EXCLUSIVE: Richardson Looks to Dark Horse's 2015 Future

Dark Horse Comics has gone through quite a few changes in its publishing line over the course of 2014 -- not the least of which was the transition of the "Star Wars" license to Marvel. However, if Dark Horse's recent announcement of upcoming titles are any indication, 2015 is set to be a big year for the publisher as a bigger push for creator-owned content comes to the forefront. However, Dark Horse is certainly no stranger to creator-owned content. The company was founded based on creator-owned books -- it wasn't until later that it would distinguish itself as a trusted licensing partner in comics with "Aliens," "Predator" and more.

Dark Horse President Mike Richardson has been with the company since the very beginning -- and there's nobody better to speak with clarity on the current state of the company as well as what it's looking toward as 2015 comes closer. CBR News spoke with Richardson at Dark Horse's offices in Milwaukee, Oregon, touching on the concept of balance across the publishing line, new initiatives in marketing, the ever-changing comic book market, upcoming exciting projects and much, much more.

CBR News: Mike, let's discuss identity a bit. Looking at 2015, Dark Horse seems as though it's going through somewhat of an evolution of identity with a lot of focus on creator-owned and developing original IP. How do you feel plans for 2015 help to continue Dark Horse's evolution as a company?

Mike Richardson: Well, we're not reinventing the wheel here. From the beginning, the original idea was to publish creator-owned projects. All of our early books were creator-owned, and we've continued publishing those books through the years. Somehow, that's gotten washed away with the addition of licenses such as "Aliens" and "Star Wars" because those titles were so successful, and as a result we became known for licensed properties. But we've never stopped filling a very large portion of our publishing schedule with creator-owned projects. In that regard, it hasn't changed. Now, we want to put more emphasis on the creator-owned work to make sure people are aware that we are still in that arena. We're trying to get more creator-owned projects that people can't help but notice. Obviously, "Fight Club 2" fits that description.

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Our company-owned material was being created from the beginning. Of course, we had no idea that the company would grow the way it did, so in our minds, we saw ourselves as creators and our work as creator-owned, as opposed to company-owned. We had projects like "The Mask," which was a huge hit as a film, and "The Mark," illustrated by Larry Stroman. Randy Stradley and I wrote a lot of those things and were creating content all the time. Suddenly, we found ourselves with this big company and our own writing sort of got pushed to the side. In recent years, probably in the last five or six, we've gone back. I've been writing a lot of projects recently. "47 Ronin," which I wrote with Stan Sakai, did quite well, and my other recent books include "The Atomic Legion," "Deep Gravity," and "Father's Day."

I feel we need three different parts to our publishing schedule: very strong creator-owned projects, licensed properties that draw attention to the company ("Star Wars" is a great example; by the way, it may have swamped the rest of our line, considering the amount of attention paid to it), and the company-owned projects. It's hard to launch new projects successfully these days. A few creators have done it, particularly over at Image. They've had some recent successes, but most creator-owned projects have a very tough time finding space and attention in today's comic market.

We're paying stronger attention to how we're marketing new books, and what we need to do to get attention for them, going back to some of our early tactics that might help. Efforts as simple as sending out store signs featuring "The Goon" to retailers who are interested in carrying them. We did that with "Concrete" years ago, and some of the comic shops I visit still have those signs twenty years later. They hold up and retailers like them. We're going to start using new programs to try to get some attention for our creator-owned material.

Of course, we not only want to highlight our so-called superstar comic creators Mike Mignola, Frank Miller, Geof Darrow and Eric Powell, but also to call attention to the new crop of writers and artists that are coming up. People like Fred Van Lente, who is launching his new series, "Resurrectionists."

You broke it down very succinctly into three parts, and how there needs to be a good balance between them. Let's start with the licensed material -- you've spoken previously about "Star Wars" moving away from Dark Horse. Moving forward, has that left a gap in the catalog? Has it caused the company to reexamine how it approaches licensed material?

