SDCC: Superheroes Rise Again at Dark Horse

Almost 20 years after Dark Horse Comics entered, and then exited, the "superhero trade," as Publisher Mike Richardson called it, the company is jumping into the deep end again with the launch of several new superhero titles. The publisher hosted a panel at Comic-Con International in San Diego to showcase their growing superhero line, answer questions about the initiative and emphasize that they are a creator-driven company.

Richardson was joined by Dark Horse director of public relations Jeremy Atkins, as well as creators Tim Seeley and Mike Norton ("The Occultist"), Joshua Williamson ("Captain Midnight"), Joe Casey ("Catalyst Comix"), Jai Nitz ("Dream Thief"), Duane Swierczynski ("X") and Donny Cates ("Buzzkill").

"We are here today... to talk about superheroes," Atkins said to kick off the panel. "At Dark Horse, one of the things that this company has been about since its inception is the creators behind the books. And that's true whether or not you're talking about characters the creators own or characters that we at Dark Horse create. We really believe that the strength of all the books that we do is all on the backs of the creators we put on them as much as the characters themselves." Atkins then dove into a slide show that displayed art and gave each creator the chance to talk about their books.

So why superheroes, and why now? It certainly isn't the first time Dark Horse has approached superheroes -- some might argue that comics like "Hellboy" mix superheroes with horror and the supernatural, and in the 1990s Dark Horse published the "Comics' Greatest World" line which featured a shared universe populated with superheroes. But while some of the characters from CGW found life after the line went away, Dark Horse isn't a company readily associated with superheroes in recent years.

Publisher Mike Richardson was on hand to explain why they decided to pursue them now.

"Dark Horse has traditionally not put so much effort into the superhero trade," Richardson said. "We did back in the early 1990s during the superhero glut, but we decided that there were too many entries in it at the time. Now we just decided it was time for us to do what we've always wanted to do. We haven't been known for superheroes, but we have done them over the years."

Later in the panel, he added that the current upswing in sales for both print and digital comics influenced the decision to launch the superhero line.

"We decided to relaunch superheroes and start a new line and bring new characters to life because it's an area that we've only been addressing in recent years," Richardson explained. "As we've all noticed in the last couple years, the comic industry is growing again, it's surging, and there's a lot of excitement growing so it feels like it's a good time to capture that energy and put it into some of these books. We haven't had it for a long time. Those of you who have been in the industry and paid attention to the industry for the last 10 years, we've had some down times in the comic book industry. And a lot of people thought that when digital showed up that it was actually going to hurt sales. But it's interesting; probably about a year ago February we saw the first big, real surge in digital sales, and that coincides exactly with when comic book sales started to surge."

He noted that when he was a kid, comics were everywhere -- drug stores, five and dime stores, and even in meat markets.

"That's not the case anymore, but I think that digital has actually put comics in front of people again," Richardson said of how digital can expand the potential market for comic readers. "If you get a fraction of the number of people -- I think it's 1 percent of the total number of device holders -- it's two and a half times the existing comic market. It gives us a chance to grow, and a chance for our product to be seen, and there's a lot of excitement, so it seemed like a great time, if we were ever going to do it, to start introducing characters and taking advantage of some of that energy and excitement that's happening right now."

As was first announced on Comic Book Resources, Atkins told fans that a second "Black Beetle" miniseries, subtitled "Necrologue," will arrive in October from creator Francesco Francavilla.

Next up, Cates spoke about his book, "Buzzkill," which he co-writes with Mark Reznicek, the drummer for The Toadies. The comic, drawn by Geoff Shaw, is about a superhero who gains powers by doing drugs and drinking alcohol.

"Something happened to him where he had to get so powerful and so amped up that he blacked out, and when he awoke, there were a thousand people dead and the city was destroyed," Cates said. "Now he's trying to get his act together by going through the 12 steps and trying to get clean. But just because he wants to get clean doesn't mean that the city's super villains are just going to let him walk away."

