Dark Horse Comics celebrated their 20th anniversary and their twentieth 20th at Comic-Con International in San Diego this past weekend with a panel discussion featuring President Michael Richardson, Editor Randy Stradley, creators Eric Powell ("the Goon"), Chris Warner ("Black Cross," "Barb Wire"), Stan Sakai ("Usagi Yojimbo"), with Dark Horse publicist Jeremy Atkins moderating.
As a large screen showed clips from Dark Horse projects such as "Hellboy Animated," the "Conan" online game, vinyl figures of Nancy and Sluggo, shot glasses, books, graphic novels, and the "Pathfinder" feature film, the panelists reflected on their experiences with Dark Horse.
Twenty years ago, Michael Richardson and Randy Stradley had what they thought was a pretty good idea: They would publish a comic book of their own work, and if it did OK, they might do more. They hoped to sell at least 10,000 copies of "Dark Horse Presents" #1 which would mean they at least broke even. When they saw that they had sold over 50,000 copies, they realized they were onto something.
The transition from self-publisher to publishing company began when Dark Horse took on Paul Chadwick as the first artist to publish under the company banner. Their creator-ownership policies, somewhat rare at the time, attracted a large number of prominent artists and writers such as Frank Miller ("Sin City"), Mike Mignola ("Hellboy"), Sergio Aragonés ("Groo") and many more.
Stan Sakai had been writing and drawing "Usagi Yojimbo" for two years before Dark Horse came into being. When Mirage Comics ceased publication, he began looking for a new publisher.
"I sent out letters to seven companies, and got back offers from 11 companies," Sakai said. "One of them was Dark Horse, and I liked what they were offering." Sakai enjoys working with the company because "they leave me alone; I send them a completed comic book every month and they leave me alone."
Sakai, whose "Usagi Yojimbo" is approaching its 100th issue with Dark Horse, stated that there are plans to do something special to mark the occasion, but that he has no idea what those plans might be.
"Diana [Schutz, Editor] hasn't told me. I know that it might involve Frank Miller, it might involve Sergio [Aragonés], it might involve Jeff Smith ... they'll do their part and then give it to me to do mine," said Sakai.
Eric Powell said that he had met Mike Richardson a couple of years before he began "The Goon," and when he went looking for a publisher, Dark Horse seemed to be the best fit because of their creator's rights policies.
After a few years, movie studios came calling seeking to adapt various Dark Horse books into television or film projects, and each time they asked, Richardson responded that Dark Horse would love to make films, but they wanted to produce. Invariably, the studio would ask what they knew about motion picture production, and Richardson would respond that they knew nothing, but they were fast learners. Finally, Larry Gordon, the former head of Fox, called and said "I hear you want to make movies." He then made the publishers an offer, and Dark Horse became the co-producers of "Dr. Giggles," an $8 million film starring Larry Drake, which was moderately successful. More importantly, it provided Dark Horse's owners with the experience they needed in order to venture into the film industry. This was a doubly-beneficial opportunity, as it not only allowed them to develop film versions of their comics, but also gave them the contacts necessary to acquire the many film licenses that they have successfully developed for comics.
Following the panel, publicist Atkins explained that Dark Horse's anniversary would be commemorated in a special hardcover book that includes all the characters they have published over the last 20 years, to be released in time for Christmas.
"It's our gift to the fans," he said, "it'll be in a format much like 'Between the Panels' and it'll be full of a lot of things that don't need to be there but are really nice to have. It's going to be a pretty good collection."
During the question-and-answer portion of the panel, many questions were asked about various Dark Horse titles, and for most of them the reply was "We do have plans for that. It's really great. We can't talk about it."
Among the projects that they could talk about was a new Star Wars series, "Dark Times," which is set between the times of "Revenge of the Sith" and "A New Hope." The title is drawn from a line spoken by Obi-Wan Kenobi in "A New Hope." The series will begin in October. Before that, Dark Horse will tell "Tales of the Jedi" as their next installment of the series. These two books will precede the 30th anniversary of the original Star Wars film next summer, but no plans have been released concerning that occasion.
Dark Horse actively pursued the Star Wars license for quite some time, primarily because Richardson was himself a fan.
"I saw the first movie 19 times; there's no bigger 'Star Wars' geek than me," Richardson explained, and he was frustrated by the absence of any new comics. "Marvel had the license and they were sitting on it. Eventually we were able to convince them that a good book coming out regularly was better than no book, so they terminated the license with Marvel and gave it to us." Richardson believes that the success of the Star Wars comics was a driving force in reviving interest in the series, which was in a lull in the early '90s. "There was no new licensing going on, no books. Certainly the comic helped to bring Star Wars back to prominence," said Richardson.
Along with Star Wars, Dark Horse has had a number of other successful licensed properties over the years, including "Alien," "Predator," "Tarzan," "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "Serenity" and "Conan the Barbarian."
"We've just extended the license; we'll be doing several new projects involving some of the lesser characters and short stories, as well as some of the major characters," Richardson told the audience regarding Conan. "We intend to be the complete Robert E. Howard publisher."
Another licensed property that Dark Horse is continuing to expand is "Tarzan," and their plans include issuing Archive editions of the complete run of Dell Comics' version of the King of the Apes, along with some projects that "we can't talk about" that may involve the new Tarzan film currently in production.
Matt Wagner's "Grendel" is also being collected for a new edition, this one covering the first three years of the series. Wagner has also finally agreed to allow Dark Horse to reissue the "infamous" first three stories, which he has withheld for years due to his dissatisfaction with the work.
Archives of the "Nexus" series continue, and Richardson promises that the entire run of stories by Mike Baron and Steve Rude will be collected, and possibly the entire run of the book could see the same treatment.
The panel concluded when an Imperial Stormtrooper marched up the center aisle and presented the panel with an envelope. Jeremy Atkins read the letter aloud:
Dated July 19, 2006, the letter said, "To Mike Richardson and all the great folks at Dark Horse Comics: Congratulations on an amazing 20 years. Thanks for all the fantastic Star Wars comics you and your team have created, enriching the Star Wars story and keeping the fans enthralled. All the best, George Lucas." Richardson was then escorted from the room by two uniformed Death Star guards armed with blasters.