No, because I think our approach to licenses is a successful one. I think we created the model for how to present and sell licensed material. Back in the days before Dark Horse, licensed material was not particularly treasured by the different companies that released comics based on movies or television series. They generally weren't done by top talent (that's not every case, of course; I don't want to offend anybody), and companies often rushed them out, counting on the comic's title to sell, as opposed to the content, mainly because they didn't own the property. It was basically seen as low-hanging fruit.

That seems to still continue today.

I think it does. We had a different approach, and maybe we've gotten away from that a little bit, from time to time, but we're certainly back in that mold now and it seems to be successful. What we did is sit down and say, "What is the film or television series that we'd really like to do and what would we like to see in a sequel?" "Aliens" was the first one. Randy and I sat down with our pal Mark Verheiden and plotted what we wanted the next movie to be; the story literally picked up a few years after the second movie in the franchise. It had to do with Newt and the other characters that were in James Cameron's "Aliens." The book generated huge interest.

I'll tell a little story: I went to Walter Hill, who was producing the third "Aliens" movie, after I saw that they were going to kill Newt in the opening. I begged him not to make that movie. I said, "If you do that, you're going to alienate the fan base." I felt that as strong as the franchise was, that storyline would be a blow to "Aliens" fans. We were all so invested in her survival after the second film that it was crushing to see it was all for naught in the third film. After some back and forth, Walter reached down behind his desk and tossed one of our graphic novels on his desktop. He actually said to me, "If anyone had any good sense, we would be making this." At least a bit of satisfaction out of that.

We continued with that same approach. "Predator" was produced by the same studio, so we went after that license. We had trouble getting likeness rights to Schwarzenegger. After trying to figure out how to do it, we decided to put his character in the hospital with radiation sickness and work with his character's brother. We received a call from Joel Silver's company saying it was great how we figured out a way to move the franchise along, and they ended up using our story as the basis for "Predator 2." In an interesting series of events, we were forced to take out a second "Predator" license to adapt the film, so we created the sequel to the first movie in comic books, which was used as a basis for the second "Predator" film, which we then had to license for the adaptation of the film... It's probably the only comic book based on a film based on the comic book.

Certainly, things have changed for comics in the modern era--

Different market.

Absolutely. How has that different market influenced which licensed properties you might want to bring in?

Well, look, sometimes, different licenses lose steam or retread familiar ground. No matter how many films are released within a successful franchise, the only thing that will count with fans of the film in the comic market is the quality of the books. The comics have to be good. And you have to figure out how to keep things fresh with each new series. Readers change over time, so you have to figure out how you make a book interesting to readers that weren't alive when the first movie came out. There's a link between films in the 20th Century Fox science fiction universe. "Prometheus" was such an intriguing film. I loved it -- I know people are on both sides, but I love a film that makes you think after you walk out of the theater.

In the "Prometheus" series, we wanted to do what we did in the first "Aliens" comic: figure out the film's unanswered questions, at least the ones that the filmmakers will allow us to figure out. Creating a carefully constructed storyline with our writers ("Fire and Stone") that ties together all of the related Fox properties was a really exciting project. I think comic readers are certainly more literate with regard to story than they were twenty or thirty years ago. You can't cheat on story. When working on a licensed property, it all boils down to being faithful to the concepts inherent in the franchise, and the ability to move the characters and storyline forward.

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Moving over to creator-owned, there is certainly a perception, given the focus of recent announcements, that Dark Horse plans to focus more on creator-owned in the coming year. The publisher is bringing in a lot of new creator-owned talent for 2015. What was the focus of searching for new creator-owned books and determining what kind of books Dark Horse wanted to bring into the fold?

Obviously, there are many creators that we'd like to work with. We've seen so much great work from so many creators who we'd like to see bring something to Dark Horse. Sometimes, that's a challenge -- a creator who hasn't worked with us may be happy where he or she is, so we have to create an offer that entices them to bring a project over to us. The other side of that is finding new creators that are not as well known, but are talented. There are a number of very talented younger writers and artists that haven't been noticed by the market yet. We're out there looking for those writers and artists producing work that is unique.

