the individual volumes or for a limited time, get it all in one big, giant volume. I don’t know if you’ve seen our “Colossal Conan,” but that was probably the biggest graphic novel ever, and “Sin City” will end up being a big damn book like that.
To wrap, as I said earlier, Dark Horse has come a long way and been through plenty of phases since you both were working on the original books in the line, years ago. Has your concept of what Dark Horse is changed at all as the company has grown?
Richardson: I think that the original mission statement continues. We’re a much larger business than we were then, so sometimes other factors play in, but the mission at the core of the company of creator rights, higher quality books with stronger stories, freedom for creators to work without censorship and everything else stands. If you look at our line, we’ve stayed true to all of that.
As far as what Randy and I do, when I first started this company and asked Randy to be involved, one of the things we were going to do was write the comics ourselves. We started out the company writing and creating a lot of the characters. As time went by, we grew so fast that we had to take more time running a company. At least for me, you look around suddenly and realize that time has gone by fast — like you said with Ghost and X being characters we did 20 years ago! For me, I have an entire list of things I’m interested in and wanted to write, but I realized at a certain point that I wasn’t doing them as fast as I wanted. So now I’m writing more, and it’s interesting to see how originally people wanted to see what we were writing next. We started as a publisher during the black and white explosion and nobody knew who we were, but now people will say to me, “Why is the Publisher writing a book?” [Laughs] Well, that’s why we started the company in the first place! I guess you get new generations who don’t know that.
Stradley: Yeah. I regret every missed opportunity that’s gone by, and I want to recapture some of that. As I said earlier, in some ways I’m glad that I’ve waited to write more because I think I’m a better writer now, and I can be more satisfied with what I do.
As far as our mission statement goes, it’s still the same. Early on, somebody asked us, “What kind of comics are you guys going to publish?” This was another publisher who’s no longer in business, but then they were so belligerent about it when they asked. Mike just said, “We’re going to publish good comics.” The other publisher rolled his eyes and said, “Oh sure, I’ve heard that before.” It’s nice to know that almost 30 years later, we’re sticking to what we started with.
Stay tuned to CBR News for more on Dark Horse’s new plans for the “Year of the Horse.”