Richardson spoke about two characters whose creators weren't present -- "Blackout," a character created by Richardson whose new adventures have appeared in "Dark Horse Presents," written by Frank Barbiere with art by Micah Kaneshiro, and "Brain Boy," who graduates from Dark Horse's anthology into his own four-issue miniseries by writer Fred Van Lente and artist RB Silva in September. Richardson explained that "Brain Boy" was originally published by Dell Publishing in the early 1960s after the publisher lost the rights to the Gold Key characters, like Magnus and Doc Solar, and decided to create their own characters.

"The character fits right in the middle of things you're going to find out going on in this whole group of books," Richardson said coyly.

Atkins then turned the panel's attention to "Captain Midnight," another superhero who debuted in "Dark Horse Presents" and has since graduated to his own ongoing series.

"Captain Midnight was a super pulp hero that was fighting Nazis in World War II," Williamson said. "He was a genius, and he was definitely fighting for a better future. He's transported to the present day, and finds himself disappointed."

The comic, drawn by artist Fernando Dagnino, features an angry and upset Captain Midnight who wants to "win back" the future he was fighting for in the past. Issue #4 will feature the return of another Golden Age hero, Skyman.

"Catalyst Comix," written by Casey, is a new take on a comic Dark Horse first published in the 1990s as a part of their "Comics' Greatest World" line. Casey's take, Richardson said, is an "indie version of a superhero book."

"To boil it down to a sound bite, it's hard to compete with Marvel and DC when it comes to superheroes," Casey said. "They do it the biggest..."

"Don't say 'the best,'" Richardson quipped.

"Did I say the best? I didn't say the best," Casey joked, before continuing. "They have a way of doing it that they've codified over the years, but it's not the only way to do superheroes, and a lot of it has to do with art style and story approach. So 'Catalyst Comix' is set up as an anthology series with three features in it."

Artists Dan McDaid, Ulises Farinas and Paul Maybury provide art for the stories contained within the title.

"To me they're some of the best artists out there, but their styles are not quite the styles that you're gonna see on 'Fantastic Four' or 'Superman' or these big, corporate 'I.P.' books," Casey said. He approached Richardson about doing superheroes "as though there were no rules."

The first issue is on sale now and features a cover by Rafael Grampa, with upcoming issues sporting covers by Paul Pope and Brendan McCarthy. "It's like a murderer's row of killer artists on this thing," Casey said.

"This series is pretending that there is no Marvel or DC house style that defines superhero comics today," Richardson said. "It's a very different look, and it's really exciting and fresh."

Swierczynski, who arrived at the panel just in time, was asked to talk about "X," who he said was a "mystery in a mask."

"No one knows who he is or why he kills people," Swierczynski said of his eponymous hero. Future arcs will feature a journalist who wants to figure out who X really is, but also aids him in his mission. Drawn by Eric Nguyen, "X" was also part of the "Comics' Greatest World" initiative in the 1990s.

"I think it's certainly -- I didn't want to say a more violent comic book, but I guess I've got to say a more violent comic book," Richardson said in repines to a question about the differences between the original "X" and its current run. "The motivation's much stronger, although we'll find out what it is. It's basically a reboot of the same character -- it's someone who has been betrayed by both the law and the dark side of the city, so he's declared his own marshal law."

Richardson added if your picture appears on a billboard or in the newspaper with an "X" through it, "you've got 24 hours to get out of town, or something bad is going to happen." X wears a padlock around his neck whenever he's hunting someone, signifying that the mask doesn't come off until he's done.

Seeley and Norton, who work together on Image Comics' "Revival," will also team up for "The Occultist," a character created by Richardson whom Seeley has previously written. Seeley said Richardson gave him a long list of rules for the character during the first miniseries, but for the sequel he only had three requests -- "more magic, more costume, more monsters."

Seeley said the upcoming sequel takes place right after the first series and described The Occultist as "the young, inexperienced super hero with powers of maybe Dr. Strange, maybe God; he's not quite sure." He added that one of Norton's influences is Steve Ditko, and they plan to riff on some of the "weirdness" that Ditko brought to Spider-Man and Dr. Strange in the 1960s.