We'd like to expand the types of creator-owned projects we do, push boundaries. You look at a creator such as Matt Kindt who's become one of our most noticed creators. He has a unique approach to comics, one that is very much outside the mainstream style-wise, but when you look at the whole package, there's something really intriguing there in the way he tells stories and the way he presents them in his art. When you can find someone who is completely original in approach, and that writerartist finds an audience, well, that's a home run. We've been trying to do that since the beginning of the company. There are comics creators whose work you can look at and say, "Wow, what a great artist," but once in a while you find a creator who has their own unique approach to storytelling. We're looking for them and hope to help them get noticed.

We used to do it on a regular basis -- introduce artists and writers who may have even been around working on company-owned books, but have never tried to create characters or work they actually own. We will be trying to persuade them to give it a shot. There's so many talented Marvel and DC artists of whom I ask the same question: "Why aren't you doing creator-owned work?" I can walk up to a creator and ask, "Who was the writer or artist on 'Superman' ten years ago?" They rarely have the answer. But if I ask, "Who did 'Sin City' ten years ago?" they'll say, "Frank Miller." They immediately understand the point. Creator-owned work is the real path to success on a different level than the tradition of working on corporate characters -- whether they're Dark Horse's or anybody else's. We will always push to create new and original work. For an individual creator, that's where the potential for great success is: you can control your own life. Mike Mignola does what Mike Mignola wants to do -- it's the Mignolaverse. He's stayed with it and he's a great example of someone who may do something off to the side here and there, but he only works on the projects that he's interested in. He's created a situation where he can do just that.

Yes, there are movies. Yes, there are toys. There are all the things that come along with success, but Mike is basically interested in just creating his own comics. He's created his own fan base, and he can decide what he wants to do at any time. He's the CEO of his world and he's been successful because he's careful with this universe he's created. As a result he has built the trust of the fans out there.

Matt Kindt's "MIND MGMT" is part of the Dark Horse Originals line. What kind of plans are there for that imprint moving into the new year?

We have a number of projects we're planning for that line. Some of the creators in the line are new; some of them have been around for a while. When I say "new," I mean new to Dark Horse. Carla Speed McNeil writes and draws "Finder," and she's been around for a long time. I was completely unaware of her work. Once it was introduced to me by one of our editors, I realized her series was exactly what I was talking about. Now, she's achieved a much greater level of recognition. Dark Horse Originals are intended as a different approach to comics, unfettered by the boundaries of traditional mainstream comics. It doesn't mean they can't fit within those boundaries, but they can try some things that you might not expect. Whether they're writers or illustrators or both. We want to get books that resonate with an audience and at the same time help expand the market.

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In terms of upcoming projects, you have "Archie Meets Predator," and in this day and age it's rare for two publishers to collaborate on a crossover project. How did that particular project come about and are there other crossover partnerships in Dark Horse's future?

We've never stopped collaborating. We did collaborations this past year with Dynamite, we did years of team-ups with DC, we've done team-ups with Image -- we've never really stopped. We're always looking for something that seems like fun. We already had a relationship with Archie -- we're doing the hardcover "Archie Archives." We were talking about some of the interesting things that are happening with their characters. They're definitely taking chances with their own company-owned characters. Because of their long history their characters are pretty much stereotyped. Now they're playing with people's expectations and creating a great deal of excitement with their projects. The idea of Archie versus Predator seemed like great fun. Josh Izzo at Fox loved the idea. We're promoting it with the same "AvP" moniker but with the "A" being the Archie "A." I laughed out loud when I first saw it, as the retailers did when we unveiled the project in New York.

You also have a new creator-owned book, "Underground" by Andrew Vachss.

Andrew has been a friend to Dark Horse for many years, and he's a friend of mine. He fights for social causes, often for abused children. That's his life's mission. I think it's a noble one, and Andrew is a laser as far as achieving his agenda. All his work is interesting to me. I've been reading his material since the early nineties. He had a script that we adapted the book from. His work is full of ideas, rich and complex. There's a lot there and it's not your usual comic read. I adapted the first chapter of the book, and it took a lot of time. It was no easy task. I was worried that I wouldn't be able to keep up with the schedule, so Chet Williamson stepped in and picked it up. I think we have an interesting book unlike anything out there. It's very different from anything I've ever written.