"Pretty much The Occultist is Dr. Strange with the motivation of Peter Parker," Norton said. "It's kind of like the cool, young superhero who doesn't know the ropes, but has all these amazing abilities."

Atkins then discussed "Ghost," another "Comics' Greatest World" title that was recently revived. Atkins said the publisher will be launching a new "Ghost" ongoing series by "the 'Captain Marvel' team" of Kelly Sue DeConnick and Christopher Sebela with on art.

"Dream Thief" writer Jai Nitz was late to the panel, and upon his arrival Atkins pointed out that Nitz and Cates, both in suits, had a "one-upmanship" going on between the two on Twitter in terms of their outfit choices.

Nitz said he and artist Greg Smallwood originally pitched "Dream Thief" as a standalone, creator-owned title. "At the time it got pitched, there was a motion for Dark Horse superheroes," said Nitz, who was working at a comic shop when "Comics' Greatest World" was released and remembered "how it changed the game when that happened."

"With those books, I remember when they came out, and I remember how my friends who read comic books every week and came into the shop every week responded to those books," Nitz said. "And I remember how they talked about how 'X' was a certain way, or how different the books like 'Mecha' were.

"I jumped at it. I said, 'Perfect!' because I know the quality of the books you guys brought out before," Nitz said of the moment when he and Smallwood were asked to bring "Dream Thief" into the greater superhero line Dark Horse is building.

"Dream Thief" is about "a slacker who smokes weed and has no job," Nitz said. He and a friend steal an Aboriginal mask at a museum opening and he ends up possessed by angry ghosts looking for revenge whenever he goes to sleep.

"He goes to sleep, then he wakes up in a room with a dead body, and doesn't know how he got there, because the ghost took his body and killed somebody. It could be a day later, it could be a week later, it could be six hours later," Nitz said. The character has no control of it, but he does retain the memories and abilities of the ghost who possessed him.

During the Q&A session, an audience member asked if Dark Horse had plans to bring back Barb Wire, a character from "Comics' Greatest World" that went on to appear in a movie starring Pamela Anderson. Richardson said Chris Warner, who did the original Barb Wire comic, is interested in bringing her back "as she originally was before we wrecked her with the movie."

Another fan asked what happened to "2 Past Midnight," a digital project by Swierczynski and artist Eduardo Francisco that featured Ghost, X and Captain Midnight that was never completed. Richardson said, "You'll see it in another form in the near future."

A budding comics writer asked what stands out in a superhero pitch, which led to Richardson revealing the "very complex and thorough" process of vetting new submissions. "What happens is, [editor] Randy Stradley and I get a six pack of beer," Richardson said. "We go into a room with about 500-600 submissions, and we pick a night every so often, and we look at every single one of them. And that's the truth. After that, we're sort of traumatized for a while, so we'll wait another few months to do it."

As far as what he looks for in a pitch, Richardson said he liked the "everyman" theory, where, aside from fighting every issue, they have a life as a real person. "If you look at a lot of the great superheroes, it was just as important to have a solid story when he's not fighting some super villain," Richardson said. "One of the great things about Marvel, when Marvel started -- and yes, I was alive when the Marvel Age started; I was very young, though -- the whole thing that caught your attention after reading DC and whatever superhero books were around, was that each one of these had a unique, non-superhero life."

Of prototypical Marvel hero Peter Parker, Richardson said, "he was the character that many people could relate to at the time. You're not the best athlete or the best-looking guy who got all the girls -- that guy, who was the hero in the other comics, was actually the villain, or the bad guy, Flash Thompson. In the DC comic, he would have become the superhero, but in the Marvel world, he was the bad guy."

He said "The Occultist" was an example of this. "He gets these powers, and when he tries to use them for himself, bad things happen," Richardson said. "So that's it -- we just try to find an unusual twist for an everyman and then figure out how it could affect the life of someone who actually had this happen to them."

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