Shifting over to the company-owned books, the superhero line got a big push in 2013-2014. What's going on with that moving into 2015? Where is the focus going to be for that line?

We put a lot of effort into those books. I think the books were pretty good; some were outstanding. There seemed to be a resistance in the market to companies other than Marvel or DC publishing superheroes. I think if you look, no company has lasted very long relying only on those types of characters. Obviously, I grew up with superheroes. When I was a kid, that's what the majority of comic books featured. Some of the criticisms we heard about our own line were interesting, and I suppose they're valid in some cases. "Why are you bringing back these characters? They're from the '40s?" This question was repeated concerning our revitalization of characters like Captain Midnight and Skyman, as well as '60s characters like Brain Boy -- actually my favorite out of all of them. The point is that if they're reimagined and if the story's strong, I'm not sure what the year of creation has to do with anything. Superman was originally created in 1933 and published in '38, but he's been reimagined repeatedly over the years. Ditto with pretty much all of the Marvel and DC characters.

Probably the most disappointing thing is going to retail stores around the country and seeing all our books except the superhero books. We ask why, and the conversation goes like this: "Well, we're not interested in your superhero books." "Have you read any of them?" "No, but we really don't want to get into another line of superheroes."

Well, okay, but for us, it's important to establish our own brand, our own characters, and our own world -- characters that we own. Why cede that territory to the big two? Eventually we'll have a book that gains some traction with retailers and gives us the foothold we'd like. 2015 will see a revival of "Barb Wire," which we're going to have some fun with. We have other new characters that we're going to introduce with some interesting creators working on them.

We jumped into the superhero business with great success at one time in the early '90s, and then suffered the same fate as everyone else in the collapse of the market. We've been there once, and we didn't stick with the titles -- the ones that lasted the longest were "Ghost" and "X." We've brought those characters back. They're still the best selling of our superhero line. Now we'll have to establish trust with the retailers with regard to our company-owned characters. We'll put good creators on the books, and the stories will be worthwhile. Bottom line, however, is whether we can create books retailers can sell. We're going to try our damnedest.

Is making sure the retailers are more aware of these superhero worlds going to be a focus for Dark Horse in 2015?

The word "marketing" is underlined for the coming year. We're being reminded of something that gets lost sometimes -- you can't just put a book out and expect it to sell. There are too many companies and too many books. If you don't get people to pay attention to it, it's going to be overlooked, and that's become very clear. That goes for company-owned, creator-owned, and licensed projects.

We've discussed quite a bit about publishing, but Dark Horse has quite a few other moving parts: Dark Horse Deluxe, the consumer products division, the film division -- there are a lot of projects in the pipeline.

We've just sold "Resident Alien" and "Dark Matter" for television, and we're working on an animated film based on "Beasts of Burden." We have one film that just finished shooting and several others we hope are on the verge of starting. We have interesting things coming in a variety of areas beyond traditional film and entertainment distributions. There are a whole series of projects -- probably about sixteen properties in play right now in television, film, and new distribution channels. It's a pretty exciting time for Dark Horse Entertainment.

One thing we do well is create content -- we have a history of success in that area. Since 1993, we've produced twenty-eight films and television projects, which I think is a pretty good record, and that doesn't include some of the things done for the Internet. We've had good success. We hope we can gain some traction off the success of Marvel and DC in those areas -- with Disney and Warner -- with some of our company-owned characters, as well as our creator-owned projects. Like I said, it's an exciting and busy time for us.

As far as products go, Dark Horse Deluxe is experiencing its second record year in a row, led by very strong properties such as "Game of Thrones." We are looking at some very exiting new licenses for 2015.

One of the things that tends to be a bit overlooked in Diamond's monthly numbers is the book market. That's a market in which Dark Horse has found quite a bit of success. Moving into 2015, how far in advance are you looking in that market?

We now have to look ahead eighteen months for the bookstore market. We have to let them know our publishing schedule, so it forces us to plan much farther out in the future. Our move to Random House has changed the way we have to approach the book market and it's been a very good move. We love Diamond, obviously, but there are some efficiencies with Random House that have really helped our books sell.

We've always been strong in the book market -- almost to the detriment of our traditional comic book sales. We've seen a movement away from the traditional floppy comic book towards graphic novels and the collections that bind up comics series. It seems as though many of our readers are aware that we will be releasing collections of nearly all of our comics within a few months after a series is completed. There are readers who would rather have a book on a shelf rather than a floppy in a box somewhere. The '90s frenzy over the rising value of a hot comic doesn't seem to exist anymore.

Aside from our collections and original graphic novels, we've had great success with our archives. Most of the material that you used to have to find in expensive back issues has now been reprinted in archives. Everything that was ever released in a comic book or comic strip seems to be coming out in an archive. There's a lot of material there that's now available at prices that I think undermine the back-issue market. In the collector's market, what you're left with is a very pure comic collector, who's really into the collecting of comics as a commodity, as opposed to readers who really want to get specific issues and complete their run. You can find that material in book form now in a less expensive fashion. The point is, we have a number of programs that deal with comics in traditional bookstore formats, and this leads to a strong presence in that market.

Where do you want Dark Horse to be this time next year? This time in five years? What are your ultimate goals for the company moving forward?

We hope to take advantage of all the new distribution channels out there and maximize those. Digital is important, and as I predicted when the controversy inside the comics market arose about the effect of digital on comic book sales, we've actually seen comic book sales come up since digital has been a factor. Not only have digital sales increased on a regular basis, but we've seen comics sales reverse their downward trend.

I'm not the first one to say it, but I've been saying it for a long time: When I was a kid, comics were everywhere. They were in every drugstore, every variety store; there were no comic shops, but comics were everywhere you looked. Naturally, when comics are more readily available, you're going to sell more... That changed over the years. We saw comics distribution shrink down to the point where they were almost invisible and available mainly in the comic shops.

What digital has done is put comics back in front of everyone -- everyone with a digital device, everyone with an e-reader, everyone with a computer now has access to comics and might be intrigued enough to look. You're talking about a huge group of potential readers exposed to comics who have never been to a comic shop. We're going to get some of those people to come into the stores.

The best way to get people to read comics is to offer material they're interested in. One of the big sales spikes in comics in the last decade was related to manga, and more specifically shojo, which was aimed at teenage girls. When I first heard that young girls -- the smallest and least significant part of the comic market at the time -- were sitting on the floors of bookstores and reading manga, I didn't believe it. I went into a local bookstore, and there they were -- two girls on the floor reading manga. It was true and it was hard for me to believe, but it proved that there was an untapped market out there that we can access if we can get the right material into the right distribution channels.

Sometimes those channels offer surprises. Dark Horse had success with manga from our earliest days, but we picked titles based on their appeal in the comics market. Comics retailers wanted "Western"-style books, that is, books that read from left to right. It's expensive to flip from the traditional Japanese style of right to left for American readers. Tokyopop saved money by ignoring the direct market retailers and aiming their product at the bookstores while printing their manga Japanese-style and calling it "authentic." This turned out to be a masterstroke on several levels. New readers showed up and they sold huge numbers. 

The point is that Tokyopop demonstrated something we've been saying for a long time: if you can find the right material for the right distribution channel, you have the chance to grow the market. Right now, digital offers that opportunity.

People are starting to notice titles other than the traditional superhero books. Readers are trying books that may be less mainstream, and we're seeing that with some of our books, too. Comics readers are more sophisticated in their choices than ever and they're looking beyond the traditional books they might find in a comic shop.

So, our goal in the coming year is to expand the types of material available while opening new channels of distribution. It will all contribute to growing this great industry we work in.

Stay tuned to CBR News for more on Dark Horse Comics.

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